Working group established for Chooutla Residential School

·5 min read

The Chooutla residential school is a dark part of Yukon’s history. The recently established Chooutla Working Group is reaching out to First Nations and others who have history, stories, information and photos that will shed light onto those who didn’t return from residential schools in the Yukon.

“Chooutla had students from all communities,” said Adeline Webber, chair of the working group.

Children from across the Yukon attended the school which once stood in Carcross. They came from Vuntut Gwitchin in the very north in Old Crow, to children of Ross River, Kwanlin Dün, Ta’an Kwäch’än, Tagish Kwan, Tlingit from the west, and more.

Students came from the N.W.T. and British Columbia as well.

“We need to connect with First Nations from every corner,” Webber said.

Amongst older Yukon First Nations people alive today, if they or a member of their family didn’t go to Chooutla, they likely had a sibling or a cousin who did.

The plan

Earlier this year, Carcross/Tagish First Nation (C/TFN) asked for other Yukon First Nations to join with them in mapping out the work and methods needed to formally research circumstances surrounding the school. They reached out for knowledge keepers to help direct ceremonial protocols.

The plan was communicated to First Nation leadership. The news release says that “our Chiefs are united with the hopes that all Yukon First Nations will join the Chooutla Working Group soon.”

Webber and co-chair, Judy Gingell, are joined by members of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation and representatives from Kwanlin Dün, Champagne Aishihik, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, Little Salmon Carmacks, and Na-cho Nyak Dun.

The workplan is ready to go. It will focus on the school in Carcross for the first two years, then they will move to other locations in Yukon. There were several other residential schools in Yukon operating at different times by different groups, but not all of them formally received federal funding.

The working group is asking people to share stories and photos about missing loved ones who attended Chooutla and any other residential schools in the Yukon. They are going to all lengths to acknowledge the truth of its impacts on people to this day.

“We need to make sure that we get as much information as possible while people are still around to tell us stories,” Webber said. “You know, in some cases, people have passed on, but then they’ve told the stories to their children.”

The residential school system shattered families

Webber, like most First Nations people her age, was personally affected by residential schools. She comes from a large family and different siblings were sent to different schools, including a brother who attended in Alberta.

“Not even the same religion,” she said.

When her brother returned from Alberta after 15 years, he didn’t recognize his mother. When another brother turned five, he was sent to the Chooutla school, where he died tragically.

“He was just five or six. We would like to know if there’s a record of his burial place, or that he’s even in the church records,” she said.

Connected history

The Chooutla Residential School in Carcross was operated by the Anglican Church from 1911 to 1969. It burned down once, and was re-built larger to accommodate over-crowding in other schools. Its reputation for abuse and mistreatment was widely known, even in the 1940’s.

Whitehorse poet, Sweeny Scurvey, now about 78, recalled his father knowing how bad the Chooutla school actually was.

“Dad heard about Carcross, lots of deaths, so he kept us away from there. When someone came to take us to Whitehorse [Indian Mission School], he okayed it,” Scurvey said.

Scurvey’s story is told in Finding our Faces, a book on the Whitehorse Indian Mission School which was run by the Baptist Church. Adeline Webber and the Whitehorse Aboriginal Women’s Circle undertook that project to identify children from photographs that had been taken over the course of that Whitehorse school’s existence. The project spanned years of talking to people, pointing at photographs, squinting and telling stories. Laughter and tears helped in people’s healing.

Webber was integral to that process. With her multitude of connections, she is bringing her heart and mind to the Chooutla project with a clear understanding of what may lie ahead.

Collective healing

This is not the first project that the Carcross/Tagish First Nation has undertaken as part of the healing process on the Chooutla site. Many ceremonies and prayers have taken place.

The main school building at Chooutla was demolished in the mid-1980s. For many years the metal and debris collected on the ground as a harsh reminder. Between 2016 and 2019 the federal government worked with the Carcross Tagish Management Corporation to rehabilitate the site in a good way. They were careful and respectful throughout.

In July 2019, Yukon Anglican Bishop Larry Robertson read an apology for the spiritual harm his church had inflicted on Indigenous people, delivering the message on the old grounds of the residential school to gathered survivors.

Much remains to be done. Healing from the residential school experience at Chooutla and other schools is not be easy. The work and processes of this new Chooutla Working Group will pull together testimonials and stories to collect and preserve memories of the lost children.

Lawrie Crawford, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Yukon News

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