About a hundred Yukoners gathered in the lobby of the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre on Tuesday morning to witness live footage of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s closing events in Ottawa.
The Whitehorse event, which had been planned to fill a small space behind the main desk, spilled out to fill the whole reception area as more and more people arrived and more television sets were turned on.
Some members of the audience wept as video clips played of residential school survivors telling their stories.
The stories did not focus on the well-documented horrors that aboriginal children faced in residential schools, but on survival and hope.
“My happiness is my revenge,” said one survivor, eliciting cheers and applause from the Whitehorse audience.
“Our spirit cannot be broken,” was the recurring message of testimony heard by the commission, said commissioner Chief Wilton Littlechild, who is also a residential school survivor.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has released a nearly-400 page summary of its final report, in addition to 200 pages on the principles of reconciliation, 260 pages summarizing the testimony of survivors, and 94 recommendations for action targeted at governments, churches, schools, museums, businesses and other organizations.
The commission calls residential schools a central element of a policy of cultural genocide against aboriginal people.
“States that engage in cultural genocide set out to destroy the political and social institutions of the targeted group,” according to the report’s introduction.
“Land is seized, and populations are forcibly transferred and their movement is restricted. Languages are banned. Spiritual leaders are persecuted, spiritual practices are forbidden, and objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed.
“And, most significantly to the issue at hand, families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next.
“In its dealing with aboriginal people, Canada did all these things.”
The idea of cultural genocide does not imply absence of violence and physical death.
Indeed, children in residential school were two to five times as likely to die compared with the school-aged general population between the 1920s and early 1950s, the commission found.
There were 3,201 reported deaths (named and unnamed) of children while attending residential school.
The commission documented poor nutrition, poor health conditions and extensive physical and sexual abuse across the residential school system.
Children were forced to leave their parents and punished for speaking their language and practising their traditions.
“So many of the speakers that we saw on the screen were older, but this happened to children,” said Rod Snow at the closing of the Whitehorse event. He helped organize the ceremony on behalf of the Whitehorse United Church.
“Think of our children, if someone from another population had come … and taken them away.”
Champagne and Aishihik First Nations elder and residential school survivor Chuck Hume spoke of his wide-open view of the world as a young child, and how the school system narrowed that vision.
“Now we have to work with our grandchildren and help them lift that burden and carry on their lives, not like we did,” he said.
Sylvester Jack, a member of the Taku River Tlingit First Nation, said in an interview that he came to the event because it’s important for Canadians to recognize what happened to First Nation people here.
“It’s important to acknowledge things,” he said. “It’s important to recognize the things that you’ve done wrong in the past, if you ever expect to correct your ways for the future.”
But more importantly, the government must fix its attitudes and policies that continue to contribute to poor outcomes for aboriginal people, said Jack.
“If you really want true forgiveness, just don’t do that anymore. Don’t go there anymore. And it’s still happening today. Our people in the welfare system, our people in jails – all because of some of the things that were formed, the attitudes and the ways of life that were formed in First Nation people as a result of the residential school system.
“We’ve got to realize that none of us are going anywhere, we’ve got to work together. The only way through our past is together.”
Many of the commission’s recommendations call on action from the provincial and territorial governments in areas including health, education, child welfare and the legal system.
Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski declined to make a specific commitment to implement the recommendations, but said that the government will go through the report and work with First Nations to address the call to action.
He also declined to use the term “cultural genocide” to describe residential school policy.
“I’ve heard people describe it as such, but for me … my answer is that if that was in fact what was consciously what the goal was, you know, it didn’t work. And that’s what I’m excited about. Especially here in this territory, we live in a territory with rich and diverse cultural diversity with First Nations but also with other groups.”
He’s proud of his government’s work towards reconciliation to date, but there’s more work to be done, he said.
“It’s an ugly part of our past, but hiding it is not the right solution.”
Yukon MP Ryan Leef said he hopes to see the federal government quickly review the report and begin to address the recommendations.
“It’s the quick political easy thing to do to say, ‘yes, we’ll act on all these immediately,’ but from a point of responsible governance and a point of responsible response to this kind of thing, time and diligence is absolutely required. But at the same time, the clock is ticking.”
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau issued a statement yesterday announcing his party’s “unwavering support” of the report recommendations, and called on the government of Canada to implement them immediately.
The report and recommendations can be accessed at www.trc.ca.
Yukon residential school survivors can get information about accessing counselling and other support services by calling 1-800-464-8106.
For immediate emotional support, a national crisis line for survivors can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.
Contact Jacqueline Ronson at