Yukon News

Ceremony helps survivors recover from hellish history

Tor Forsberg Wednesday August 15, 2012

Tor Forsberg/Yukon News


Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo speaks to attendees at the Gathering Around the Fire at Lower Post, B.C. this weekend.


We drove slowly to accommodate the many vehicles, pedestrians, children and dogs sharing the road into the Lower Post reserve. Along the way we were struck by the appearance of the village; yards once cluttered with old vehicles were now tidy.

The venue was a large, cleared field. Enormous circus-like tents stood in the centre. To one side, big upright logs had been assembled into an impressive circular structure, partially roofed, with the centre left open for the fire.

We were among about 800 people at Gathering Around the Fire, a commemoration of Lower Post’s residential school survivors.

Ceremonies, workshops, activities and speakers filled the calendar from August 10 to 13. Therapists were on hand – for many present, this was their first visit back to the place where their sufferings informed their adult lives, and it was not an easy time.

Lower Post’s residential school was considered one of the most abusive in the system and the community in which it was built still suffers the effects of that abuse. The Kaska, Tlingit and Tahltan called for this ceremony to wrap up the truth and reconciliation process.

As one elder put it, “Our songs, our prayers, and our ceremonies are our medicine.”

On Saturday we joined participants in the big red-and-white main-event tent for “truth telling.” The air smelled of sweetgrass and the mood was sombre. We were offered the opportunity to smudge, cleansing ourselves with smoke, before the people seated in the circle began to tell their stories.

The stories were harsh and full of pain. It was hard to hear about adults treating children in their care with some of the cruelties described by these former students.

There was sexual abuse of both boys and girls, and hard manual labour, or as one participant described it, “slavery,” working outdoors in the cold on many occasions.

Beatings were not uncommon, and humiliations as well. One person described a needle being put through his tongue when he spoke the only language he knew. So regimented were the lives of these students that some, coming to Lower Post for the first time since they left, were surprised to see the river behind what was the site of the school.

While most of us cannot remember many names of kids we went to school with, these survivors could often recall the name of every student, and in one case even the numbers they had been assigned.

“Our families were gone,” one woman said. “We only had each other, and we bonded strongly.”

Many of the listeners wept, while some left the tent for a break from the intensity of the sharing.

Throughout the day, people could go into tents for counselling or healing circles. There were children’s tents, arts and crafts, and every night, stick gambling and musicians jamming.

On Monday, the final day, the mood was quiet and peaceful. The dancing went on into the night, after another day of ceremony and prayer.

As Sgt. Cam Lockwood of the Watson Lake RCMP detachment helped stack folding chairs, he reflected on the Mounties’ legacy in the community.

“We’ve had 14 members on site at various times,” he said. “I would say it has been a healing experience for us. The history of RCMP and native people has a lot of negativity and it has been good to be here to work with them. We weren’t here to police; we made coffee and moved things and did whatever we were asked to do.” 

Some members had participated in healing circles, he said.

The drums declared it was time to gather. The Kaska drummers started, as the Tlingit and Tahltan drummers warmed their drums over the fire. When they were all drumming, the dancers entered the circle, many in full regalia. There were children of all ages dancing with them, steps timed to the drum.

Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, thanked the survivors for their resilience and for sharing their experiences. He asked men to “step up” and help women who are working to rebuild their culture and their lives. Girls need to be respected and kept safe, he said.

He also spoke about what it was like to live in a community where people hurt one another and where families were not what they needed to be. He talked about the interconnectedness of people everywhere and of the importance of learning to work together, globally.

It was a good speech, an acknowledging speech and a good note to end on, leaving a community with regained pride, and peace.

<em> Forsberg is a Watson Lake freelance writer.


2nd Generation Survivor wrote:
9:45pm Wednesday August 29, 2012

Gail, it is funny how you turn this ceremony at Lower Post into you and your family stories…Save your stories of your children for another time and let the survivors of Lower Post have their time…when a reporter comes knocking on your door asking for your experences living in Lower Post maybe people will care and leave nice comments such as yours….Every child has the right to feel safe and loved and I can bet that not child at the LP Residentual School felt either…In closing it’s nice to hear that your children are happy and well, great job at raising them, our parents should have been given the chance as well!!!!

second generation survivor wrote:
3:15am Friday August 17, 2012

Oh and by the way this is what the spirit of divison looks like for anyone who wants to know!!  And this is EXACTLY what the Native people are fighting against! And gail your last comments are kind of confusing just what exactly are you trying to say??? care to explain and clarify your point? what gave you the need divide the ‘White kids and ‘Village kids and where they went to school and if there was abuse there or not? you seem defensive

second generation suvivor wrote:
2:28am Friday August 17, 2012

Can we please keep this article about healing and the great moment in first nation history? and NOT who went where and who was white and who should get money? This was a moment in our history that should be honored and RESPECTED! This healing gathering was for the survivors and ONLY them! NOT who was white and going to what school and if there was abuse in whatever school their kids went to!  As a daughter of a survivor Iam GREATFULL for the strength these people showed in sharing their pain and healing, this is about THEM and not someone elses BIOGRAPHY! If you werent there then you wont understand the powerful moment that went on at that last day! This was about letting GO OF THE PAST!  THIS WAS A HEALING CEREMONY! WHY CAN’T PEOPLE ATLEAST TRY AND RESPECT THAT!!! As a daughter of a survivor I too Am a survivor and i feel very disrespected that people would even make such comments!

flyingfur wrote:
3:52pm Thursday August 16, 2012

JoseyWales:  I don’t think you have the slightest interest in getting a response from Gail.  Your mind is made up and you answered your own question…if it really was a question.

Gail wrote:
8:59am Thursday August 16, 2012

No, Josey, my kids wouldn’t be eligible for compensation.  They didn’t go to the Residential School, they went to the Elementary School.  I’m not sure, but I believe that at that time, most of the “village” kids went to the Elementary School, and it was mostly the youngsters whose parents were out in the bush, on traplines, etc., who attended the Residential School.  I know SOME of the village kids went to the Residential School, and though I could be wrong, I THINK they were in the minority.  My daughter STARTED school in Lower Post in 1971, as did her younger brother a year later, and the principal and teacher were Steve and Penny Bichard, and DEFINITELY, no “abuse” there!

Josey Wales wrote:
2:15am Thursday August 16, 2012

Gail, I read your post and as you may be used to…I have a question.
I right away wondered if your four “white kids” as you put it, were eligible for compensation?
I presume your kids went to that school under their own interests with your help to educate themselves with my query to you.
That said if things were as they are alleged to be in today’s media/society undercurrent, would not your four kids witness or experience some of the many allegations made.
with both or either one could also presume the damage was done to your kids too?
I got from reading your post that your kids grew up fine and productive adults as many other from the village have too.
I know the big picture here is not about money, that said…
One should also view your kids as victims in today’s victim industry and as such be “financially compensated” for their time spent in the machine?

I think with all these presumptions I have made thus far, one more cannot really hurt?

I’m gonna guess the answer to my query is no, as in no compensation for your four “white kids”?

If folks out there cannot see each day the damage created by having a two tier society and treating many as lesser peoples to elevate a nation within a nation with a never ending division of Canadians?

we will all be getting cheques in the mail in 20 years…

daughter of a lower post resident wrote:
12:46am Thursday August 16, 2012

Mom is no longer here to see this final chapter of her life at the lower post residential school.  Personally, I would have liked to burn the place down 35 years ago to give her some peace or closure while she was alive.  I heard the stories first hand, I couldn’t fathom the pain.  I saw the after affects of the brutality first hand.  Barbaric and senseless treatment inflicted upon a beautiful young lady changed her forever.  Changed her family.  Because of her love and vitality our family has turned this repugnant history into positive actions but what a shame she can’t see her children and grandchildren accomplish this.

Gail wrote:
8:31pm Wednesday August 15, 2012

Our family lived in the village of Lower Post for two years (1971-1973), then moved to Watson Lake, where we lived until 1987.  During the two years in Lower Post, my husband and I both worked at the Lower Post Hotel, and our four kids went to the Elementary School, where they, along with those of the hotel owners, (four kids in all, the older ones attending school in either Watson Lake, or Fort St. John BC—were the only four “white kids” in the school).  We got to know the families in the village, and at that time, there was a lot of drinking and abuse that had nothing to do with the Residential School.  Out of all that, I’m so happy to see such wonderful change among the young people.  The girls and boys my four kids grew up with have become strong, wonderful adults, leaders in their community, and have helped with the healing from the damage done by those who attended the Residential School.  All through the years, I have kept in touch with several of the Lower Post “Young Adults” (now in their mid-to-late 40’s and early 50’s) through email, and now through Facebook, and it gives me a wonderful feeling to see all that they have accomplished and ARE accomplishing for their people. I look at all the photos posted by Pam Moon over last weekend, and marvel at how far they’ve come.  I thank God for the leadership of Georgie Miller (and Marilyn), and the “kids” my “kids” went to school with.  I hope their dreams for their people continue to come true.

Add a comment

Commenting is no longer available for this story. Commenting expires 21 days after publishing.