K’änächá/Taking Care of Ourselves
November 18, 2009
“Well, I can remember . . .I was about five years old. I remember the social worker and an RCMP come to the house and ask mom if there was anybody else five years old and older to go to school. So I was just removed . . .I remember hanging onto the door frames . . .and wherever I could hang on to. And I remember mom was screaming at them, saying ‘you don’t take him’ and that. Then the RCMP told her if she interfered that she would go to jail. And all I kept thinking was ‘what did I do wrong?’ Cause I’m going to jail. I thought I was going to jail.”
The children of Tr’ondëk Hwëchin invented a new kind of courage on the day they entered the front door of the residential school at Carcross, Yukon.
Six hundred kilometres away from home, locked by law inside an Anglican boarding school, they had to find the way home.
For some, it took a lifetime. They kept painful secrets to themselves. In 1998 a small group of former residential school students—as brave as ever—began to meet in Dawson City at the home of Dot Roberts and her daughter Krystle for “games and supper and talk.” They opened up to one another, laughing at first, and later sharing stories about homesickness, loneliness, hunger and abuse at the residential school, and the lifelong troubles that came later. They remembered small rebellions and defiance, too, and their escape attempts as runaways with a yearning for home.
In time, they formed the K’änächá support circle. They saw a need to educate younger people in their community—and in their country—about the wrenching impact of the residential schools on their lives, and on their families.
At one meeting, Frankie Blanchard, a member of the group, brought in photographs of former residential school students he’d found in the Yukon Archives.
“When we saw the pictures, we recognized how much of a story they told,” writes Kathleen Bullen, a member of the group. “We came up with the idea of a scrapbook that would tell our stories, using the photos and our words. It was scary to think about sharing our stories outside our group, but we wanted people to understand us better.”
They began to assemble a massive scrapbook with hundreds of photographs and fragments of memories. Younger people in the community, and a thoughtful counselor named Sharon Moore, offered assistance along the way. On May 17th, 2007 the Tr’ondëk Hwëchin invited guests from across the Yukon to a moving Welcome Home ceremony to honour these local residential school survivors, and their hard work. Later the K’änächá support circle put the completed scrapbook on display in the Legacy of Hope exhibit at the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre
Now the scrapbook is a published book, overflowing with pictures and stories in a large, full-colour format, and ready for the world to see. Last week the Tr’ondëk Hwëchin invited the community to celebrate the achievement at the cultural centre. As each former residential school student accepted a copy of the book, and said mähsi cho with evident gratitude, I began to think about the title: Tr’ëhuhch’in Näwtr’udäha/Finding Our Way Home.
Last year the prime minister of Canada apologized to former residential school students on behalf of the nation. “The treatment of children in Indian residential schools is a sad chapter in our history,” Stephen Harper said in Parliament. “Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country.”
Should that be the end of it? How can a country apologize for an error before it comprehends the full measure of the harm done?
I understand the urgency of an apology to First Nations, Metis and Inuit elders while they are still alive. But unless Canadians attended residential schools themselves, they have only glimpsed the bare surface of the students’ experiences. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission will conduct public hearings next year to investigate and reveal the full impact of Canada’s residential schools through more than a century. We need to stay silent and listen, and attempt to understand, before we offer any more premature apologies.
A place to begin? Open the pages of an important book from one First Nations community in the Yukon. Look at each picture, listen to the words of each child, and take that child to heart. The K’änächá group created a scrapbook for all Canadians, to help us find our way home from our nation’s greatest mistake.
Mähsi cho, friends. Your book is powerful. Your courage endures.
[To obtain your own copy of Tr’ëhuhch’in Näwtr’udäha/Finding Our Way Home, contact the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre]