Finding a Path Forward

Finding a Path Forward

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The Champagne and Aishihik First Nations find ways to heal from residential school experiences

A Summer 2015 Yukon Prospector Web Extra


You should know the first part of this story by now. Around 1860, the Canadian government began a process of forcefully assimilating aboriginal people into Christian/Euro-Canadian culture.

  The horrors of this program are well documented through the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We have learned of the rampant sexual and physical abuse, malnutrition, and other sinister acts of indoctrination.

  In the Yukon, residential school assimilation didn’t become prevalent until around 1942. The completion of the Alaska Highway changed everything, providing easier access to remote communities.

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  There were many actions alongside the organization of residential schools that degraded the culture of Yukon First Nations. In the Kluane region, First Nations members were prohibited from hunting in the area and it was made a wildlife refuge. Potlatches were outlawed, meaning ceremonies honouring the dead were held hurriedly in the woods instead of over the course of a few days.

  By the 1960s, the first generation of Yukon residential school children were having babies of their own. However, the population was in tatters. Families struggled to deal with the trauma of the residential school experience. 

  They had no culture they could call their own. Those who returned to their communities after residential school didn’t eat the same food, wear the same aclothes, or speak the same language. Charles Brasfield, writing in the BC Medical Journal, coined the term “residential-school syndrome” to explain the post-traumatic-stress-like symptoms. He writes that many survivors turned to drinking, drugs and other negative outlets as a result of their experience.

  When social workers began visiting aboriginal communities, they cited substance abuse and other negative issues as vindication for placing children in foster care. It is believed there was also a significant lack in cultural understanding. From the 1960s to the 1970s, about 1/3 of all children in care were aboriginal. Seventy per cent went to non-aboriginal homes. This period has been dubbed the Sixties Scoop.

  John Fingland, a historian and heritage interpreter at the Dä Kų Cultural Centre in Haines Junction, is a product of the Sixties Scoop. But more importantly, John is an integral part of the healing process taking place in communities like Haines Junction. He’s helping to write the second half of the story. The one were communities like his find a way to heal.

  John, by his own account, was one of the lucky ones. A member of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, he was adopted by a family in Ottawa, Ont., and grew up in the suburbs. He says he had a “relatively pleasant” upbringing. He got what he wanted for Christmas and travelled with his family at a young age. His father, Frank Fingland, was a notable politician with both the federal and Yukon governments. John had privileges many of his cohorts did not.

  He moved to Whitehorse during high school, when his father got a job as deputy minister of finance with the Yukon government. However, the move had a rough impact on John. He says the culture in Whitehorse at the time was just to drink and party, and not worry about school. When John took this same routine to Carleton University, in Ottawa, he soon dropped out.

It wasn’t until years later, during a second attempt at higher learning, that John found his way back to his people and culture.

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  “I was in my third year of university, and they told me that I no longer applied to the federal government for funding, but Haines 
Junction. [Because Champagne and Aishihik settled their land claim]. So I did that, and I popped up on their radar,” he says.

  A woman from the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations heritage office called John and asked if he’d like to come work for his First Nation. John was happy to oblige. He worked there during the summers until graduating from the University of Ottawa, in 1999, with a bachelor degree in history. John has continued working on and off in the Haines Junction area ever since. 

  “I still like to get out in the world and have little adventures, but certainly the fun jobs are here,” he says.

  At the Dä Kų Cultural Centre, John guides people through the history of the region. He says his upbringing outside of his birth-culture gives him a perspective on things many others don’t have.

  “Most of the people that are raised here, they’re sort of jaded about the history. They just see it all the time; it’s stuff they do every day. They don’t think of it as particularly fascinating—like spending a month picking blueberries with their grandmother as a child—but I do,” he says. “I’m from here, I’m of here, but I’m still seeing it as an outsider, so everything fascinates me.”

  It’s a good way for an interpreter to be. At Dä Kų he can speak at length about the migration patterns, traditional medicine making, hunting techniques, and diverse cultural traditions of his First Nation. John sees this as an important part of restoring a culture that was strategically degraded for over a century.

  “When I showed up here in 1997, you could just look around and say, ‘It’s obvious what the problem is. It’s alcohol and drugs and self-loathing and not having hope,’” John says, “but you can’t just turn that around. “

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  “It’s getting better generationally,” he says. Champagne and Aishinik First Nations has established their own government, there are more opportunities for youth through the region’s Yukon College campus, and Haines Junction now has its own cultural centre.

  Freddy Stick wasn’t as lucky as John. He is from the same area, but spent much of his youth in and out of foster care. He did what he had to do to survive when he was younger, even if that meant taking part in things he’d rather not talk about.

  As he got older, Freddy went about collecting various certificates and diplomas from schools. 

  “But I never stuck with [school]. As soon as I got the recognition, I didn’t want it anymore,” he says.

  It was a chance meeting in a bar that eventually set him on his life-path. Freddy was lamenting the death of one of his friends when a man from the Sundog Carving studio approached him. Sundog Carving is now known as Northern Cultural Expression Society, an organization that helps at-risk youth find positive, creative outlets. For Freddy, the experience was a revelation.  

  “All through the years I’ve had this voice in my head saying ‘create,’” Freddy explains. Carving quieted that voice. And for a while it became “carve or starve” he says.

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  Now he works as the Dä Kų Cultural Centre’s artist-in-residence. He’ll talk for hours to anyone interested about carving, drum-making, and his wealth of experiences. You can tell Freddy loves his craft from the way he beams when showing it off. His work is beautiful and strong. 

  Freddy and John are just two examples of how Dä Kų has become an epicentre for cultural healing. Both men take pride in the work they’re doing, and they’re good at it.  

  Dä Kų has also started hosting major gatherings. The first was held in June 2015. It was called Da Ku Nan Ts'étthèt (Our House is Waking up the Land) and featured dancing, singing, beading workshops, carving workshops (led by Freddy), and a whole cadre of information sharing.

  It’s all another part of the healing process. John says efforts like this show First Nations people that it’s essential to celebrate and embrace their culture; that the banging of the drums and the moose hide clothing are things all people want to enjoy.

  “When you have buildings like this you say, ‘This is for me; this is of my culture; this is something where we’re all succeeding,’” John explains, “and it’s something that people are stopping and looking at in awe and reverence. It has a huge impact on the lives of people here.”

Photos: (from top) John Fingland, "The Thinker" a statue in Whitehorse, a painting by Freddy you can buy at Da Ku, Freddy Stick holding up a picture of his carving, and a paddle by Freddy.


Photos and Story by 

Jonathan Duncan 

prospector@harperstreetpublishing.com

Edited by 

Tara McCarthy

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