On a frigid Yukon night, a quilt can be a much-needed comfort.
You can draw the warm, protective cocoon around your shoulders, hunker down and wait for spring. Quilts sheltered many of us as nervous children from the monsters under the bed.
In Mayo, a quilt is that and much more. For the elders of this small northern Yukon community, the monsters weren’t in closets and the cold wasn’t in the wind. They were at school. Even though almost a generation has passed since the last of its members left residential schools behind, the community is still trying to heal and a group quilting project is helping them do it.
“We’ve been working on it for over three years now. We wanted people to contribute squares to a community quilt that represented how the schools affected themselves, their family or their community,” said Joella Hogan, heritage co-ordinator for the First Nation of Nacho Nyak Dun.
The quilt doesn’t discriminate by age or experience. Contributors have been residential school survivors, their children and even just members of the community who have felt the schools’ long reach. The patches have been everything from traditional beading, to applique, to photos and paintings.
At first, Hogan just wanted people to hand in finished squares, she said. But many contributors wanted to work collectively.
“People wanted to come together as a group, and that was definitely the highlight. People would talk about their experiences at the residential schools and it became a kind of informal sharing circle,” said Hogan.
Many of Mayo’s elders were sent to the Chooutla Indian Residential School in Carcross. That school first opened in 1911 and ran until June 1969.
During that time, Chooutla – like many residential schools across the country – removed First Nation children from their homes, often forcibly, and sequestered them at the school for months or years at a time. Many students suffered physical, verbal and sexual abuse. They were forbidden to speak their own languages, and a love of king and country was imposed with brutal efficiency.
During the building of the Alaska Highway in 1942, two American solders forced their way into the girls’ dormitory at Chooutla. They were arrested and convicted of having sex with under-aged girls. They were fined $24 and $20 each.
When the quilt project started, Hogan didn’t expect it would take so long, or that there would be such a diversity of stories included. Many of them are tragic. Many began with heartbreak and ended with alcohol or drugs.
“My mom never talked about beatings, but my dad did. It was horrible. I watched my mom being mentally abusive. And I didn’t have it as bad as my sister. Normal mothers don’t favour, but she had her favourites,” said Carolyn Van Bibber.
Both of Van Bibber’s parents were sent to residential schools when they were young. Her mom went to Carcross and her dad went to Dawson, but he was pulled out after only a few years. Van Bibber’s grandfather and uncle ran a dog team through the winter and plucked her father from the school. Spared the worst of the abuse, he became the strength in Van Bibber’s family, supporting her mother as they tried to raise the kids.
But even so, Carolyn said she and her siblings wound up feeling the priest’s strap echo in their lives as clearly as if they’d been under it themselves. It wasn’t until years later, when Carolyn and her siblings were grown, that her parents even spoke about the schools at all.
“I had no idea, but now I understand why my mom is the way she is. And she did quit drinking 23 years ago, because she’s been able to talk about it now. I have way more love for her now that I understand,” said Van Bibber.
Working on the quilt patch allowed Van Bibber to externalize her feelings and move on from them. The quilting circle became a place of sharing, a safe space to talk about how the schools had affected so many families.
Lower Post: just the name is enough to spark nightmares for Stephanie Lucas. Lower Post is considered to have been one of the worst schools in western Canada, a special circle of hell that makes stories of the strap at other schools seem benign.
Lucas went to Lower Post. She was only there for a year and a half. Hers is a beaded patch that shows a guardian angel watching over a weeping girl. She can hardly speak about her experiences outside of the quilting circle. It’s still too painful for her, but she said if it weren’t for the quilt she wouldn’t be speaking about them at all.
“I have a safe friend who I can talk to now,” she said. Lucas’s patch, barely six square inches, is only half finished and she’s been working on it for almost two years.
“Every time I pick it up I get flashbacks,” Lucas said.
But not all of the stories are so devastating. For a lucky few, the schools were actually a positive experience.
In a modest house in the middle of Mayo, Marlene Drapeau pours tea and serves banana bread with moose stew. The house could just as easily be on the east coast of Newfoundland instead of nestled in the Yukon wilderness, and Drapeau is as industrious and hardy as any mariner.
“It’s good, but it’s still not quite ready,” she says, ladling out a steaming bowlful. “It needs to simmer a little while longer.”
Drapeau, now in her 70s, said if it weren’t for the schools, she wouldn’t know how to make soup or clean potatoes, mend socks or run a household – all skills she learned under the watchful eyes of the teachers at the Whitehorse Baptist Mission School.
“We were used to hard work,” said Drapeau. She was raised by her grandparents and lived close to the land until she left for the schools.
“My grandma was a hard worker. Life was hard then, it wasn’t like today. Nothing was handed to you. You had to hunt and bring in your meat and prepare for winter,” Drapeau said.
Her longtime friend Hilda Tuck sits at the little table in Drapeau’s kitchen where the walls are hung with collectable spoons. A crucifix and framed Bible verses adorn the windowsill. Tuck went to Lower Post, but she also managed to avoid the berating and beatings.
“We were lucky,” said Tuck. “We had a good minister.”
Tuck’s brother was also at Lower Post, but the two were never allowed to speak. When they got home, she said her brother never spoke about the schools or what happened to him there.
Both women said they weren’t forced to attend the schools. Drapeau maintains she actually ran away to the Whitehorse school, and has fond memories of her time there.
“It was the best thing I ever did. We used to sneak out at night and go to shows. We’d smoke cigarettes on the cliffs behind the school and then chew pine needles to hide the smell,” she said, laughing.
“My grandma didn’t take it easy on us, and neither did the schools. But we didn’t complain, and I learned how to work and get along with people and take care of children,” Drapeau said.
Drapeau and Tuck might not have endured the torment that other students faced, but their stories are just as valid and need to be told as well, said Hogan. That’s the point of the community quilt, to be a mosaic of the whole community’s experiences with the school – good, bad and in some cases still ongoing.
The federal government’s official apology in 2008 doesn’t seem to have had much of an impact in Mayo. Van Bibber said the way the government handed out “apology cheques” and then essentially washed its hands of the mess has, in some cases, only made things worse.
“I know one person in Mayo who always, always worked. He seemed normal to me, but he got that money and he started drinking. It brought out all that hurt and shame and all they did was hand him a big cheque,” Van Bibber said.
Just as talking about what her parents experienced allowed her to forgive them and move on, Van Bibber hopes that projects like the quilt will give the younger generations a way to understand what happened without getting tied up in shame and blame and guilt.
Hogan said she’s lost count of the number of patches they’ve collected so far, but when the project is finished – hopefully this spring – they want to show it around town and ultimately give it a home in the First Nation’s main office building.
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