Almost 20 years ago, TJ Esquiro worked himself up to say one of the most difficult things of his life.
He wanted to speak publicly about the 14 years he spent at the Lower Post Indian Residential School. At the time, former students didn’t speak about their experiences; it was fairly unheard of.
But in 1991, Esquiro wanted Ottawa and church leaders to hear what he had to say. He wanted to take them to court.
Only a handful of other First Nations people in Canada had attempted to take the government and church to court. No one had succeeded.
Esquiro was living in Manitoba then, disconnected from the people he went to school with in Northern British Columbia.
“At the time I thought I was the only one doing this,” said Esquiro, who now lives in Atlin.
So when he flew back north to disclose his case to authorities, he was surprised.
“When I pulled into Lower Post there were 14 other people there waiting to disclose the same thing as me.”
The group quickly dubbed themselves the Trailblazers. They would eventually lay the foundation for the Committee on Abuse in Residential Schools Society in Whitehorse several years later.
Lawyers tried to split the 15 men up thinking they would have a better chance at getting compensation. But the group refused; they wanted to stick together.
It was a grueling seven years of fundraising and waiting before the case made it to court in Terrace, British Columbia. In 1998, the group eventually won their case – they were the first successful group to do so in Canada, said Kevin Barr, the first co-ordinator of CAIRS.
But it wasn’t the end of their work together.
After the trial wrapped up, each of the Trailblazers set aside some of their compensation money to start CAIRS.
The organization began out of a small back room in the Salvation Army building running solely on donations.
“We were trying to create a safe place to go for people to talk about their experiences,” said Esquiro.
People didn’t know quite what to make of the organization at first, said Barr, who remained co-ordinator and counselor at CAIRS for eight years.
“We used to put a picnic table outside the Sally Anne because people couldn’t walk in the door,” he said.
“So we would go outside and serve people coffee and just talk to them. Then maybe three months later they could go inside.”
There was a perception at the time – and there still is in some ways – that people just needed to pull up their socks and get over residential schools, said Barr.
“It’s nice to say that; but what if you don’t know how to pull up your socks or if you don’t even have any socks to pull up at all?”
CAIRS filled a badly needed gap in the Yukon by offering workshops, healing circles and opportunities for survivors to come to grips with their experiences through art, said Barr.
Now the organization is in danger of closing its doors forever.
Last month, Ottawa announced it was cancelling the Aboriginal Healing Foundation that began funding the group in the late ‘90s. CAIRS is one of 135 First Nation programs that won’t get their funding renewed come April. But the group will search for alternate sources of money.
“The idea that First Nations people are just supposed to be magically fixed now after 10 years, it’s ridiculous,” said Barr.
“There’s still walking wounded out there suffering from intergenerational effects of residential schools.”
Esquiro knows that only too well. He remembers one particular CAIRS meeting where there was a woman selling beaver hats.
He wanted to buy one off her, but she wouldn’t let him pay for it.
“She just gave it me and said, ‘It’s because my grandchildren now understand me,’” said Esquiro.
“It was the best thing I could have heard. And it’s exactly what we wanted to come from those workshops.”
To Esquiro, the years spent battling the government in court wasn’t about getting compensation, it was about creating understanding among survivors and their children.
“My opinion now, 20 years later, is that the court case was a buyout,” said Esquiro.
The settlement money deflects what actually happened in those schools, he said.
“When you’re throwing money at an issue like this, the only people that benefit are the people in a community who are selling fridges and stoves.”
“The government took people from all over the North and plunked them in an isolated place and watched them – it was indoctrination – you really have to ask, ‘What is the outcome of brainwashing people for 10 to 12 years?’”
For Esquiro, the effects of residential school still haven’t disappeared.
“My ability to see red at the drop of a hat is a result (of residential school),” he said.
“So is my ability to start swinging regardless of who’s around.”
But that’s what happens when you’re punished with whips and belts, he said.
If a student did something wrong at Esquiro’s school all the students would form a line and hit the punished student. If a student didn’t hit them, you would be forced through the line too, said Esquiro.
“The day that my brother hit me (in one of those lines) it changed my relationship with him. He no longer became my brother.”
“I have a better relationship with Jimbo from Teslin than I do with my brother. These schools were set up to break us apart.”
One day he was asked by a police officer what he was learning in school.
Esquiro didn’t say anything and just picked up a closed padlock that was sitting on the table. He had it open in 15 minutes.
“It was what I did – I learned how to pick locks so that I could get into the fridges to feed,” he said.
Talking about residential schools has become easier for Esquiro, but he still has lots of unanswered questions, he said.
That includes a desire to see Ottawa’s assimilation policy it used to justify residential schools.
“I haven’t been able to get a hold of that document even though I’ve tried to with access-to-information requests,” he said.
“But they wouldn’t let me near it.”
Now that the issue of residential schools is out in the public, First Nations have to deal with a new kind of stigma, said Esquiro.
“In the past we’ve had to endure being called drunken and lazy,” he said.
“Now the mainstream public looks at us and says, ‘I wonder if they went to these schools.’ We just want to get on with it.
“That’s when I need to remind myself that we need to focus on the survival of our people and not on past wrongdoings.”
Contact Vivian Belik at