WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
The Tseshaht First Nation is condemning an act of hate after a bridge leading to a former residential school on Vancouver Island was defaced with an anti-Indigenous slur on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
According to the First Nation, the incident happened around 10 p.m. on Friday at the Riverbend Bridge, known locally as the Orange Bridge, which crosses the Somass River in Port Alberni, B.C., at Highway 4 and Falls Street.
A barrier at the entrance to the bridge had been painted with the slogan “Every Child Matters” — a reference to the thousands of children who died in federally run residential schools. On Friday, someone wrote over the word “child” and replaced it with a hateful slur against Indigenous people.
Orange Bridge was repainted recently by the First Nation in advance of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
“Although this type of act does not come as a surprise to many, it is a sad reminder of the depth of work we, as a community and broader society, have in front of us to eliminate racism,” read a statement from the First Nation on Saturday.
Before the bridge was vandalized on Friday, more than 1,000 survivors and community members marched across it to the site of the former Alberni Indian Residential School (AIRS) to honour the children who died there.
“After the uplifting day of community gathering that took place [on Friday], we hope that this hurtful and disrespectful act does not bring our survivors down,” the statement read.
Port Alberni RCMP said they’re investigating the incident and are asking for anyone with information to contact them.
“Senseless acts such as this are unacceptable and troubling to our community, and revert the efforts towards truth and reconciliation,” said Const. Richard Johns in a statement.
Number of deaths at former school
Riverbend Bridge, which is located close to the Tseshaht administrative building, was painted orange for many years before it was painted grey in 1990.
AIRS is only a few blocks away. Children from more than 100 First Nations in B.C. were forced to attend the school during its operation from 1900 to 1973. Much of the former school was torn down by survivors in 2009 when the land was taken over by the Nuu-Chah-Nulth Tribal Council.
Four teachers at AIRS went on to plead guilty for acts of abuse at the school.
A number of children died there during its many years of operation, according to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.
In July, the Tseshaht First Nation announced plans to use ground-penetrating radar to search for unmarked graves across 100 hectares at the site of the former school. The first phase of that work started on Sept. 23, according to the First Nation.
Elected Tseshaht Chief Ken Watts, also known as Wahmeesh, recently told CBC News the bridge brought back painful and traumatic memories, and survivors wanted it returned to orange to signal a new beginning.
The “Every Child Matters” slogan was repainted on Saturday with the assistance of volunteers, according to the First Nation.
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at www.hopeforwellness.ca.