Chapter 4 – Yukon First Nations’ Relationship with Newcomers

Residential Schools

Residential schools appeared in Canada in the early-nineteenth-century, however, the opening of day and residential schools in Yukon coincided with the federal government’s new interest in the North and the development of infrastructure and resources there. Residential schools were funded by the federal government (because Yukon Indigenous peoples were considered wards of the state, and were governed by the Indian Affairs Branch) and administered and managed by various Christian churches. The government and churches believed that by taking children from their families at an early age and instilling the ways of the dominant society during the children’s eight or nine years of residential schooling far from home, they could create a space “not merely of the training of the mind, but of a weaning from the habits and feelings of their ancestors, and the acquirements of the language, arts and customs of civilized life” (Ryerson 1898:74). Attendance at such schools soon became compulsory.

In total, “there were four residential schools established in the territory and one school in northern British Columbia for Yukon Indigenous students” (Government of Yukon 2011c:1). Over time, some day schools became residential schools and changed their names as well. Later school hostels were introduced.  Anglican Bishops William Bompas and Isaac Stringer established the first residential school in the territory in 1911 at Carcross. Those children living far from Carcross who attended the school were taken away from their families and traditional way of life. The only children who could see their families were those whose communities were located close to the school. Initially called the Chooutla Residential School, and later named the Carcross Indian Residential School, it closed in 1969. Aklavik Anglican Indian Residential School was opened in 1927 at Shingle Point, 80 kilometres east of Herschel Island (Qikiqtaruk). Due to overcrowding, the school was moved to Aklavik in 1934. St. Paul’s Indian Residential School was opened in 1920 in Dawson. In 1943 the school was closed; later it became St. Paul’s School Hostel. Other school hostels included St. Agnes and Coudert Hall, both located in Whitehorse. The Whitehorse Baptist School was established in the 1940s. Many Yukon students attended the Catholic Church–run Lower Post Residential School, which was located across the BC–Yukon border. It was closed down in 1975 (Government of Yukon 2011c:1; see King 1967). Yukon Hall Indian Day School (Anglican) was opened in 1956 and closed in 1965. As well, non-status Indians were sent to Grouard Indian Residential School which was located in Alberta. It was open from 1939 to 1962.

There were many negative impacts to Yukon Indigenous children and whole communities, who attended residential schools. As Ray writes, “In recent years the dark side of the residential-school life has come to light as traumatized former students, and the children of those students, have recounted their experiences and passed on the stories of their parents” (2011c:238). Indigenous languages and customs were often violently suppressed (Helin 2006:97). Vital kinship bonds, such as those between children and their parents, were purposely broken, and “children were often subjected to unspeakable humiliation, and physical and sexual abuse. Children were beaten for speaking their [Indigenous] languages and practicing their traditions” (Helin 2006:97). Children were forced to give up their spiritual practices and to follow the religious teachings of the Christian orders that ran the schools. Children also contracted and sometimes died from Euro-Canadian diseases. Over time, parents became angry that their children were being sent away, only to come home a few years later not knowing their culture or how to survive on the land and help their families. Sometimes children did not return at all (Mission School Syndrome 1988).

Attempts to assimilate Indigenous children through the day and residential school systems were not successful and created social dysfunction within communities. Many Indigenous people never fully let go of their own cultural and spiritual beliefs. Many residential school survivors have come together in recent decades to relearn their cultural histories, languages, and traditions, resulting in a spiritual and cultural resurgence in Yukon Indigenous communities (Mission School Syndrome 1988). In the documentary, Mission School Syndrome, a few participants said that despite their negative experiences, they did feel that there was some benefit to the schools, which allowed them to learn about settler Canadian society (Northern Native Broadcasting 1988a).

To help atone for the trauma inflicted on Indigenous peoples, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was created and funded in 2007 by the federal government (Canada 2010). The Commission was meant to provide “a safe, respectful and culturally appropriate setting where former students could share their personal experiences” (Ray 2011:243; see also Stanton 2011 and Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada 2015). On June 11, 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized on behalf of the government of Canada for the 120 years of abuse towards Canada’s Indigenous peoples (Canada 2008a; see Appendix B for Statement of Apology). Although not everyone was happy with the apology, many felt that it was a first step towards reconciliation and understanding. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission held hearings in Yukon communities during the spring of 2011 and winter of 2013. The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, “Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future,” was released in June 2015.[1] The TRC’s final report summary calls what happened to Indigenous children in Canada cultural genocide and defines it as follows:

Cultural genocide is the destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group. States that engage in cultural genocide set out to destroy the political and social institutions of the targeted group. Land is seized, and populations are forcibly transferred and their movement is restricted. Languages are banned. Spiritual leaders are persecuted, spiritual practices are forbidden, and objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed. And, most significantly to the issue at hand, families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next. In its dealing with Aboriginal people, Canada did all these things [Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada 2015: 1].


  1. For more details on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report, see: http://www.trc.ca.

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ECHO: Ethnographic, Cultural and Historical Overview of Yukon's First Peoples by Victoria Elena Castillo, Christine Schreyer, and Tosh Southwick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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