Attending the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission event in Inuvik last week was as bad as going back to residential school, say Yukon delegates to the event.
Arriving in Inuvik, the Yukoners, including many elders, were dropped off at a dilapidated residence.
The key to open the doors did not work and the school bus that took them there drove off immediately, stranding them, Mary Battaja told the Council of Yukon First Nations general assembly on Tuesday.
When they got inside, the place was dirty, unsanitary and covered in mould, said Jessie Dawson, of the Kwanlin Dun First Nation.
Elders had to climb multiple sets of stairs and take back food and coffee from the main conference like criminals, she added.
While the residence is known around town as the “blueberry patch,” because of it’s blue paint, a sign at the front entrance said, “Welcome to the Bronx,” said Dawson.
“And what you see on TV – that’s exactly what it was like.
“It was an insult. It was degrading. And from my understanding, some of our elders that came back are now sick.”
The trauma in Inuvik resulted in two Champagne and Aishihik First Nation delegates drinking again, Chief James Allen told the assembly.
“They couldn’t believe what was happening,” said Allen.
Other delegates and chiefs called on the assembly to pass a resolution to confront the commission.
“The people who are accountable should be made accountable,” said Allen. “Before this is swept under the rug.”
Providing emotional support for survivors from across Canada was difficult enough for the residential school survivors, said Ingrid Isaac, a resolution health-support worker with the Council of Yukon First Nations who attended the Inuvik event.
The task was made much more difficult given the Yukon delegation’s accommodations, said Isaac.
One group of Yukoners rented a truck and left, she said.
“There were no hotels for them,” she added. “TRC had those booked for themselves and media.”
Isaac and other support workers were put up in trailers, like a mining camp, with noisy generators running 24 hours a day, she said.
The experience of the Yukon survivors is unfortunate, said Lucy Kuptana, an Inuvialuit and member of the event’s logistics committee.
“We tried our best to accommodate everyone and their needs,” she said, adding that Inuvik only has three hotels.
“We really worked hard to be the best hosts possible.”
The “blueberry patch” building is not condemned, she said. The former government housing is now student residences for people coming from the communities who are taking courses at Aurora College.
Kuptana’s own family members stay there when they are taking courses, she said.
The three- to four-bedroom apartments are built like town homes with 10 steps to the washroom on the top floor, she added.
“They are older buildings, they are not hotels, so they are not perfect, but they are not condemned buildings,” she said. “We wouldn’t do that.”
Apart from a lack of linens and toilet paper that had to be purchased after Yukon delegates arrived, the building provided beds and a roof over their heads, said Kuptana.
But none of the delegates who spoke at Tuesday’s Council of Yukon First Nations general assembly blamed the host First Nations and Inuvialuit.
It fact, they extended their gratitude to them for doing what they could.
The CYFN delegates blame the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Wednesday, the commission said it wasn’t responsible for accommodations. It referred all questions about the accommodations to Kuptana.
“I was a part of the logistics committee and one of the hosts so I’d like to get the story straight, but I don’t know why the TRC is asking me to answer,” said Kuptana.
The point of these seven national events is to record survivors’ stories for the sake of history. The organized assimilation of First Nations children, who were forcibly taken from their families at ages as young as 4 and 5, took place for more than a century throughout Canada.
All survivors, who are now adults and elders, are at different stages of healing, said Bob Charlie.
Charlie, a survivor himself, attended the Inuvik event as a resolution health support worker along with Isaac.
He remembers sitting beside one man who attended the event to support his partner, who was in a closed room, giving a private testimony at the time.
The two men sat there reminiscing about Charlie’s work in Yukon radio.
“All of a sudden he got triggered,” said Charlie. “Some memory of a friend that just recently passed away. So he wasn’t there to give his own testimony, but it came out anyway. You get a lot of that.
“You just mostly listen, and judge and gauge if they need further help and direct them that way.”
Charlie decided not to stay around the main, public hearing room for too long.
“It was pretty tough stuff to listen to,” he said. “But it’s rewarding when a person comes up to you, or you go to them, and they’re having a bit of a crisis and you help them get through that. The thanks that they give afterwards is genuine. It makes you feel good.”
For Isaac, witnessing the reunions between friends who hadn’t seen each other since leaving residential school in their teenage years overshadowed the more difficult parts, she said.
She will also remember the birthday cakes, she added.
More than 800 cupcakes with individual candles were lit and given out to commemorate all the children who never got to celebrate their birthdays while in residential school, she said.
“I never even thought to ask if they celebrated their birthdays,” she said.
“Well, birthday’s are usually more of a family thing,” said Charlie.
Currently, support workers and survivors throughout the territory are debriefing and digesting the experience of the Inuvik event before they plan on what to do next, said Isaac, adding they have started talking about attending the next event scheduled for Halifax in October.
“I expect they’ll need the support help,” said Charlie.
At the Council of Yukon First Nations general assembly, Chief Rick O’Brien of the Kwanlin Dun First Nation suggested the Halifax event could offer a way to rectify last week’s experience.
Perhaps another group of delegates could go attend the next national event and tell their stories in a more positive environment, he said.
“It’s an ongoing issue,” said Isaac about dealing with the legacy of residential schools. “It’s a scar. It will never go away.”
But one of Isaac’s fondest memories centred on an elder she met.
She can’t remember what her name was, or what First Nation she was apart of, but her handkerchiefed, hairless head is clear in her mind.
“She was clearly fighting some battle with some disease,” said Isaac. “And she said, ‘You know what, it’s good you remember residential school. It means you have your memory, you have your heart. Which means you’re alive and you survived everything.’”
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