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Opening doors on dark times
Truth and Reconciliation Commission coming to Fort Providence

Herb Mathisen
Northern News Services
Published Thursday, April 21, 2011

DEH GAH GOT'IE KOE/FORT PROVIDENCE - The Deh Gah Elementary and Secondary school will open its doors to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission next week in the hopes of encouraging residential school survivors to open the doors to their past.

The hearings will be held at the school from 10 a.m. until 10:30 p.m. on April 26 and then from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. on April 27. The event spans over two days to give the community some flexibility with the schedule, "given the historical significance of the location," said Jennifer Poitras, Northern tour co-ordinator with the TRC.

Chief Joachim Bonnetrouge of the Deh Gah Go'tie Koe First Nation attended the Sacred Heart Mission School in Fort Providence.

"For me, it's really significant that they come to Providence. I always claimed that there were four main scenes of the crime," he said, listing schools in Fort Chipewyan, Fort Resolution, Fort Providence and Aklavik.

The stories documented at the TRC hearings will help serve as a historical record of the residential school era in Canada and the North. Many former students suffered physical, psychological and, in some cases, sexual abuse while attending residential schools.

Bonnetrouge said the commission's visit gives former students an opportunity to describe what life was like for them in the schools.

"The visit should open up a lot of stuff that we still need to take care of in our own personal lives, in our families and our communities especially," he said.

A group of caregivers from the community were in Yellowknife for a two-day workshop in advance of the event.

"A lot of our local caregivers are here to help us prepare the community so that they can share as part of the truth-telling. People need to be encouraged and supported to tell their story," Bonnetrouge said from Yellowknife.

The workshop will also let caregivers know what to expect after the commission leaves the community.

"We want to make sure that at least we have the local support system after those people are gone," he said.

Poitras recognized the need for continued support, since former students are often talking about their traumatic experiences for the first time at the hearings.

"It's like a hangover," she said. "They open up some of the stuff that they have never talked about, in many cases, to anyone. Once they open it up and start talking about it, it is very hard to shut it down."

Poitras said health support workers tell former students they may feel a mix of emotions in the days after speaking about their experiences.

"Initially, you hear about people feeling lighter. They have taken off this load that they were carrying and they feel so glad to get it out. (However,) you could feel any variety of things like regret for having said some stuff or shame or worry that people are going to know (what you said,)" she said.

The commission puts former students in touch with health professionals after the hearings.

"It is just a very beginning. It's like opening a door that has been locked for a long time and it is very important that they do follow-up."

She said the local support system is often the most important.

"It's elders and other survivors that people turn to because there is that shared history," she said.

Dorothy Minoza, the band's language co-ordinator, is helping co-ordinate community events with the commission.

She said a fire feeding is planned, along with a commemoration of former students who have died.

"They are going to walk over to the cemetery to do prayers also," she said.

A community feast and drum dance will close the event.

The commission tries to end its visit with an uplifting event. Poitras said. In Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, the community held a square dance.

"It is really important that people leave feeling good," she said.

Due to the timing of the event, many former students of the Sacred Heart Mission School may not be able to attend the hearings in Fort Providence with the ice crossing over the Mackenzie River closed.

Residential school survivors from Kakisa, Hay River and Fort Simpson can still attend the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's stop in Fort Resolution on April 28.

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