Like a lot of people, Marian Horne remembers playing “Cowboys and Indians” when she was young.
“Nobody wanted to be the Indian because we knew they were all killed all the time,” she said.
“Who would want to be on the losing team?”
But they were all “Indians.”
Horne grew up in the aboriginal community of Teslin in the 1940s.
It was a time of great change. The completion of the Alaska Highway connected the tiny town to a world they barely knew.
“In our community we had no drinking,” she said.
“Everybody lived off the land. We were healthy, we were helping each other. There was no fighting, we didn’t have time to fight, because we were so involved in helping others.”
Those times did not last long.
Like all the children her age, Horne was taken away from her family and home to residential school.
Her community is still living with the consequences today.
“If somebody could imagine, the RCMP coming to your door and taking your child, and say, ‘They have to come with us.’ And they take them.
“And there’s nothing you can do about it. What would that do to you?
“Your children are your life.”
There were a lot of deaths at that time, too, with new diseases ripping through the community, said Horne.
The children’s other favourite game was called “Funeral.” They would take turns laying in the coffin, and the minister would pass around a collection plate.
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Today, Horne is the president of the Yukon Aboriginal Women’s Council, one of many organizations fighting to undo the damage done to First Nation communities in the territory.
Change has to come first from within – within yourself and within your community, said Horne.
“We know what’s best for us, so we have to do the workshops, we have to do the planning, the speaking,” she said.
“Whether it’s eloquent or not, we have to control that. We have to own it. We have to own our lives.”
The effects of Canada’s colonial policies against aboriginal people are visible today in higher rates of poverty, disease, violence and suicide.
A quarter of aboriginal women in Canada have been assaulted by a spouse, compared with seven per cent of non-aboriginal women, according to one study cited by Canada’s Department of Justice.
In Canada’s territories, women are twice as likely to be physically or sexually assaulted by a partner, compared with women in the provinces.
At the root of the problem is trauma, said Horne.
It took most of her life to start dealing with her own pain, she said.
“I went to a counsellor. She went through a list of symptoms. She read them out. She got to the end. She said, ‘Do you have any of these?’ I said, ‘Every one of them.’ She said, ‘You have PTSD. You have trauma problems.’ And I know I do.”
Recognizing that fact is the first step to healing, said Horne.
“I changed my life, I stopped drinking and realized what I was doing was destroying myself and my family.”
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The national conversation around missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls has ramped up this year, and in the Yukon it has hit too close to home.
Just last week Brandy Vittrekwa, 17, was found dead on a walking trail in the Kwanlin Dun First Nation’s McIntyre subdivision. Police are treating the case as a homicide, and a young man has been arrested but not charged in connection with the death. He remains in custody on unrelated charges.
Friends remember Vittrekwa as a kind, loving teen who was devoted to her family.
It’s the second homicide investigation in McIntyre in half a year.
Allan Waugh was found dead in June. His case remains unsolved.
Recently, the Yukon Aboriginal Women’s Council has focused its efforts on bringing men into the conversation about ending violence against women and girls.
“It isn’t a women’s problem. It’s a society problem. So we want to bring the men in. We want both sides to see what is happening to the other.”
Men may be the primary aggressors, but men and women are both dealing with trauma, hurt and shame. Solving those issues means listening to each other, said Horne.
Last year the council’s Brothers in Spirit initiative brought together men from all of Yukon’s First Nation communities for a conference in Whitehorse to discuss their role in stopping the cycles of violence.
Representatives from Ontario’s “I am a kind man” initiative and B.C.‘s Moosehide Campaign, two programs led by aboriginal men to address violence against women, came to share workshops and teachings.
“It was incredible,” said Horne. “We had from 18 years old up to 80. And the elders were more mentors. They told of their relationships with their wives, which was very loving and equal. And they told the young men how their life was, and how they respected their wives.”
Men who had abused women spoke up about their past actions, said Horne.
“Some of them were in tears, in how they treated women in the past, their partners.”
They talked about their shame, and how they wanted to make a change, for themselves and for their community.
Overall, the men were very enthusiastic about being included in the conversation, said Horne.
“They said they always felt left out when the women had organizations to assist them, and we were not involving them. They wanted to be involved. They want to be part of the solution.”
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Horne wants the momentum from that good work to continue.
She’s working to secure funding for more workshops that would start to deal with the root of the problem, with healing the trauma that has destabilized Yukon’s aboriginal communities.
The goal would be to get men and women into a room with a counsellor, so they can begin to understand their own trauma.
“I’m sure they’ll say, ‘I have all those symptoms,’” said Horne.
Next, you have to have to give people the tools to continue on their own healing journey and change their lives.
That can be tough, especially if you’re working with people that don’t even have a safe place to sleep at night, said Horne.
For women in particular, that can mean constant exposure to abuse and sexual assault, she said.
“They’re never safe. They never know what the next day’s going to be like.”
Horne said she’s hopeful that she can make a difference, although the progress she has seen has been slow.
“It’s been years in the making, and it’s going to be years in cleaning it up.”
In Horne’s office there’s a picture of her holding a sign that asks, “Am I next?” It’s an ode to a recent social media campaign urging action on missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls.
“I so want to make a difference. I so want those young girls to grow up in a safe environment.
“I don’t want them to be next. I don’t want them to go through what I did as a young girl. We have to stop it.”
Contact Jacqueline Rosnon at