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Supporting survivors

Rosie Charlie forgot who her mother was. "When I was three years old, there was a man who came to our house and he had a piece of paper and he gave my mother that paper.

Rosie Charlie forgot who her mother was.

“When I was three years old, there was a man who came to our house and he had a piece of paper and he gave my mother that paper. He just grabbed a hold of my hand and took me away from my mom,” said Charlie, breaking down into tears.

She was taken to residential school. Her mother faced a stint in jail if her daughter didn’t go with the official.

“My mother just sat there and just cried.

“She came to the school one day and I looked at her a long time and I asked her, ‘Who are you?’”

Charlie’s an older woman now and, flanked by support workers, she faced two of the three commissioners from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She spoke slowly and softly.

There were nearly 100 people gathered at the Nakwat’aKu Potlatch House in the Kwanlin Dun Village Thursday.

Some people cried along with Charlie.

Rosie Charlie tells her story.
Terri Brown describes her experience.

Many nodded as she spoke into the microphone. Beyond her frail voice, the room was quiet.

For a while. Then the calm was shattered by a scream from a woman sitting off to the side of the room.

“Everybody,” she said. Charlie stopped talking and turned her head to the disturbance.

“It’s got to stop sometime,” cried the woman. “You guys call me crazy? Who made me crazy? I went to mission school. I got molested. You want to hear my story? I got molested inside out. You want to hear how much I hurt? You going to document our stories? Why? It hurts.”

All around the room, people seemed unsure what to do. Many, including the commissioners, tried to ignore her, forcing themselves to not look at her.

None of the video cameras recording Charlie’s testimony turned to the screaming woman.

Health support workers gathered around her, trying to calm her down and bring her outside.

Still sitting at the microphone, Rosie Charlie’s lower lip quivered.

As the woman cried out louder, Charlie’s eyes pressed closed and she lowered her head, covering her mouth with her hand.

The woman’s outburst disturbed the commission’s controlled and respectful approach to recording residential school survivors’ statements, and it interrupted Charlie’s testimony. But it was as legitimate a statement of the effects of residential school as any.

The system of abducting aboriginal children at a young age and forcing them to attend strict boarding schools to strip them of their aboriginal culture was run by Canadian churches and supported by every Canadian government for more than a century.

Both government and the churches kept records. The commission’s goal is to record the students’ side of the story.

“It is so very important that we leave a record of this for future generations so this can never, ever happen again,” said Chief Brenda Sam of the Ta’an Kwach’an Council.

Whitehorse is the final stop of an 18-community, northern tour. Willy Littlechild and Marie Wilson (two of the three national commissioners), and a team of about seven support workers from Health Canada travelled to Dawson City and Watson Lake before making this last two-day stop in Whitehorse.

“What we are trying to do with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is learn, as best we can, the full truth of what happened in the residential schools, their legacy and impact today, to find good ways to inform all Canadians so that it is understood this is Canada’s history, this is not aboriginal history,” said Wilson, before the commission heard testimony.

Charges of ethnocide, assimilation and abuse were brought to court by a group of Yukoners, known as the trailblazers, in the 1990s.

It led to the biggest class-action lawsuit in Canada, which eventually settled out of court.

The commission, and these community visits to gather and document survivors’ statements, gives the chance for “our day in court,” said Wilson.

But the process is flawed, said Ruth Massie, grand chief of the Council of Yukon First Nations.

While there were about 30 local and professional health support workers at the Whitehorse event (approximately 10 in Dawson and 15 in Watson Lake), Massie is concerned survivors will lose support once the commission leaves.

There are maybe a dozen support workers in the entire territory - mostly survivors from Yukon communities who have taken a quick course from Health Canada. The Committee on Abuse in Residential Schools Society, a Whitehorse drop-in centre for survivors, just secured funding for another year. And nationally, survivors can utilize the crisis-line or put themselves on wait lists for Health Canada professionals.

It’s not enough, said Massie.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established by the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement and was given a five-year mandate and $60 million.

Other than its report, the commission is tasked with holding regional and national events, gathering stories and educating the broader public on the history of residential schools and establishing a research centre to preserve these archives.

The settlement founded two main resources for support to survivors: the Aboriginal Healing Foundation and the Resolution Health Support Program through Health Canada.

Money stopped flowing to the foundation in 2010 and the Health Canada programs are set to expire in 2012.

“A lot of money has been put into the storytelling process, but not in supporting and aftercare,” said Massie. “Some people are feeling like they’ve lost their true identity. Is that going to happen all over again by telling their story? It does help to release your story, but sometimes it opens up the wounds and it’s like they got out of residential school yesterday. How do you support them emotionally to get over that, get past that, and get on with their life?”

Back inside the potlatch house, the woman who screamed was eventually led outside while Charlie exited another door to take a moment for herself.

After about five minutes, Charlie returned to the microphone.

Before she continued telling her own experience in residential school, she expressed concern for the other woman.

Make sure she receives the support she needs, she said.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at