Ross River recognizes residential school survivors

Residential school survivors can't be forced to face the trauma they've endured. But the Ross River Dena Council is giving its people a place where they can start healing, when they are ready.

Residential school survivors can’t be forced to face the trauma they’ve endured. But the Ross River Dena Council is giving its people a place where they can start healing, when they are ready.

It follows the philosophy of, “If you build it, they will come,” said Richard Herbert. He’s co-ordinating the building of a prayer circle memorial.

The memorial will be modeled after traditional prayer circles and provide a sacred place for people to pray, as well as remember those who have suffered.

The Ross River Kaska people were largely unaffected by the gold rush and had little contact with non-aboriginal people until the early 1940s when the American army built the Canol oil pipeline between Whitehorse and Norman Wells, N.W.T.

Shortly after the Canol Road opened, children from the community were brought to residential schools, and continued to be forced into the government-sanctioned, church-run system until the 1980s.

The nearly 15-metre-wide prayer circle will be constructed at the old village site, where the traditional Kaska people of the Ross River area lived before they were relocated by the Canadian government.

The ground there has already been prepared, awaiting shale rock for the circle’s outer, metre-wide walkway. Community members and project workers mined the shale themselves from around the area, said Herbert.

At the centre of the circle, there will be a sacred fire adorned with four elders’ walking sticks at each of the four directions. At the top of each walking stick will be a bronzed face of an elder.

Traditionally, Kaska people pray in each of the four directions for different things: south for guidance, west for spirituality, north for wisdom and east for enlightenment. This is done with their backs to the sacred fire so the elders and ancestors can look over them.

On the outer edge of the prayer circle, again at each of the four directions, there will be a bronzed hand drum. Within each drum there will be etched drawings of children representing four stages of the residential school experience.

The drum pointing east will show Kaska children before schools forcibly took them from their homes and families. The drum at the south will show the children attending the cold and sterile schools that aggressively assimilated aboriginal children across Canada for over a century.

The drum to the west will show the Kaska people after residential school, trying to rebuild families and communities after they suffered extreme abuses in the schools, and years of detachment from their culture and heritage. And the drum pointing north will show how the Kaska will be after healing from residential school and its legacy, which has already afflicted generations of survivors and their children.

Local carvers will carve the pictures in wood, before they are cast in bronze.

Harreson Tanner is sculpting the elders’ faces, first in ceramic before they are cast in bronze and then placed atop the steel walking sticks.

George Roberts is doing most of the steel work and bronze casting.

On the outer edge of the circle, as people walk onto the site, there will be a plaque listing all of the Ross River Dena Council’s children who went to residential school.

Right now, that list only has about 50 to 60 names on it. Herbert assumes the actual number is closer to 300 or 400. But Herbert and other people working on the project haven’t actively gone around asking for names just yet, he said. That will happen during the winter.

“We’re trying to introduce it to the community slowly,” said Herbert. “You have two sides to things in the community. You have some people going, ‘Oh great! It’s about time we had something to rally around and teach our kids, and for healing,

etc. Then you have the other people that are just, ‘What are you doing?! Why are you bringing this up? We don’t need to be reminded of this.’

“We’re trying to respect the stage that people are at. The idea is not to push people. So we’re introducing the whole memorial in steps. The community is aware, but it’s not suddenly that we have to have the names done, everything’s up and we’re going to celebrate everything all in the course of two weeks. That would be horrible. It just wouldn’t work.”

The plan is to have the full memorial finished by April 2013. As well, the Committee on Abuse in Residential Schools (known as CAIRS) will be available to provide support to survivors and their families throughout the memorial’s development, Herbert added.

A $50,000 grant for the permanent prayer circle is coming from a fund specifically for projects like this, across Canada, offered through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The original concept and design came from Jack Caesar, chief of the Ross River Dena Council.

Besides being the community’s chief and an elder, he is also a part of the territory’s Trailblazers – a group of residential school survivors from the Lower Post school who were among the first in Canada to sue the Canadian government for the experience and abuses they suffered in residential school.

They won a multi-million dollar lawsuit in the 1990s and donated $300,000 to help establish CAIRS. Their case eventually turned into the largest class-action suit in Canadian history and was eventually settled out of court in 2006 with what is now known as the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement.

That agreement led to the development of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its work to tell survivors’ stories. It also led to thousands of individual payouts, and more specific abuse claim payments, which are still being conducted.

For his own community, Caesar wanted a place where survivors could come and really start healing themselves, said Herbert.

This prayer circle memorial, “provides a focus point to initiate healing for a lot of people,” said Herbert. “It’s hard to explain, but it means things are no longer hidden – it’s just there, and you can take it at your own pace and it’s not going away, but it’s there. The chief just really believes that it will be an important focus and place to start.”

The prayer circle will also provide a place to bring students so they can learn about the history and effects of residential school. The memorial will also serve as a place for non-aboriginal visitors to learn about a side of Canada’s history they may know very little about.

Along with all of that, the prayer circle offers a chance to remember those who have suffered, said Herbert.

“It’s a step we don’t have,” he said. “We don’t recognize and honour the people that have gone through this. Instead, it’s all shame right now.”

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at