'We need to laugh': Former students recall time at Whitehorse residential school

Former students of the Whitehorse Baptist Mission School gathered in Yukon for a reunion, sharing stories, laughter and teaching children about residential school history.

Whitehorse Baptist Mission School was open from 1947 to 1960

Sweeny Scurvey of Carmacks, Yukon, attended the Whitehorse Baptist Mission School for nine years. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Many historic photos of the Whitehorse Baptist Mission School don't have names attached.

But Sweeney Scurvey remembers his classmates.

Upon seeing a Yukon Archives picture from his time there, it took Scurvey barely a moment to remember seven boys' names and write them down in pencil: Frank Billy, Elmer Hall, Sonny Hume, Fred Koowat, Norman Brueren, Jack Kodwat and Fred Smith.

The classmates Sweeney Scurvey can't forget: Frank Billy, Elmer Hall, Sonny Hume, Fred Koowat, Norman Brueren, Jack Kodwat and Fred Smith. (Yukon Archives)
"Looks like they're going to sit down for Christmas dinner," he recalled, looking at the photo. "You had to spend Christmas there." 

Scurvey attended the Baptist residential school which opened in 1947.

Many of the former students gathered in Whitehorse this weekend for a reunion, sharing stories, laughter and teaching children about residential school history.
People shared stories over plates of salmon soup, bannock, chicken and more. (Philippe Morin)

"It's good to see some of the people I went to school with. Just talking," Scurvey said. "We had some discussion late into the night."

Scurvey's memories of the mission school begin at age seven, when we was brought from Carmacks, Yukon, as a child. At the time he only spoke Northern Tutchone.

Scurvey was 16 years old when he was released.

'We're trying to heal'

James Allen of the Champagne Aishihik First Nation encouraged people to speak up at the reunion, telling about their experiences at the residential school.

Allen remembered one Halloween when a few children "jumped the fence" with their pillow cases to go trick-or-treating in Whitehorse.

It's the kind of story that is remembered with a laugh even though it ended with a nasty strapping — and no candy.

During the open mic, some former students spoke of sexual abuse, bullying, isolation and violent physical punishments.
Founded by Rev. Harold I. Lee, the Whitehorse Baptist Mission School opened in 1947 with just 15 students, but grew rapidly that year, upping enrolment to 60. At its peak, there were more than 200 students enrolled. (Yukon Archives)

Allen also spoke of intergenerational effects and how students' families changed.

"The pain a lot of times of being separated from their [parents] kids was too much," Allen said. "And I think that's why a lot of our parents when we came home were alcoholics. They had to turn to something to dull the pain.

"And that alcohol and dysfunction that grew in our community became intergenerational. That's what we're trying to heal from today." 

Comedic relief

Between cultural events like drum making, dancing and storytelling, there was also a comedic performer. 

Sharon Shorty performed as her Yukon character, the kerchief-wearing, cane-waving Gramma Susie, who told a story about a greedy raven eating blueberries. 
Sharon Shorty performs as Gramma Susie, telling the story of how the Raven got his little beady eyes. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

"For sure there's tears, but we need to laugh," she said.

This is the third reunion of its kind.

It was held at a cultural site called Helen's Fish Camp on Ta'an Kwach'an traditional territory near Lake Laberge.