James Kawchuck shuddered as he leaned forward to the microphone. He was preparing to tell a room full of strangers about being a rape victim.
A group of four men, one of them his brother, kidnapped Kawchuck in Watson Lake.
He’d been on his way home from a movie. It was just before Halloween.
They threw him in a car and put a bag over his head.
They drove him to an isolated shed and tied him to an old bed frame.
“I was hollering and calling for my mother. They told me, you can holler all you want. No one can hear you,” he said.
When the police found him, dropped off by the side of the highway the next morning, he was bleeding from self-inflicted wounds after cutting himself with a broken bottle. He’d done it to hide what had really happened, and said he was hurt falling out of a tree.
“They told me not to take this bag off until I hear this car blow its horn. They told me if I said anything it would be worse the next time. I lied to the teacher, the principal, the RCMP. I got my best friend to lie for me.”
He was six years old.
To this day Kawchuck struggles with addiction and with holding down a steady job. He has tried to kill himself four times. He told his story, through tears, at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in Whitehorse on Monday.
But Kawchuck isn’t eligible for compensation under the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement. He has never been to a residential school – but many in his community have, and they brought the violence back with them, creating a cycle that many First Nation people are still fighting to escape.
“I’m an intergenerational survivor, and we have never been recognized in this whole residential school process. The intergeneration needs to be recognized. It continued at home,” said Kawchuck.
The legacy of this trauma was on painful display at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre in Whitehorse this week. Dozens of First Nation people sat at the microphone over two days of public and private statements and told of how the schools’ abuses continue to affect their lives.
It’s the second time the commission has been to Whitehorse, but commissioner Marie Wilson said they came back because the Council of Yukon First Nations asked them to. The work isn’t finished, she said.
“It’s what Judy Gringell, our last speaker, said and she echoed what a lot of others had said. This is still just a beginning. Though we may be coming to the end of our formal mandate as a commission, the work of reconciliation, not only is it ongoing, but it’s barely just begun. It took 150 years of history for us to get to where we’re going, and it will take more than five years for that to be addressed,” said Wilson.
Outside the Kwanlin Dun centre, Vern Swan tended the sacred fire for two days and two nights. He’s a fire keeper, but his role is about more than keeping the logs burning.
“I look after the fire, but people also come and talk to me about spiritual things, whatever they want to talk about. It helps with healing. It opens up a door for an individual’s fire inside of them, for them to connect with the creator and the ancestors that have passed on,” said Swan.
“Fire is important to all nations, to all people. Not just First Nations, but all people have a connection to fire, and understand its sacredness,” he said. “Tradition is something that’s passed down. You need to know where you’ve come from before you can know where you are going.”
At its heart, keeping the fires of tradition and knowledge burning is what the commission is all about, Wilson said.
“Several references were made to the elders who still carry traditional knowledge, and the importance of getting that captured, of reinvesting in language and culture,” she said. That’s a very strong theme.
The biggest struggle is helping Canadians see past their focus on individuality and recognize the power of communities both to do damage, but also to heal, said Wilson.
“We often say, ‘imagine if it happened to you, and it was your child or your little brother or sister.’ That’s one thing to say, but then imagine if it was also your brother’s children, and all of your neighbours’ children and all down the street, all those children. It isn’t a narrow, contained thing. In Canada we’re so programmed to individuality, individual competitive success, that we forget that part of society that is a communal group.”
But it’s in community where Wilson sees hope. The crowd in Whitehorse appeared to be almost one third non-aboriginal, something she said she hadn’t seen at a commission hearing before.
“I see hope in elements of the Idle No More movement. The voices in that movement, which are not just indigenous voices, they acknowledge that things happened that were not right, and there’s a goodness about many Canadians wanting to do what we need to set things right. Each of the people here today will go home and talk about this with other people, and I see hope with that,” Wilson said.
The commission grew out of the 2006 Indian Residential School Settlement. Residential school survivors sued the Canadian government and churches for running a system of forced assimilation across the country. They won the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history and began the process of reconciling the damage done to indigenous Canadians’ culture and society.
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