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Carcross/Tagish First Nation ponders what to do with residential school site

It was a school reunion in Carcross this week — but not the celebratory kind. 

Gathering this week drew former Chooutla school students to Carcross to remember painful history

The Chooutla school site is on the shore of Nares Lake at the base of Nares Mountain, a short distance from Carcross's main town site. The building was demolished in the 1990s. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

It was a school reunion — but not the celebratory kind. 

Students who attended Chooutla Indian Residential School in Carcross, Yukon, were invited back to the community this week to talk about what should be done with the site. 

This week's gathering was organized by the Carcross/Tagish First Nation and the Carcross Tagish Management Corporation. They're looking for input and stories from former students.

The former school site is on the shore of Nares Lake at the base of Nares Mountain, a short distance from the main town site.

The Anglican church operated the Chooutla school from 1911 to 1969. After it closed, the building remained in place for many years before the First Nation helped demolish it in 1993.

The Anglican church operated the Chooutla school from 1911 to 1969. (Yukon Archives)

Today all that remains on the site is a concrete remnant of the school — left to remind people were the residential school once was.

"What I'm hoping is we get closure to our mission school, because we got the bad name of the Yukon, because of that mission school there," said former student Johnny Johns Jr. His father and grandfather were also Chooutla students.

"People degrade us even for living in a place like this. And it's the most beautiful spot in the Yukon," said Johns. He spent nine years of his childhood at the Chooutla school.

He remembers always being hungry because the residential school staff never gave the children enough food. Many former students at the school suffered malnutrition.

"We were prisoners, now we are not. I mean, I have been in a few jails all over western Canada because I drank — because of that place over there," he said, gesturing toward the school site.

"And I have never been in a worse jail than that one, ever in my life. In jail, at least they feed you at night."

'I have never been in a worse jail than that one, ever in my life. In jail, at least they feed you at night,' said former student Johnny Johns Jr. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

Johns says he wants to see "closure."

"It was a horrible place. I mean, the worst things that could happen, happened to us in those there mission schools," he said.

'They just scooped us up'

James Allen, a Chooutla student from 1954 to 1960, recalls how he ended up at the school years ago. He was camping with his family on the Haines Road.

"The truck that picked up school kids came by, and it was just a truck with the frame on the back, open, and they were picking up kids with it," Allen said.

"So we were playing beside the road, and they just scooped us up — right in front of my mom and dad, they couldn't say anything. My mom and dad were, you know, probably devastated."

'So we were playing beside the road, and they just scooped us up — right in front of my mom and dad,' recalls former Chooutla student James Allen. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

He says the residential schools took away his parents' purpose in life.

Like Johns, he also remembers being hungry at school. 

"Each plate that you had was already dished out, so you couldn't give yourself a big heaping helping," he recalled. "Some of us were still hungry, so we would make snares and we would catch rabbits and stuff."

He says this week's meeting was to gather ideas about what to do with the site. 

"People bring up their history, of what the school was like and how it affected their lives. You know, there is some positive stories, some fun stories, but a lot of it is negative," he said. 

James Allen says he'd like to see a cultural memorial built at the site. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

"Myself, the way I have dealt with it is, I can't do anything with what happened yesterday but I can do something with what happens today — and maybe guide my life to things that might happen tomorrow."

Allen says he'd like to see a cultural memorial built at the site with the names of former students on a plaque.

He says it was difficult at the gathering this week, but he wants future generations to remember the past.