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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The new Yukon Liberal caucus poses for a photo during the swearing-in ceremony held on May 3. (Yukon Government/Submitted)
Liberal cabinet sworn in at legislature before house resumes on May 11

Newly elected MLA Jeremy Harper has been nominated as speaker.


Wyatt’s World for May 5, 2021.… Continue reading

Crystal Schick/Yukon News Premier Sandy Silver, left, and Yukon’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley speak at a COVID-19 update press conference in Whitehorse on Nov. 19. They formally announced that as of Nov. 20, anyone entering the territory (including Yukoners returning home) would be required to self-isolate with the exception of critical service workers, those exercising treaty rights and those living in B.C. border towns
Vaccinated people won’t have to self-isolate in the Yukon after May 25

Restaurants and bars will also be able to return to full capacity at the end of the month.

An RV pulls into Wolf Creek Campground to enjoy the first weekend of camping season on April 30, 2021. John Tonin/Yukon News
Opening weekend of Yukon campgrounds a ‘definite success’

The territorial campgrounds opened on April 30. Wolf Creek was the busiest park seeing 95 per cent of sites filled.

The site of the Old Crow solar project photographed on Feb. 20. The Vuntut Gwitchin solar project was planned for completion last summer, but delays related to the COVID-19 pandemic pushed it back. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Old Crow is switching to solar

The first phase of the community’s solar array is already generating power.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
One new case of COVID-19 in the Yukon

Case number 82 is the territory’s only active case

Flood and fire risk and potential were discussed April 29. Yukoners were told to be prepared in the event of either a flood or a fire. Submitted Photo/B.C. Wildfire Service
Yukoners told to be prepared for floods and wildland fire season

Floods and fire personelle spoke to the current risks of both weather events in the coming months.

From left to right, Pascale Marceau and Eva Capozzola departed for Kluane National Park on April 12. The duo is the first all-woman expedition to summit Mt. Lucania. (Michael Schmidt/Icefield Discovery)
First all-woman team summits Mt. Lucania

“You have gifted us with a magical journey that we will forever treasure.”

Whitehorse City Hall (Yukon News file)
City news, briefly

Whitehorse goings-on for the week of April 26

The Yukon Department of Education in Whitehorse on Dec. 22, 2020. The department has announced new dates for the 2021/2022 school year. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News file)
Yukon school dates set for 2021/22

The schedule shows classes starting on Aug. 23, 2021 for all Whitehorse schools and in some communities.

Letters to the editor.
Today’s mailbox: rent caps and vaccines

To Sandy Silver and Kate White Once again Kate White and her… Continue reading

Most Read