Growing up in small-town Northwestern Ontario, Canada's territories seemed almost unreachable.
The Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut were an exotic and otherworldly place, only travelled to by the greatest adventurers. In fact, it seemed like more people ventured to Europe than Canada's North.
For these reasons, I never would have thought I would end up travelling across the Yukon for a month, and falling in love with the beauty, simplicity, and unique characters that thrive among its majestic mountain peaks and boreal forests.
I am a journalism and communications student at Carleton University in Ottawa, going into my fourth and final year. Over my time at Carleton, I've learned how to effectively find and write hard news stories, craft compelling feature stories, and produce radio broadcasts, podcasts, television news broadcasts, and short documentaries.
The topics I've covered range from historic Ottawa apartments to criminal halfway houses and city noise complaints.
Even though these stories have been fun and interesting to write in their own unique ways, I've found that there has been a serious neglect in learning how to cover one of the most important topics in Canada's past and present. Indigenous issues were barely, if ever, touched on in any of my classes.
So when I was informed about a summer course called “Stories North,” in which students could travel to the Yukon and learn about truth and reconciliation, self-governance, and indigenous issues in the isolated territory, I immediately jumped at the chance to broaden the scope of my reporting and learn more about a topic I already was interested in.
My professor's name was Kanina Holmes, an associate professor in the journalism program, who worked in daily journalism for 15 years before becoming an educator. “Stories North” is her passion project, and the vision for the course emerged through Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission's 94 calls to action.
#86 states: “We call upon Canadian journalism programs and media schools to require education for all students on the history of Aboriginal peoples, including the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal-Crown relations.”
Throughout my time in the Yukon, we tried to learn as much as we could about the history of indigenous peoples there and the work they now are doing to heal the deep wounds from residential schools and the so-called “Sixties Scoop,” despite the short amount of time we had there. From June 29-July 29, I travelled to more than half-a-dozen six different towns/communities and crossed through eight First Nations.
A unique thing about the Yukon is that no matter where you are standing in the territory, you are standing in traditional First Nations' land. The territory is home to 14 different First Nations' groups, 11 of which are self-governing. This means they direct most of their affairs and the Indian Act no longer applies to them.
Self-governing First Nations own and manage their own land and they have the ability to tax their citizens within that land. They hold their own elections, and even could build and manage their own school. The powers these First Nations have are similar to provincial/territorial governments.
My 20 classmates and I spent a lot of our time speaking with First Nations' leaders and prominent figures within these communities. We met with chiefs and former chiefs, residential school survivors, and other members of these communities working towards reconciliation in the North.
We visited the site of the old Chooutla residential in Carcross, just south of Whitehorse. We talked with the workers who have spent years excavating and cleansing the site of its traumatic past. We also talked to members of the community who had attended the school or had parents who had attended.
For my final project, I was able to visit a traditional family fish camp and experience what it's like to net salmon. Many First Nations' groups in the Yukon that traditionally have relied on salmon as a staple in their diet are hurting because the numbers of salmon migrating from Alaska are dwindling each year. Over-fishing and climate change are seen as the two main reasons for depletion.
There was only one family in the Kwanlin Dun First Nation netting salmon this past July. I spent an evening with them learning how they are trying to preserve their culture despite the low salmon numbers and decreasing interest in salmon fishing among their community.
Overall, my trip to the Yukon was an eye-opening experience. Not only was I able to learn how to report on indigenous issues and traumatic experiences, but I was able to see a whole other part of Canada that I didn't even realize existed.
The Yukon really is thriving. Despite its horrific past, the First Nations in the area have come so far with reconciliation and are very successful in the work they are doing to rebuild their nations.
It's a blueprint I think the rest of Canada can use to establish much-needed reconciliation throughout the rest of the country.
Editor's note: Kiera Kowalski is a former resident of Devlin and summer reporter for the Times. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org