O’Brien, a second-generation Indian residential school survivor, spoke at the Yukon regional Truth and Reconciliation event held Jan. 14 to 15 in Whitehorse.
An estimated 500 people attended the event, co-hosted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) and the Council of Yukon First Nations. They included former students and their families, TRC commissioners, federal government officials and representatives of churches (including the Anglican Church of Canada) that operated residential schools. Four of those schools were in the Yukon: Chooutla Indian Residential Schools in Carcross (1911 to 1969); Shingle Point (1929 to 1936); St. Paul’s Hostel in Dawson (1920 to 1952); and St. Agnes Hostel in Whitehorse (1952 to 1966).
Diocese of Yukon bishop Larry Robertson and other local Anglicans attended the event.
O’Brien, whose mother also attended a residential school, spoke about how the tragic legacy of the schools “continues to translate into poverty, substance abuse, high unemployment rate, high suicide rates and incarceration” among Canada’s aboriginal people.
It has resulted in the loss of identity, language and confidence, he added. “It is hard to maintain your identity without a place to belong and to be from. And, to go back to,” he said, his voice quavering with emotion. “To be from somewhere is important.”
Today, however, O’Brien noted that aboriginal people are trying to reclaim their identity and their language, and to “once again become proud people.” He also noted that the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre, where the event was held, was one manifestation of this journey. The centre is built along the banks of the Yukon River, “where historically, our people have lived,” he said.
The TRC event is also an important part in reclaiming “what’s ours, by giving us an opportunity to share the truth [and] in revealing a piece of Canada’s deepest secrets,” said O’Brien.
Created as part of the 2007 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the TRC’s task is to document the 130-year history of residential schools and to educate Canadians about it. From the late 19th century to the mid-20th century, about 150,000 aboriginal children were put into residential schools across Canada. Many were physically, emotionally and sexually abused.
Several survivors shared their experiences in public, among them, 86-year-old Mariah, who spoke about the inter-generational impact of the schools. In her daily walks, Mariah said, “I have tears in my eyes when I see young people and they’re all drinking. They’re not drinking for nothing. They’re drinking because they’re drowning their sorrows.”
The Rev. Martin Carroll, a non-aboriginal priest who has lived in the Yukon for 45 years, gave an emotional testimony of the trauma among survivors that he has personally witnessed. Carroll heard stories of abuse at the schools from aboriginal inmates at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre, where he once served as chaplain, and from native communities in Fort McPherson, N.W.T., where he lived with his wife, Ruth, who herself went to residential school. There was “suicide after suicide,” which he had to deal with since he was then a coroner. It was the suicide of his wife’s nephew that broke him, said Carroll, who later suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome. The experience helped him to relate to the experiences of residential school survivors, he added.
In his closing remarks, TRC chair Justice Murray Sinclair also spoke about the inter-generational effect of the schools. “The children of survivors are also suffering. We will be dealing with this ongoing legacy,” he said, citing how children and grandchildren of survivors are growing up with no sense of culture, language or tribal affiliation.
But this is also the same generation that’s waking up, he said, noting that the Idle No More movement is being led by those who are “standing up and saying, ‘We’re not going to take this anymore…We need to do something to fix this relationship.’ ”
“Whether or not you agree with [Idle No More’s] strategies…it’s a movement that’s not going to go away,” said Sinclair. “The inter-generational population is growing far in excess of the non-aboriginal people in this country and [Canada] will have to come to terms with that.”
[Idle No More is a nationwide aboriginal-led movement, which has been leading a series of protests against the federal omnibus budget Bill C-4. Its members claim the bill violates treaty rights grants the federal government more power and control over reserves and aboriginal resources.]
The regional event also featured private gathering of statements by former students, traditional ceremonies, an education day for local high school students, and cultural performances.
The archives department of General Synod displayed photographs and resources for residential school survivors and their families, and for participating students from Grades 10 to 12. Diocese of Yukon bishop Larry Robertson and other local Anglicans also attended the event.
The Anglican Church of Canada provided $5,000 toward meals for survivors and their families at the event.