Formerly Kuper Island, Penelakut Island belongs to the Penelakut First Nations Tribe, located in the southern Gulf Islands chain. Although located in the Strait of Georgia, off the east coast of Vancouver Island, the 8.66 square kilometre Penelakut Island falls under the Cowichan Valley. Penelakut Island is in the rain shadow of Vancouver Island, with an annual rainfall of about 850 mm. A Mediterranean climate of mild winters and warm, dry summers supports a unique ecosystem and an ideal living environment.
British sailors surveying the area in 1851 cruised into a tiny group of five unnamed islands in the Strait of Georgia, naming the two largest Kuper and Thetis, after their Captain Augustus Leopold Kuper R.N. (1809-1885) and his frigate, HMS Thetis, a 36-gun Royal Navy frigate on the Pacific Station between 1851 and 1853.
On April 20 1863, the British naval gunboat Forward attacked the Native village on then Kuper Island. The naval officers believed that the village harboured individuals involved in two recent assaults against European transients in the Gulf Islands. The gunboat fired on the village and was repulsed with casualties after a fierce battle with a handful of warriors. Following this defeat, the colonial government responded with one of the largest military operations in British Columbia’s history, which took place on the east coast of Vancouver Island and extended throughout the waters and islands of Active Pass, Trincomalee Channel and Stuart Channel, from Saturna Island north to Comox. After the war of 1863, aboriginal land continued to be alienated and native jurisdiction eroded throughout British Columbia, leaving an inequity that remains unresolved almost a century and a half later.
Penelakut Island has a rather dark side, with a sobering history of oppression at the hands of church and state in Canada. For almost a century, hundreds of Coast Salish children were sent to the then Kuper Island Indian Residential School. The school opened in 1890, operated by Roman Catholic missionaries and funded by the Department of Indian Affairs.
Between 1863 and 1984, at least 14 residential schools and 10 boarding schools operated in British Columbia, more than any other Canadian province. For almost a century, all school-aged First Nations children in the province were targeted by government agents for removal from their homes to these schools to assimilate them into the European and Christian cultures.
Children who went to residential school suffered a loss of culture, identity, language, family and more. Their only models on how to live, and how to have relationships, came in the form of institutional rules, school staff and Roman Catholic clergy. The children were treated as second-class citizens, or worse, and many did not even receive a basic education. Clothing, food and living conditions were often sub-standard, and screening of school staff was minimal, leaving the children vulnerable to abuse and neglect.
There is ample documentary evidence that severe mental and physical injury was inflicted upon Aboriginal children, and the incidence of deaths in these federal institutions was high. However, the exact number may never be known due to the manner in which records were maintained. Federal authorities deny that its enforced assimilation policy had this effect on children, and the Aboriginal population as a whole, and the federal government and the churches are in dispute over the apportioning of responsibility for the abuse.
Now, almost twenty years after the school closed, the survivors of Penelakut Island are speaking out and telling their stories, embarking on a spiritual recovery from their residential school experience. The Residential School Project assists First Nations people in British Columbia to deal with the generational effects of residential schools, reporting to the First Nations Summit of B.C. Chiefs. The Project was started in 1995 to raise awareness of residential school issues, to provide counselling and conduct research into the history and effects of residential schools, and to provide support for those undertaking civil and criminal actions.
There is a Catholic Church, but no commercial establishments on the island. As a Native reservation, property is not available for purchase. Penelakut Island is not generally open to the public, and visits are by invitation from the Penelakut Band Council.
Location: Penelakut Island is located in the Gulf Islands, adjacent to Thetis Island, between Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Columbia. BC Ferries operates a scheduled vehicle and passenger ferry service from Chemainus to Thetis Island and Penelakut Island, with a minimum of 10 daily round trip circular sailings. Sailing times are 25 minutes between Chemainus and Thetis Island, 15 minutes between Thetis and Penelakut Islands, and 25 minutes between Penelakut Island and Chemainus.
Canoe Pass: Thetis Island and Penelakut Island were originally joined by mud flats until 1905, when a passage called Canoe Pass was dredged to allow boat traffic to pass.
Now known as The Cut, Mariners can sail through this infamous shallow, narrow passage between Thetis and Penelakut Island into Telegraph Harbour, one of the most popular anchorages in the southern Gulf Islands.
On April 20, 1863, the British naval gunboat Forward attacked the native village on Penelakut Island. The naval officers believed that the village harboured individuals involved in two recent assaults against European transients in the Gulf Islands. The gunboat fired on the village, concentrating its cannon fire on a fortified blockhouse, but village marksmen had taken up positions on the two points of land at either side of the mouth of the bay, and they strafed the decks of the Forward with musket fire from both sides. The Forward was repulsed with casualties after a fierce three-hour battle with the handful of warriors.
Immediately north of Kuper is Thetis Island, a relaxing retreat, especially popular in the summer. The 340 permanent residents of Thetis Island welcome visitors to enjoy the diverse recreational opportunities, including scuba diving, fishing, swimming, boating, cruising and kayaking. On land, beach exploration, golfing, bird watching, and hiking attracts visitors to the island.
Thetis was first settled in 1874, primarily by British pioneers, following an offer of land by the government. The first wave of settlers purchased land and arrived between 1874 and 1886. Of these first settlers, none established permanent homes, and several met tragic deaths in the harsh conditions of those early days. The second wave of settlers arrived in the 1890s and 1900s. Some of their descendents still live on Thetis Island.