By Cassidy Bronson
The Whitehorse Star
The Yukon Residential Schools Missing Children Working Group (formerly known as the Choutla Residential School Project) has announced a name change and an expansion to the project.
“We are here today to announce that our project is growing beyond the grounds of the Chooutla residential school and the Carcross/Tagish First Nation territory, although Chooutla remains a primary focus for this year,” Adeline Webber, the chair of the Yukon Residential Schools Missing Children Working Group, told a news conference Friday afternoon in Whitehorse.
Webber, along with her siblings and family members, all attended residential schools.
“The need we see has been high, and we want to be able to bring our work to the other communities who are missing children,” she said.
The new name of the project was created to reflect its expansion to other communities in the Yukon.
There were four residential schools in the Yukon: Chooutla, Whitehorse Baptist, Aklavik and St. Paul’s School.
Lower Post was also a residential school various Yukon First Nation children attended, but it was just over the Yukon-B.C. border near Watson Lake, and was torn down in 2021.
This summer, the working group’s primary focus is to use ground-penetrating radar on the grounds of the Chooutla Residential School in Carcross.
“We’re concentrating on Carcross right now, because that’s the area, the school that we have the most information on at the moment,” said Webber.
Chooutla was the first residential school built in the territory, opening in 1911 and closing in 1969. The school was run by the Anglican Church.
It was torn down in 1993. Other buildings on the site – a garage, storage buildings – were removed in 2017.
Webber said research done by the the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had originally identified 20 student deaths at the school.
However, with preliminary research, they have identified an additional 22 student deaths, making the estimated total of deaths 42.
Webber’s older brother is among the 42 child deaths.
A member of the Teslin Tlingit Council, Webber and her three sisters attended the mission school in Whitehorse.
Webber attended the school for eight years, from 1952 to 1960.
Her oldest brother, who she never met, died at the age of five before she was born while he was attending Chooutla.
Another brother was sent to a residential school in Alberta as a child and did not return until he was 16.
“In one of my first meetings, I was given a list of students,” Webber said. “And I went through that, and there was my brother’s name.
“That was the first time I knew when he died.”
Webber said she was shocked and surprised that one of her brothers had died at Chooutla.
Among her family members and siblings, she said, they attended four residential schools.
In B.C., at the Kamloops Indian residential school, as many as 215 remains of missing children were found using ground-penetrating radar in July 2021.
After that, Weber said, the Carcross/Tagish First Nation reached out to other Yukon First Nations to seek a united approach in addressing the Chooutla Residential school, as well as the other schools within the Yukon.
Then the Chooutla Residential School Working Group was formed, and 10 First Nations in the Yukon have appointed members to the group.
The working group is seeking appointments from other First Nations such as those from northern B.C. and the Inuvialuit region as well to continue their investigation for answers in different areas affected.
On their search for answers, the Residential Schools Missing Children Working Group is mandated to research archives and historical records of missing First Nations children from Yukon residential schools.
Part of the research includes interviewing survivors and their families for knowledge of missing children, and knowledge of possible burial grounds.
Documentation and records of events from the past are severely lacking.
And when there is documentation, crucial identifying factors such as where the children came, and which community they were a part of, are missing.
As the investigation proceeds this year, Webber believes the number of missing children will rise.
Ground-penetrating radar is an important part in the search for the remains of missing children.
Geoscience is the company assisting the working group to identify possible burial grounds around the school area.
“There’s certain areas we will be searching. We’ve been talking about possible locations that a burial might take place,” said Webber.
Burials wouldn’t be in rocky areas, she added.
After the investigation concludes at Chooutla, the working group plans to move its search into Whitehorse, and then into other areas of the territory.
“Whitehorse has several locations where there was either residential school or residents where students attended,” Webber noted.
Aside from the research done by the working group, they are looking for community members to join and assist in interviewing.
“We are also seeking assistance. We will be hosting a training session for anyone interested in becoming interviewers for the project, whether in their own community or to be part of our team,” said Weber.
“The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation will assist us with this statement gathering training. So if anyone is interested in this teaching, please, please contact us.”
When the investigation is finished, Webber believes the answers will help to bring some closure to people in the community.