Yukon News

Truth and reconciliation in Whitehorse

Jesse Winter Wednesday January 16, 2013

Ian Stewart/Yukon News

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Barbara Hume speaks during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's hearing on Monday at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre in Whitehorse.

James Kawchuck shuddered as he leaned forward to the microphone. He was preparing to tell a room full of strangers about being a rape victim.

A group of four men, one of them his brother, kidnapped Kawchuck in Watson Lake.

He’d been on his way home from a movie. It was just before Halloween.

They threw him in a car and put a bag over his head.

They drove him to an isolated shed and tied him to an old bed frame.

“I was hollering and calling for my mother. They told me, you can holler all you want. No one can hear you,” he said.

When the police found him, dropped off by the side of the highway the next morning, he was bleeding from self-inflicted wounds after cutting himself with a broken bottle. He’d done it to hide what had really happened, and said he was hurt falling out of a tree.

“They told me not to take this bag off until I hear this car blow its horn. They told me if I said anything it would be worse the next time. I lied to the teacher, the principal, the RCMP. I got my best friend to lie for me.”

He was six years old.

To this day Kawchuck struggles with addiction and with holding down a steady job. He has tried to kill himself four times. He told his story, through tears, at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in Whitehorse on Monday.

But Kawchuck isn’t eligible for compensation under the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement. He has never been to a residential school – but many in his community have, and they brought the violence back with them, creating a cycle that many First Nation people are still fighting to escape.

Jesse Winter/Yukon News

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James Kawchuck struggles to tell how residential schools affected his life.

“I’m an intergenerational survivor, and we have never been recognized in this whole residential school process. The intergeneration needs to be recognized. It continued at home,” said Kawchuck.

The legacy of this trauma was on painful display at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre in Whitehorse this week. Dozens of First Nation people sat at the microphone over two days of public and private statements and told of how the schools’ abuses continue to affect their lives.

It’s the second time the commission has been to Whitehorse, but commissioner Marie Wilson said they came back because the Council of Yukon First Nations asked them to. The work isn’t finished, she said.

“It’s what Judy Gringell, our last speaker, said and she echoed what a lot of others had said. This is still just a beginning. Though we may be coming to the end of our formal mandate as a commission, the work of reconciliation, not only is it ongoing, but it’s barely just begun. It took 150 years of history for us to get to where we’re going, and it will take more than five years for that to be addressed,” said Wilson.

Outside the Kwanlin Dun centre, Vern Swan tended the sacred fire for two days and two nights. He’s a fire keeper, but his role is about more than keeping the logs burning.

“I look after the fire, but people also come and talk to me about spiritual things, whatever they want to talk about. It helps with healing. It opens up a door for an individual’s fire inside of them, for them to connect with the creator and the ancestors that have passed on,” said Swan.

“Fire is important to all nations, to all people. Not just First Nations, but all people have a connection to fire, and understand its sacredness,” he said. “Tradition is something that’s passed down. You need to know where you’ve come from before you can know where you are going.”

At its heart, keeping the fires of tradition and knowledge burning is what the commission is all about, Wilson said.

“Several references were made to the elders who still carry traditional knowledge, and the importance of getting that captured, of reinvesting in language and culture,” she said. That’s a very strong theme.

The biggest struggle is helping Canadians see past their focus on individuality and recognize the power of communities both to do damage, but also to heal, said Wilson.

“We often say, ‘imagine if it happened to you, and it was your child or your little brother or sister.’ That’s one thing to say, but then imagine if it was also your brother’s children, and all of your neighbours’ children and all down the street, all those children. It isn’t a narrow, contained thing. In Canada we’re so programmed to individuality, individual competitive success, that we forget that part of society that is a communal group.”

But it’s in community where Wilson sees hope. The crowd in Whitehorse appeared to be almost one third non-aboriginal, something she said she hadn’t seen at a commission hearing before.

“I see hope in elements of the Idle No More movement. The voices in that movement, which are not just indigenous voices, they acknowledge that things happened that were not right, and there’s a goodness about many Canadians wanting to do what we need to set things right. Each of the people here today will go home and talk about this with other people, and I see hope with that,” Wilson said.

The commission grew out of the 2006 Indian Residential School Settlement. Residential school survivors sued the Canadian government and churches for running a system of forced assimilation across the country. They won the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history and began the process of reconciling the damage done to indigenous Canadians’ culture and society.

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17 Comments

Crow63 wrote:
8:20pm Wednesday January 23, 2013

I respect former prisoners of residential prisons.  Children were taken away by force by the RCMP. put with pedophiles for 3 decades they were tortued, forced sterilizAtion,Tests were done by various agencies and the Govt signed over guardianship too the priests.  The real threat the various parties are worried about is the secrets that the Dead Children buiried all over canada will prove. The TRC is put together by Church to clean themselves of the secrets.  The way the TRC did is invite the priests does anyone really think if firstnations put this on we would invite priests.  The First Nations should put there own TRC and not funded by govt. rcmp. Church. Then we will start to really heal untill then we wait for the Varius parties to finish thier investigation. Just no priests face any trialo cause they are protected. Truth will set us free

Wooly Socks wrote:
12:26am Saturday January 19, 2013

I am so grateful to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for providing a safe and supportive forum for people to speak about their experiences. It is an important step in healing. 

@ Billy - Perhaps you have some negative experiences in your past that you haven’t dealt with.  I am assuming that is why you have difficulty empathizing with your fellow Yukoners.

Michael wrote:
11:51pm Friday January 18, 2013

Ah, billy.  It takes a real man like you to imply that the people who testified at the TRC have neither resolve nor purpose - like they’re not there because they’re trying to move forward. 

Kick ‘em while they’re down, eh?  I know that when my kid falls off her bike, that’s the best way to get her back on it, eh?

Check your false platitudes at the door.

Hazel wrote:
10:47pm Friday January 18, 2013

I see people struggling not to SEE, not to BELIEVE and trying to ignore the history of residential schools.

It is there and it is the time and moment for the truth to reveal itself, whether it is hard to take or not.

I see a people starting to emerge out of the dispair of past traumas and hurt - a beginning of a movement for healing.  A people that has gathered the courage to come forward to reveal the truth about things that are so shameful, self-distructive and heartbreaking.

I will take the moment to remember all those that didn’t make it, our brothers, sisters, and friends:  Their stories remain with them forever.  Our tears remain remembering them in their laughter, joys and sorrows.

Those that choose not to respect this is their choice.  The mind can remain closed or you can open up to accept the truths of past wrongs. 

People are not made up to just forget and move on.  The best that can be said in this circumstance is talk, speak and be heard.  Don’t let anyone tell you other wise. 

Take care, all residential school survivors and generations affected.  My prayers are with you all.

billy wrote:
10:30pm Friday January 18, 2013

kleenex and tears don’t save a people
resolve and a purpose will.

Michael wrote:
9:38pm Friday January 18, 2013

@Riptide So, because you (mistakenly) think that what First Nations peoples (the vast majority of whom are taxpayers themselves) are asking for is unfair (the Auditor General of Canada disagrees, by the way, and has repeatedly called for more equitable funding for First Nations communities), it’s ok to belittle someone and play “Blame the Victim”?

I tell you this: I would gladly invest my hard-earned tax dollars in your education because that kind of ignorance doesn’t help anyone.  Perhaps that education could involve a residential school where the motto is “If you can’t kill the bigot, kill the bigot in the person.”

Keep in mind that I’m not calling you a bigot - but what you’re saying is certainly bigoted.

Riptide wrote:
8:11pm Friday January 18, 2013

@Michael, us hard-hearted commentators will stop belittling peoples experiences when they stop asking for millions upon millions of tax payers dollars.

Josie O'Brien wrote:
7:42am Friday January 18, 2013

Living in the Yukon, who are you to know everything about everything? Have you gone through these things personally, have you been a child taken or a parent left behind? have you lost your parenting skills and social skills? Have you been told to never speak your language because it was wrong? Are you a Indigenous person who has been taught alongside non Indigenous that every aspect and way of Native life is wrong and dirty and evil and to always feel ashamed about yourself because of your culture and skin color, and then gone and continues that vicious cycle without knowing it to your own children? If you have been through all these than I feel very sorry for you, because you are in absolutely no position to judge this process and absolutely no respect to compare one genocide to another! I can only pray for you to realize that your thoughts should stay in your head in respect to human beings, and not be spewed on a comments section of the local paper under an alias name! We will always remember this to respect the people that went through it, respect the ones suffering the intergenerational effects, respect the ancestors that had to watch this happen to their own people and have no power to stop it. Ignorance breeds ignorance and I also pray for your children! BTW there are many more languages than northern tutchone, plus hundreds that were completely lost through colonization! Educate yourself

Living In the Yukon wrote:
12:28am Friday January 18, 2013

“we have lost our language,culture”
Your point is so true and so valid. Healing after something so horrifying and traumatic has no time frame. However, stating that you have lost your language and culture is FAR from the truth. I know in my being several Elders and even some younger generations that speak Northern Tutchone if it was in fact so important for these things to carry forward NO ONE is stopping you now. You have the land to hunt, fish, trap, pick berries and live off the land, but how many people do it? Or continue to teach their children. You should NOT be pointing fingers blaming someone else for YOU not teaching your own children. Residential schools yes were horrific and tragic and awful, no words can properly explain how terrible they actually were, and no one can be in these peoples shoes who are living through it. Now is the time to fix themselves though, there is help!! Treatment centres, counselling and psychiatric help. No money will fix what happened however I know that these services are provided FREE OF COST to most if not all aboriginal peoples. Apologies have been made, land claims have been settled. Now is the time for people to take their own mental health in their own hands You cannot force a person to want to get well they now need to take it into their own hands.
Look at the Japanese who were forced into inter camps, Jewish people and the holocaust, Africans and slavery.Horrible horrible such things however they moved forward, why cant we?

Karyn Atlin wrote:
10:38pm Thursday January 17, 2013

James
My heart is bursting to hear you have made your story public. How brave and strong you are. All my best.

Jenny wrote:
2:15pm Thursday January 17, 2013

Billy: it is people like you with your ignorant comments who perpetuate racism against First Nations people.  Learn your history and have some compassion. You’d be singing a different tune if it was your family who had to endure that same horror.

warrior wrote:
9:32am Thursday January 17, 2013

@billy. does this bother you and why?

daughter of residential school non-survivor wrote:
8:00am Thursday January 17, 2013

James you are a courageous person for sharing a horrifying experience…may you find peace and understanding in this journey. You are absolutely right about the lack of recognition and support for the intergeneration survivors. Thank you for speaking for many of us.

Maria wrote:
7:18am Thursday January 17, 2013

it’s a long journey &  process to healing, talking and sharing there stories is a start, we have lost our language,culture,trust,loves ones, it takes alot of courage to go there and pour out your heart to them,that just proves to the govt that you are a surviors and we are strong people,we pass on our knowledge to our children. thank you for sharing your stories James you are on the right path to healing, this is made you stronger person,

and for Billy you your comment you made is so disrectful to them you obviously care because you took the time to read what the survivors went through,and work on your self and your healing journy life is to short

Josie O'Brien wrote:
2:18am Thursday January 17, 2013

Billy, have some respect for people who are on their healing journey…this will only end in the peoples own time. You can not rush healing

Michael wrote:
2:18am Thursday January 17, 2013

When will hard-hearted commenters stop belittling people’s experience?

Billy wrote:
12:36am Thursday January 17, 2013

When is this painful serial drama ever going to end?

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