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Community gathers at former residential school site in Carcross

People shared stories and support as radar work began to search the former residential school site

The following story references abuse at residential schools. Yukoners can schedule rapid access counselling at 1-867-456-3838. The national Indian Residential School Crisis Line can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.

Monday morning’s rain was like the sky crying. It was a common refrain at a press conference to mark the beginning of ground-penetrating radar work being done at the site of the former Chooutla Residential School in Carcross.

The conference took an unplanned turn after half an hour of speeches from Premier Ranj Pillai, Yukon Residential Schools Missing Children Project vice-chair Judy Gingell and Carcross Tagish First Nation Chief Maria Benoit.

That’s when a number of community members, including Harold Gatensby, stood behind the microphone at Haa Shagóon Hídi (the First Nations cultural centre in Carcross). Their invitation to leave the warmth of the centre and gather in the rain at the Chooutla site was an impromptu one, but one that felt necessary for many.

In the late morning drizzle, people smudged themselves next to the fire. Some clasped tobacco between their palms. Others took their shoes off and stood barefoot in the dirt, or gathered a small handful of soil.

The work starting at the site this week came out of the Yukon Residential Schools Missing Children Project. The committee was established shortly after 215 unmarked graves were uncovered at the former Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia in 2021. First Nations citizens from a number of Yukon communities have participated in research and consultations around former schools in Carcross, Dawson City, Whitehorse and more.

That assistance, along with reviews of records, will inform the search. In the coming weeks, B.C.-based company GeoScan will focus on the garden, a fenced area in the woods, the ice rink and additional locations at the site.

“This is tough stuff,” said Gatensby, as he welcomed people to the fire. Gatensby is Tlingit. He went to Chooutla.

“But we’re doing something and that’s gotta feel good. We’re doing something now. We’ve been waiting so long.”

A number of residential school survivors stepped toward the fire to share their stories. So did some of their children.

Joanne Henry was among them. Henry is the executive director of the Committee on Abuse in Residential School. Her parents went to Chooutla. Henry herself went to the Lower Post residential school in B.C.

She talked about the kids at Lower Post who ran away from the school, even in the middle of winter. She’s heard so many similar stories.

“It’s not about any one of us,” she said. “It’s about the kids that might be here, about what we might find and, if we find that, are we ready for it? What are we gonna do?”

That was one of the questions Gatensby had as well. Talking to the News after everyone had driven back to Haa Shagóon Hídi for bannock and stew, he said he wants to see cooperation and responsibility taken for what happened at Chooutla.

“It’s so good to see us gather together to look for the unmarked graves, but I also think it’s very urgent that we put that energy to the living,” he said. “There’s a legacy that comes with this residential school. We’re still living it in Carcross.”

He gestured to the creek everyone crossed to get to the site, Chooutla Creek, and the nearby Chooutla subdivision.

“That’s not Tlingt language. That’s not Tagish language. I don’t know where it came from,” he said. “Me? I say get rid of it.”

It will be work and it will be hard, he said, but he feels good that it’s finally underway.

“What I heard from the people that were gathered here is that we come together as people, not government, not employees, but people, to deal with this,” he said. “And I love that because that’s what’s going to make a difference … we’re only but getting started, not finishing it up. Only getting started.”

If you are struggling, there are supports:

Call the 24-hour Residential School Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419.

Contact the Committee For Abuse in Residential Schools (CAIRS) outreach and counselling for residential school survivors at 867-667-2247.

First Nations governments may offer supports and services as well.

Contact Amy Kenny at amy.kenny@yuon-news.com