Yukon River Quest team honours children who died at residential school

·3 min read
Alice Frost, front, says that Every Child Matters is a demand for people to see the struggles her people and others have faced for generations.  (Kiyoshi Maguire/CBC - image credit)
Alice Frost, front, says that Every Child Matters is a demand for people to see the struggles her people and others have faced for generations. (Kiyoshi Maguire/CBC - image credit)

Every time Monica Johnson's paddle hits the water of the Yukon River, she thinks about the children who travelled that same route to residential school.

Johnson, who is a member of the Kluane First Nation, is one of four members of the Every Child Matters team taking on this year's Yukon River Quest — a grueling three-day, 700-kilometer journey from Whitehorse to Dawson City, with a handful of breaks. It runs June 22 to 25 this year.

"[Children] were forced to go to these schools at five years old, and my niece is six," Johnson told CBC before a practice last week.

"I could imagine her going to these schools."

'It affects us now'

Pauline Frost, the team's captain and a veteran paddler of the Quest, picks a new cause every year for her team to support. In 2019, Frosts' team raised awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG).

Frost, a former MLA and a Vuntut Gwitchin citizen, said their team goal this year is to show Canadians that the legacy of residential schools is very much alive and all around them.

Anna Desmarais/CBC
Anna Desmarais/CBC

"It didn't just affect the people back then, it affects us now," Frost told CBC. "It's a journey for all Yukoners, for all Canadians.

"It's up to all of us to take action to … acknowledge the wrongs."

A complicated relationship with the river

The Frosts and Johnson had family members who went to residential school.

For Frost, it meant her grandmother and her siblings were taken from their home in Old Crow by boat down the Yukon River and forced to attend the residential school in Carcross, Yukon, at six and seven years old.

They didn't make it home for a decade.

Kiyoshi Maguire/CBC
Kiyoshi Maguire/CBC

Frost imagines what they would have gone through when she's on the water.

"They're fighting upstream … not knowing what's going to happen, or what the future holds," she said.

So I see the [Yukon] river as, you know, good and bad in that sense, because … it's also a segway to healing."

Racing for Indigenous children everywhere

It was important for Pauline Frost to have her daughter Alice on the journey with her.

Alice Frost, 22, said she struggled to find her identity as a young Indigenous woman surrounded by her non-Indigenous peers at her high school in Whitehorse.

Anna Desmarais/CBC
Anna Desmarais/CBC

She's done the Quest in the past, but said this year is different because she's racing "for Indigenous children everywhere."

"Every Child Matters is like a demand for the people to see us," Alice Frost said.

"It felt like nobody acknowledged our struggles before they found the bodies in Kamloops."

Offerings to the ancestors

Team Every Child Matters has been preparing for this race for months, by getting on the water as soon as the river ice melted.

On the day of the race, the Every Child Matters team will make offerings of tobacco to the river, asking the ancestors for good guidance on the journey.

Anna Desmarais/CBC
Anna Desmarais/CBC

They're also bringing a list with them of all the names of their ancestors who are not accounted for or who have not been buried.

Frost said that once this journey on the water is over, the hard work will continue – and until that work is done, she won't be able to rest easy.

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