WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
Maria Benoit says she wasn't surprised by the results of this summer's ground search of a former residential school site in her community.
But the Haa Shaa du Hen (chief) of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation in Yukon says it still feels a "little bit different" to know more about the grim legacy of the former Chooutla Indian Residential School.
"People here always knew that there was, you know, remains here somewhere. The spirits did lots of talking in the past, so everybody kind of knew, and now it's confirmed for sure," Benoit said.
On Tuesday, the Yukon Residential School and Missing Children Project presented the results of research work done this summer, both at the former Chooutla school site in Carcross, and in historical archives. The aim was to get a clearer picture of what happened to some Chooutla students who never made it home.
The researchers used ground-penetrating radar and magnetometers to discover 15 "potential" graves at the Chooutla site, while other researchers studied archival documents to count 33 children who died while at Chooutla.
"I guess I wasn't surprised," said Benoit, about the potential grave sites identified.
'The spirits did lots of talking in the past, so everybody kind of knew, and now it's confirmed for sure,' said Maria Benoit, the Haa Shaa du Hen (chief) of Carcross/Tagish First Nation, seen here in 2022. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)
"We just didn't know how many, or where, or any of that kind of information."
Vuntut Gwitchin Chief Pauline Frost said the news this week was "shocking."
"But at the same time, it has been long anticipated because we've heard the stories for decades that children never returned home," Frost said.
She said at least seven children from her own First Nation died while at the school, and possibly more.
"It will take a little bit of time to just sit and absorb the information. And then of course you know, just meet with the family groups and dig a little deeper," Frost said.
"And of course just making sure first and foremost that we support everyone."
Frost said there are counsellors in her community this week, and there was also a sacred fire lit in Old Crow.
Frost said the ground search results, though difficult, have also offered a "sense of relief."
Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation Chief Pauline Frost, seen here being sworn in in January, said it will take time to 'just sit and absorb' the news about the Chooutla search. (Vuntut Gwitchin Government)
"We now have some identified locations and we can start pinpointing, you know, the missing children," she said.
"I certainly cried. I cried for the young children. I cried for the children that never made it home. I cried because it was a relief to finally share with the rest of Yukon, share with the world, that the dark history is finally coming to light."
Kwanlin Dün First Nation Chief Sean Smith said it was also important to look beyond the pain and trauma, and find ways for citizens to feel supported and connected.
He encouraged people to speak with elders and practice traditional ceremony and prayer.
"It's also remembering what we can do as people, how we bring that power back to us as people — bring back those things that make us good people, right? Because those are cultural ways of knowing and understanding," he said.
"[There are] many different pieces that we can bring into this modern time … to empower ourselves and to empower others."
Barb Joe, chief of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, said her own community is also grieving two citizens who died recently. She knew news about the Chooutla search was coming, so the First Nation ensured there were counselling supports available.
"It's hard to prepare because it triggers myself, and it triggers a bigger community of our citizens who are either intergenerational survivors, or survivors," Joe said.
Joe's father attended Chooutla, and her mother went to day school in Dawson City.
"I was thinking about that on Tuesday, going back to those stories and thinking about the pain, the pain in the family, the pain in the other families and thinking back to the kids that never made it home," she said.
"We know these kids were probably put in the ground without ceremony. In our culture, the funeral... there's a process we have to go through. And those poor babies, children, youth never had that. So what do we do? So we need to think about that side of things."
'Just the opening'
Frost and Benoit are also thinking about what comes next. There are plans to search other sites in the Yukon, but no timeline as yet.
There is also the question of further research at the Chooutla site. The ground search identified 15 "potential" grave sites, but the researchers said it would require more "invasive" work to confirm the presence of human remains — for example, by excavating the site and taking DNA samples from the soil. They said doing that work would be a decision for the community to make.
The Chooutla Indian Residential school in Carcross, c.1967. The school was in operation between 1911 and 1969. (Yukon Archives)
Benoit said the results presented this week are "just the opening," but she said it's not up to her to say what happens next.
"It's the 14 First Nation communities. They have to come together and decide what they want to do. It's not C/TFN, it's not our issue to deal with," she said.
The C/TFN is, however, now closing off parts of the Chooutla site to keep people away. Benoit said it's a sacred site now.
For Frost, the work done this summer at Chooutla "validates" the stories that have been shared over the years, and also opens the door to a new era.
"It puts facts to the stories. And now we can, you know, truly close off that era of our history and start looking towards a brighter future," she said.
"We can now start putting some closure to the long-awaited ceremonies that we've intended and we want to have for our missing family members and their missing children."
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at www.hopeforwellness.ca.