Chooutla School survivors Jean Desmarais, from left, Jim Smarch Jr., Patrick James, Harold Gatensby, Phillip Gatensby, Eileen Wally and Bessie Jim, standing in front of a healing canoe on the old Chooutla site in Carcross July 20 as Yukon Bishop Larry Robertson, in the front right of the frame, delivers an apology for the spiritual harm the Anglican church has inflicted on Indigenous people. (Jackie Hong/Yukon News)

UPDATED: Yukon’s Anglican bishop delivers apology on site of former Carcross residential school

Bishop Larry Robertson read the apology during a canoe stretching ceremony on July 20.

CARCROSS

It was a day full of emotions, ceremony, tradition — but most importantly, said many attendees, healing.

Facing seven survivors of Carcross’s former Chooutla School and surrounded by about two dozen other witnesses, Yukon Anglican Bishop Larry Robertson read an apology July 20 for the spiritual harm the church had inflicted on Indigenous people, delivering the message on the old grounds of the residential school.

“I confess our sin in acts such as smothering the smudges, forbidding the pipes, stopping the drums, hiding the masks, destroying the totem poles, silencing the songs, stilling the dances, and banning the potlatches,” Robertson said, reading from “An Apology for Spiritual Harm,” issued by the Anglican Church of Canada’s primate Fred Hiltz earlier this month.

“With deep remorse, I acknowledge the intergenerational spiritual harm caused by our actions … For such shameful behaviours, I am very sorry. We were so full of our own self-importance. We followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We were ignorant. We were insensitive. We offended you. We offended the Creator.”

Some in attendance wiped away silent tears as Robertson spoke.

Addressing the crowd immediately before the apology, Chooutla School survivor Harold Gatensby described the day as “monumental” and “a giant step to help us clean up this mess that was left behind.”

“It’s been our heart’s desire for many generations that we can take another look at what happened at this place, at this site, and we’re going to deal with it,” he said.

“… A lot of people have tried to come up with a right solution, but I think today is the right one, by us joining together. Our ancestors are here with us now, the ones that suffered in this school, they’re here now, they’re happy, they’re overjoyed with what we’re doing here today.”

The informally-arranged apology happened a few hours into another event taking place on the land – the stretching of a healing canoe, which Alaskan Tlingit master carver Wayne Price, with the assistance of local apprentice Violet Gatensby, had been working on in Carcross for 63 days.

Following traditional practices, which Price said had nearly been lost due to the impacts of colonialism, the cedar dugout canoe was placed in a nearby lake overnight. It was then brought to the old Chooutla grounds at 6 a.m., where it hull was filled partway with water from a local creek.

Volcanic stones collected from the Teslin area were heated in two nearby bonfires, put on racks and then placed into the canoe, which was covered with a large red tarp. The rocks caused the water to boil, creating steam that made the wood more malleable.

Price placed gradually longer sticks into the opening, with the goal of stretching it from 35 inches to 53 inches as well as to raise the stern and bow.

The rocks in the canoe were swapped out for freshly-heated ones about every 15 minutes or so, with Price indicating it was time for a switch by shouting, “Hoo-Haa,” a call echoed by everyone within earshot.

Four flags, each representing a quarter of the medicine wheel, were hung in the bush surrounding the site.

Chooutla School survivor Eileen Wally, whose Tlingit name is Daagaa, told the News that being present on the land and participating in what was happening was “very, very healing” for her on what’s been a “long, hard journey.”

“To me, (the apology) meant a lot, because I believe that our ancestors are here and I believe that my mom and my cousins and stuff that are no longer with us were able to hear that,” she said.

Wally’s mother and several of her other relatives also attended residential school, and while her children didn’t, she said they still suffered the impacts via the loss of culture, language and history. However, she said she believes “the grandchildren that are going to come and the grandchildren that are here … they don’t have to pack this stuff anymore.”

The day and its healing was particularly meaningful, Wally said, because everything – the canoe, the invitation for the bishop to attend, setting up the apology – came not from an outside group or government, but “from the Tlingit people of this land.”

“I have forgiven,” she added.

Harold, approached by the News again following the apology, said he was still processing the moment, but repeated that it was a “big day.”

He stared at the nearby bonfires he was helping to tend, where rocks were heating and people were throwing handfuls of wooden chips created as the canoe was carved from a cedar trunk. Each chip, Harold explained, represented a person lost to residential schools, drugs and alcohol.

Thick plumes of smoke erupted from the bonfires as the flames licked and then engulfed the chips, enveloping the site and drifting out towards the lake and mountains.

The wildfire haze blanketing the Carcross area had lifted just days before, but Harold said he didn’t mind that the air was once again thick.

“It’s okay,” he said, “it’s good smoke. It’ll smudge the whole valley.”

Contact Jackie Hong at jackie.hong@yukon-news.com

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