Tears, laughter and smoke

Gerald Isaac was six years old when he was taken from his family in Moosehide and brought to a Whitehorse residential school. "The first thing they did was shave our heads," he said.

Gerald Isaac was six years old when he was taken from his family in Moosehide and brought to a Whitehorse residential school.

“The first thing they did was shave our heads,” he said.

“It was a real shame and degrading to have our heads shaved.”

The grandson of Chief Isaac still remembers his number.

“We all had numbers,” he said.

“I was 41.”

“I was 74,” said Paul Nieman, standing at the sacred fire on Thursday.

Sending bits of ash onto the silent crowd, the fire was part of Moving On, a Kwanlin Dun ceremony surrounding the demolition of Yukon Hall.

The former residential school residence was open from morning through evening so survivors, family and friends could walk through the abandoned building.

“I got my first job here,” said Adeline Webber, standing in Yukon Hall’s empty kitchen.

After seven years at the Whitehorse Baptism Mission School in downtown Whitehorse, Webber married young and ended up back in the residential school, working in the kitchen and laundry.

“Maybe that’s all I knew is institutions,” she said, looking down an empty hallway.

“I felt comfortable.”

Webber was five when she was taken from her home and placed at the mission school.

“Our mother lived right here in Whitehorse and made every effort to see us,” she said.

“She’d come to the school every Wednesday to help with the mending.”

There were fences around the army barracks that served as a school.

“They weren’t high, but we didn’t dare go out,” said Webber.

“The principal was so strict.”

Webber remembers getting the strap.

She’d been playing kick the can with a couple friends and the principal caught them.

“I refused to cry,” she said.

“It was a razor strap.

“I’ll never forget it.”

But Webber also remembers good times.

“Our Christmas concerts were a premier event in Whitehorse,” she said.

“And I made a lot of friendships from there.”

Webber’s sister Winnie Peterson also attended the mission school.

She was there for 13 years.

“They split our family three ways,” said Peterson.

One brother was sent to a school in northern Alberta. Her oldest brother went to the Carcross residential school.

He died there, she said.

“We never knew him.”

Today, if kids have trouble at school or are harassed by bullies, they can go home, said Peterson.

“But we were captive—we had to live there.”

The boys and girls were separated, and were not allowed to talk.

“It was awful,” she said.

Peterson looked into the main meeting room, jammed with people munching bannock, eating moose stew and talking.

There was laughter, tears and some long embraces.

At the mission school, a cafeteria like that with 150 kids in it—“you could hear a pin drop when the principal walked in the door,” she said.

The mission school in downtown Whitehorse was demolished before its survivors had a chance to find closure.

“So it’s good that we can do this kind of closure here,” said Peterson.

“We didn’t get an opportunity to do that at the Whitehorse Baptist Mission School and that would have really helped those who suffered terribly.”

Brown paper bags in Yukon Hall were reserved for tissues used to wipe away tears and memories that were written down.

It would all be burned in the sacred fire.

There were also counsellors available to help people work through their pain.

In the main room, a 61-year-old man fanned an abalone shell full of smouldering sage.

“Where were the media when they took us all away?” he said, referring to the six media outlets attending the event.

Robert, who didn’t want to give his last name, was sent to residential school in Carcross.

“I spent 11 years of my life there,” he said.

“I was only eight years old and didn’t know a word of English—that got me in a lot of trouble from day one on.”

Robert suffered physical abuse.

“Because I didn’t understand what I was being told, they physically showed me what they wanted me to do,” he said.

The experience had “all kinds of effects” on his life.

“It took a lot of hard work to move on—overcoming alcohol, overcoming drugs,” he said.

“Alcohol was a way to block out everything.”

Robert remembers incredible loneliness.

“We weren’t taught how to interact with other people,” he said.

The government tried to kill the Indian in the child, said Council of Yukon First Nations grand chief Andy Carvill standing in front of the sacred fire.

“We have to hold each other up as people and work together in unity—we will overcome.”

Carvill had mixed emotions about the demolition of Yukon Hall.

After serving as a residential school residence, it housed the Council of Yukon First Nation offices for more than a decade.

“I have mixed feelings because great people sat in these halls and helped to restore dignity to us as a people,” he said.

“We’re a strong proud nation,” said Tr’ondek Hwech’in Chief Eddie Taylor. “We always have been and we always will be.”

“We’ve never been knocked down so bad we couldn’t get back up,” said Independent MLA John Edzerza, speaking at the sacred fire.

“But I know many people who didn’t come today because they couldn’t hack it. My wife was in residential school and didn’t see her parents for 13 years.”

“We are survivors,” said Robert, inside the hall. “Now, we could withstand anything.

“They may have taken our language away, but they have not done the First Nation person in.”

At the front of the room, Duane Gastant’ Aucoin was speaking Tlingit.

“It’s a powerful thing to be able to speak our language in a building where they tried to take it away,” said the young Teslin filmmaker to a burst of applause.

Gastant’ Aucoin was screening his film, My Own Private Lower Post—a documentary about his mother’s experience in residential school, and the effects it had on him.

At first his mom did not want to be in the movie.

“I did not want my life to be an open book,” she said, holding hands with Gastant’ Aucoin.

“I did it to help my son.”

Gastant’ Aucoin’s mother didn’t realize how her experiences affected her son’s life.

“I did not know I was passing it on,” she said.

“My mom, my auntie and two of my uncles attended residential school,” said Candice Vance.

The 30-year-old was standing at the back of the room watching Gastant’ Aucoin’s film.

“My mom would get really sad and depressed in the fall,” said Vance.

“That’s when she was taken from her family.”

When she was growing up, Vance’s mom didn’t talk much.

“A lot of people in my family didn’t talk about what happened, because it’s painful,” she said.

But now her mom’s “much more vocal.

“And she’s talking with friends and family.”

Talking about her experiences is what helped Judy Gingell the most.

“If we are always going back and blaming them, we’re allowing them to have power and control—we have to move on,” said the event co-ordinator, taking a quick break in the empty kitchen.

“We all have grandchildren now, and we know what went wrong, so we have to break that cycle so it doesn’t engrave in our children and grandchildren.

“I never want them to go through what I did.”

Contact Genesee Keevil at