The following story contains details of treatment at residential schools which some readers may find distressing.
“I was wary of coming,” said Lower Post residential school survivor Kooxuhan Georgina Sydney.
Sydney, of the Yanyedi clan in Teslin Tlingit, spent two years at the Lower Post residential school.
“I was taken when I was seven years old and then at nine, my dad said he wasn’t sending me back,” said Sydney.
It was because of her younger brother that she didn’t have to return to the school.
“I said, ‘Thank God for little brothers because they wouldn’t take my brother when he was six,” said Sydney. “My dad told me, ‘We’ll send you to public school, you have to look after your little brother,’ and that’s how I got out of there.”
Her time at the school
Although Sydney only spent two years at the Lower Post residential school, she said the trauma lasted most of her life.
“The damage was done already,” said Sydney. “I looked at my granddaughter when she was seven and it was really difficult for me. I looked at her and thought ‘Oh, that’s the age I was in when I was taken.’”
Over the years, Sydney said she doesn’t remember everything about her experience at the school, but she does remember some.
“A lot of it was blacked out,” said Sydney. “Some memory I do have. I remember at night there was a lot of activity. I was lucky that I was young and I wasn’t bothered by supervisors. Thank God for that.
“I remember a lot of tears, kids crying, girls crying. The nuns, I remember them being really mean.”
Sydney said her dad wanted them to go to school and get an education. But, at Lower Post, she didn’t learn a thing.
“They didn’t teach us anything at school,” said Sydney. “That’s why my dad let me go, he believed in education, he knew we had to get educated, he knew that.
“They never taught us anything. When we wrote a letter home, they wrote a letter on the blackboard and we had to copy it. We sent it home, how everything was so great.”
At home, Sydney said she was surrounded by lots of love. At the school, she lived in a soulless building.
“I was the firstborn child,” said Sydney. “When I was growing up I had three mothers. I had my own mum, my grandma and my great aunt. I called mum and all three of them would look at me. That’s how I grew up.
“Then I get sent here. I remember walking into the school, it was at night when we got here. I just looked at this big building and it felt like there was no life, just nothing there. (I remember) how sad I felt, how scared I was, sleeping in this room with all these little girls that I didn’t know. I was scared.
“The whole time it was like that. I remember the older girls trying to get away but they’d find them, they couldn’t get away. It was so horrible. That’s what I remember about Lower Post. It was just a sad time.”
Beginning the healing journey
June 30 wasn’t the first time Sydney returned to Lower Post. In 2012, the Kaska Dena, Tahltan and Taku River Tlingit nations came together to stand strong in support of one another and create a healing space.
“I came when they had the first gathering and I started my healing after that,” said Sydney. “That’s when I came in touch with my pain. I thought healing, ‘I don’t need that, I’m OK’, but I didn’t realize the hurt I was feeling. I just kept stuffing it, stuffing it, stuffing it.”
She also began working with First Nations healers who helped her realize the pain she was carrying.
“When I came in touch with my pain I felt my spirit was going to leave my body and I got scared because I was crying so hard from my feelings right there,” said Sydney gesturing to her lower stomach.
“I kept crying and I couldn’t stop and when I came home, it reminded me when I came home I had nightmares. It was something like a flying saucer and it kept spinning. The fear I had was it would spin so much I’d fall off.”
Sydney said she kept crying and trying to calm herself but couldn’t.
“Finally, I smudged,” she said. “After I smudged the spiritual healer told me I had to go back and I said no.”
But she did go back and felt the pain leave her.
“Finally, I felt it move from my stomach to my chest, to my throat and out the top of my head,” said Sydney. “I carried that all my life.”
Returning for the demolition
While looking at the former residential school she had to attend for two years, Sydney picked up a rock, and hurled it at the building.
“What I wanted to do, when I came here, I wanted to rip one wall down myself,” she said. “That’s why I was disappointed they had a machine to do it. But they do have blocks of wood from the school to put in the fire.”
It is still a time of hurt, said Sydney, but she believes First Nations will continue to get stronger.
“There is still a lot of healing that we have to do,” said Sydney. “Our people are hurting so bad. We lost so many young people. And we still are. But we have to keep going, we have to.
“Slowly we are getting our lives back together as a people.”
They didn’t win
The elders, Sydney said, have been helpful in keeping the teachings.
“They didn’t win,” said Sydney. “I know, and I feel powerful because they didn’t do it. Here we are, still very resilient people, but you know, it was the elders that did that. My elders and all our elders kept our history in their heads and in their hearts and when the time came, it came out again.
“The laws were passed in this country to outlaw the dancing and the singing — they saw it, it’s part of us, part of our power and they tried to take it away, but the elders kept it.
“I think, we are going to carry on. We are going to keep going and it’s going to get stronger. The young ones coming behind, they are coming up with all of the teachings.”
As much as the churches and the government tried to strip First Nations of their culture, languages and beliefs they couldn’t.
“They didn’t win,” said Sydney, reiterating the message. “We still wear our regalia, we sing our songs, we pray in our own language and we are getting reconnected to the land. That’s what kept us strong all our lives.”
They didn’t win.
Read related coverage of the residential school demolition.
The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering with trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.
Contact John Tonin at email@example.com