Ashley Russell of Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in First Nation holds up an eagle feather on the steps of the Sacred Heart Cathedral Church in Whitehorse on May 31. Over 400 pairs of shoes were brought to the church to represent the lives of children lost to the residential school system. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)

‘It’s hard to find the words’: B.C. residential school victims honoured in Whitehorse

Yukoners came together to mourn and honour the 215 children found buried at the Kamloops Indian Residential School

Warning: the following story contains details some readers may find distressing.

May 31 was solemn in Whitehorse and across the territory.

On the previous day, Viola Papequash placed the first pair of children’s shoes on the steps of the Sacred Heart Cathedral.

More than 400 pairs joined the first overnight, to honour the 215 children found at the Kamloops Indian Residential School — the children who never came home.

On May 31, hundreds of people walked the shoes from the steps of the cathedral down Main Street to the Sacred Fire at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre. In an act of solidarity, the shoes will remain at the fire for four days overseen by firekeepers.

“This past week, it has been overwhelming,” said Kwanlin Dün Chief Doris Bill to the crowd gathered around the fire. “We’ve had a lot of people that have been triggered by the news this week.”

“It’s hard to find the words when you’re talking about the lives of 215 children. Two hundred and fifteen babies that didn’t come home to their mother and father.”

Bill said that for many years, stories have been shared about children who did not come home.

“This week we saw evidence of that,” said Bill. “It is no longer stories. We’ve lived this. I never thought I’d be standing here talking about the lives of 215 children that were taken. For what?”

Champagne and Aishihik First Nations Chief Steve Smith also spoke at the sacred fire.

“There’s a lot of sadness, a lot of anger,” said Smith. “But, I’m also grateful in a lot of ways. I guess at the end of the day, I’m really humbled and uplifted that we’ve come together like this.”

Smith said the discovery of the children in Kamloops should spur further action.

“If we can get the government to actually do the honour of bringing our kids home, this is just the start,” Smith said. “Only together will we be able to comfort each other and hold each other up.

“The people from Kamloops, they’re the ones starting, but every Nation in the country is going to go through this. I don’t think Kamloops was the only one.”

From across the territory

The Carcross/Tagish First Nation (C/TFN) is echoing the calls for full investigations into residential school sites.

The Choutla Residential School site sits in the centre of their community and “we still feel and see the lasting echoes of pain it caused,” reads a C/TFN press release.

“This discovery has opened up a big wound for everybody,” said Lynda Dickson, Haa Shaa du Hen of C/TFN.

“We all feel the effects of it. We have family members who went to residential schools. We need to get to the bottom of it, put people to rest and bring people home, if that’s what’s needed. We need closure to help us cope.”

In Dawson City, at the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre, people gathered for a two-hour prayer circle in remembrance of the lost children in Kamloops.

A Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin elder called for people to gather in the spirit of unity.

“Many of our residential school survivors were with us and we are grateful for their strength and leadership at the difficult time,” read a Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre Facebook post. “Today we saw Chʼonkʼą̈̀ Ts’än Jëje-in (the spirit of our people) shine through.”

Paul and Bree Josie, who own and operate Josie’s Old Crow Adventures, asked Yukoners “to stand up and help us advocate to ensure that all children who died in residential schools are brought home to their communities.”

They called on the chief and council of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation government to advocate for the identification, return and ceremonial burial of each child.

They also called on the Yukon and federal governments to assist in the identification and return home of each child, including financial assistance covering re-homing costs and traditional burials.

Premier Sandy Silver said in a statement that his “heart goes out to those Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation families who now wait to confirm the identities of the 215 children who died at the Kamloops Indian Residential School — and with those in the Yukon and across Canada who bear the burden of the residential school experience.”

Flags on all Yukon government buildings will fly at half-mast for 215 hours.

The sacred fire will burn at Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre for four nights and four days.

Yukoners in Whitehorse and the communities 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.

Contact John Tonin at

residential schools

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