On the land, and beyond trauma: A Yukon educator's healing journey

In the classrooms where Melanie Bennett first witnessed discrimination as a student, she now sees hope and potential as an educator.

As an educator, Melanie Bennett says she's seen the effects of intergenerational trauma at every school

Melanie Bennett's parents Hilda Titus and Ced Carr in 1963 with baby Carol Carr. (Carol McCourt)

This story is part of CBC North's series Children of Survivors | Impact of residential schools. This week we're highlighting the stories of several children of residential school survivors and the effect intergenerational trauma has had on their lives. 

In the classrooms where Melanie Bennett first witnessed discrimination and racism as a student, she now sees hope and potential as an educator. 

She credits her land-based upbringing for that transformation.

The Tr'ondek Hwech'in First Nation citizen learned at an early age that she was different. 

"My grandmother used to tease me and call me her little green-eyed Indian," Bennett recalls. 

"My brothers and my sister are very dark and brown like my mom."

Bennett straddles a cultural line between her First Nations and non-First Nations background. The family of her mother, Hilda Titus, was strongly rooted in their Han language and culture. Titus was a chief of the Tr'ondek Hwech'in First Nation in Dawson City, Yukon. 

By contrast, Bennett describes her father as "a full blooded Irishman."

Bennett's mother, Hilda Titus, left, signing the Final Land Claims Agreement on behalf of Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, in 1998. (Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Archives)

Siblings treated differently

Bennett was number 10 in a family of 12 children. They attended a public school in Dawson.

Bennett says in the classroom, teachers didn't realize she was First Nations.

"My one brother was in the same grade as me and I remember consciously recognizing that Hugh and my sister were being treated differently than I was because the teacher didn't know that we were siblings."

Bennett's experience as a student has stuck with her through the years, as have some of her experiences inside her home.

"You're not aware of it as a child, but as I've grown I've learned about the impacts of residential school and how that trauma has affected the family network," she said.

"I can just see all of the patterns that had happened, within my own family."

'I've learned about the impacts of residential school and how that trauma has affected the family network,' Bennett said. (Melanie Bennett)

Bennett says her great-grandmother was able to protect some of the children in the family from attending residential school, but she couldn't protect everyone. 

"One of my aunts and three of my uncles wound up going to residential school and it very much affected the whole construct of the family." 

Bennett says she saw troubles with alcohol in the family. 

"I thought that was the norm ... like that was supposed to be how things were."

The impacts of residential school reach beyond the lives of the people who attended them. They are passed on from one generation to the next like an unwanted genetic hand-me-down. Today, that's known as intergenerational trauma.

Land-based learning and healing

Bennett went on to become a teacher and principal and says she has seen the impact of intergenerational trauma in virtually every school and classroom she's ever worked in.

She thinks land-based educational experiences can help other students heal from this, the way those experiences helped her.

Bennett was raised for the first part of her life at the Ogilvie River Lodge, which her family owned during the construction of the Dempster Highway. She says spending time on the land provided the foundation to her education.

Bennett, who made this beadwork in 2017, says learning traditional skills compliments the educational experience of students. (Melanie Bennett)

"My grandmother would come out there and work with my mom doing furs from the trapline," she recalls. 

Setting snares and beading were part of day-to-day life. Bennett says those experiences helped ground her and guide her in many ways.

She was recently asked by a fellow educator how taking kids into the bush can make them successful in life. She recalled an occasion when rabbits were running all around her university campus. Other students were talking about bringing carrots and feeding them. 

Her perspective was different. 

"I know how to skin them. I know how to catch them. I know how to trap them and I know what parts I can eat and what I can do with them when I'm done skinning it and how I can use it to line my moccasins or use it for a pair of mittens."

Bennett says that reflection gave her an epiphany about how those experiences can add to learning that takes place in the classroom. 

Now Bennett, who is on a secondment at the Tr'ondek Hwech'in First Nation from Elijah Smith Elementary School in Whitehorse, says she doesn't hesitate when asked about the benefits of land-based education. 

"That's teaching our kids: you gotta know who you are and where you come from in order to be able to go and spread your wings."

She would like to see a First Nations school established in Yukon, with an emphasis on culture and on-the-land programs. Bennett says there are already 1,800 similar such schools across the country. 

CBC North is hosting a panel discussion on this topic on Nov. 8 in Whitehorse at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre at 7 p.m. It is open to the public and will be streamed live on CBC Yukon's Facebook page.

If you need support, call the Yukon Distress and Support Line at 1-844-533-3030 or the Inuit and First Nations Hope and Wellness Helpline at 1-855-242-3310.