Skip to main content

Gathering Around the Fire, Speech – A Survivor’s Perspective

WRITTEN: August 10, 2012 - AUTHOR:

Dave Porter

Daylu (Lower Post), British Columbia

Date: August 10, 2012


I am Dave Porter from the Kaska Nation and I am a survivor.

Elders, Chiefs, fellow survivors, my sisters and brothers, young people and special guests, I want to welcome you to our Dena Kayeh and to this amazing Gathering.

As I was travelling home, I was remembering another great gathering which the Kaska hosted here in Daylu in 1997.

It brought together 32 northern First Nations for 3 days to discuss the issues we were facing and how we could work together.

It was an historic meeting. And it took place here at the confluence of two great rivers.

It was here where our ancestors gathered when their families came in from our lands and our highways, the Dease, the Highland and the Liard, to visit, to trade, to tell their stories of the winter and to share information about was what was happening on the land.

But I was remembering that in 1997 some of my friends, our friends, had difficulty driving in to our community when they arrived to take part in the Northern Gathering.

Why? Because at the end of the road stood a building which housed the worst of their memories, the worst of their fears.

As you all know, it stands just over there… the Lower Post residential school was established in 1941 and closed in 1975. It was run by the Catholic church… the Oblates of Mary Immaculate and Sisters of St. Ann and for most of us, the children of the Kaska, Treaty 8, Tlingit and Tahltan Nations, was a place of terror, lasting bad dreams and painful memories.

The heavy weight for us who live here is that we have never been able to tear it down because to do so would have cost money we never had. We have been forced to use the old classroom block as our band office through all these years.

Yet, I want you to look around you, this amazing land that, in spite of the history of that building which sits on it, has sustained us, taught us and given us strength.

That’s what they didn’t know. They thought they could lock us away, change us and change who we were forever. But many decades later we gather here again in this special place to remember, to find strength and healing from each other, to honour our ancestors, our lands and waters and celebrate who we are.

The Past

I was born here in Daylu and I have the honour of having entered this world with the assistance of Auntie Mida’s strong hands.

My family moved to the bush shortly thereafter and I spent my early years living with my family in the mountains, learning to hunt, fish and speak my language. I remember those happy times and…

I remember the day the bus driver came with the black robed priest to take me away. I was six.

This is my story but I know it is also yours. It is our story. These special four days, this Gathering is an opportunity to finally understand we were not alone in our suffering, although it seemed so and we are not alone now in remembering, in our struggle to heal, and in our collective effort to build a brighter future from the ashes of the past.

It leaves one incredulous to know that it was this country’s government policy to build these institutions that ripped us from us our families, ended our childhood and shattered our lives.

The world as we had known it turned upside down. The love of our families became a distant memory and we became strangers in our own home.

We were told that the culture we had come from, the spirituality we had been taught by our Grandfathers and the languages we knew and spoke were nothing less than the work of the devil. We were told the only true God was the one they believed in and worshipped. And when they declared the father, son and Holy Ghost were all around us we were afraid.

And as they assaulted us, physically psychologically and sexually in the most cruel and inhuman ways they told us… Jesus loved us.

As children we cried for our families and walked in the deepest, darkest valleys of human despair.

We experienced atrocities and human degradation designed to break our spirits, and destroy the Indian within us.

In our confusion and isolation we forgot how to love and relate and we were cruel to each other. We were treated as less than human and we learned less than human behavior towards each other.

Institutions taught us… institutions that did not love or nurture and when we became mothers and fathers we had no understanding of our responsibilities nor did we have the tools to teach our own children.

We have the right to grieve and when we don’t our souls die a little bit every day.

We are survivors, we will always be survivors but we will not and cannot always be victims. The simple fact is that we are still here.

But for many it was too much.

We must honour and pay tribute to our loved ones who are not here, who didn’t make it… who died as children from broken hearts, neglect and disease and as adults from the awful shame of those experiences finding the rope, a fast vehicle, the shotgun, drugs and alcohol to end their pain.

I am a survivor and it breaks my heart to say it but in many ways so are my children but I will be damned if my grandchildren will call themselves survivors.

We must learn to forgive.

We must learn to forgive… forgive the Sisters, the Brothers, the Priests, the supervisors, the administrators, the caretakers… those that hurt us and stole our childhood. But the most important people we have to forgive are ourselves.

Desmond Tutu, a great leader from South Africa said, “Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are… True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth… It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing.”

My own journey to this moment has been painfully slow but because of this place, this place where we are gathered every fibre of my being knows who I am, knows I am Kaska Dena. Every part of me knows I am of this land.

And yes, more and more every part of me knows love and my responsibilities to my family, my friends, to the Kaska Nation and my fellow First Nation members.

The Present

A Tlingit Leader once told me that I, like all of you here, had been carrying a very heavy pack. He said that as the years pass the pack would get heavier and heavier until you fall to your knees under its great weight so it was time to put the pack down and leave it behind.

Tomorrow when I walk through the red willow circle with all of you and watch as it is sent down the river that maybe after all this time that pack will finally drop from my back.

I would like to thank Chief Jack Caesar and the Elders for the powerful cleansing ceremony.

And the cleansing of these grounds here in this community is going to help to make Daylu whole again. No longer should any survivor be afraid to visit this place.

During these days of the Gathering our objective has to be to drive all the evil spirits from these grounds and to ask the Creator for help to drive all the pain and suffering away from our hearts.

We must thank those who had the courage to step forward and speak out… the trail blazers of our healing, people such as Jack Caesar and Peter Stone… to name just two of many.

We must honour our parents and grandparents who with great courage carried the embers of our cultures and languages with them and thank them for passing on their knowledge to us.

Today, tomorrow and for the days to follow:

  • Let us begin the work to end our suffering
  • Let us end the hurt
  • Let us stop hurting each other
  • Let us refuse to be victims any longer
  • Let us hate no more
  • Let us forgive
  • Let us love humanity once more
  • Let us reunite our families, rebuild our communities, and strengthen our Nations
  • We are survivors

Nelson Mandela, the great South African warrior and global elder told us, “There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires.”

He also shared this, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness behind, I’d still be in prison.”

Let us mark this Gathering Around the Fire as the real beginning of our walk to freedom.

During this Gathering I encourage all of you, my friends, to share your survivor stories, your memories, your pain, your anger and frustrations. I also encourage you to rediscover through our unity here the joy of our ceremonies, the pride of our ways and the rediscovery of friendships, love and new strength.

I want to listen and as I listen I want to also hear about your visions and dreams for the future and most important your thoughts and ideas of how we work together to make those dreams and visions a reality.

To get to this moment we need to look around us and understand we have indeed come a long way in spite of our shared history at residential school. We still have our drums, our songs and our ceremonies.

Together and in unity we can continue our healing, make our voices stronger and our drums louder.

I am reminded of a moment I experienced not long ago in Victoria when our Kaska Leaders gathered at the legislature to sign an important agreement with the Government of BC. Our Kaska drummers filled the building with a powerful sound. Politicians and tourists alike made their way to listen and to witness. My wonderful young granddaughter Umate, so proud, so full of self-confidence, walked up to Minister Polak to introduce herself as Kaska Dena.

And so this Gathering is about our past, our grim and ugly times as children, our fears, hurt and pain as adults.

Our generation has endured unbearable hardship together… we were beaten, we were sexually abused… we were deprived of our languages and cultures and survived a systemic attempt by the Canadian state to totally assimilate us. Residential schools were institutions of genocide.

Our communities, our families and our neighbours have lived through times of racism, prejudice, crushing poverty, and massive social problems.

We have lived through a time of Oka, Gustafson Lake and Wounded Knee.

We have witnessed blockades, litigation, turmoil and confrontation.

And we have survived.

Here in the present, we gather to help each other and to build our strength together, to reinforce our courage to lighten our packs, to tell our stories and to remember so we can forgive, reconcile, move forward and ensure those times will never happen again.

And we learn by being together and sharing that there is much more that we have in common than divides us.

We live in the Boreal Forest. The Boreal is our collective home. It shelters us, grows medicine, and provides materials for our homes. It has an abundance of clean water so great as to be called the Blue Forest, one of the greatest sources of fresh water in the world.

It shelters the greatest diversity of wildlife in North America and in great numbers. The Stone sheep are not found anywhere else on the planet.

And these lands are blessed with world-class deposits of minerals and other resources.

And so to the future

The Future

As Kaska, Tahltan, Tlingit, Tannana, Tutchone, Gwichin, and Treaty 8, we must move forward together in unity and strength, walk the old trails of our ancestors through these lands and rededicate ourselves to protect the land, the animals and the waters of our Territories.

We must continue the fight to be at the table to ensure joint decision-making and joint planning over our lands.

We must continue the fight to be at the table to negotiate resource revenue sharing and ensure sustainable development that we can participate in as real partners, and from which our communities and Nations can benefit and truly prosper.

We must join together to develop common policies on mining, oil and gas, forestry, fisheries, water, land, and conservation and we must anchor these policies in intertribal Treaties.

We must strive to reconstruct the foundations of our governments and create common institutions that would give expression to asserting our rights and exercising our inherent right to be self-governing.

We must build new relationships with public governments and industry based on respect for our rights and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

We must work together to ensure that we are able to build an economic future working with governments to protect our lands and industry to develop our resources but only with our free, prior and informed consent, and negotiated Impact Benefit Agreements, training and profit sharing and profit sharing arrangements.

We must work together to develop a northern boreal caribou recovery plan so we can continue to harvest live beside and harvest these animals that have sustained us through the ages.

We must join our voices with that of the National Chief in calling for a national inquiry for the murdered and missing aboriginal women and girls… 600 Sisters, Mothers, Grandmothers, Aunties and Cousins of our communities.

And we must continue the fight to eradicate poverty, improve the education of our children and ensure the health of our communities.

We are small Nations with huge responsibilities and together we must raise our voices, stand up with and for each other, and be rid of those artificial barriers and boundaries that divide us.

We understand we live in a Global community and in a world of constantly changing technology. Our parents went from snowshoes to satellites; we have gone from the CBC to the Internet, Facebook and Twitter.

We must embrace the way our children have taken to the new highways of learning and as we celebrate and sing our old songs we must listen for their new songs and respect the new ways to make a living.

Our strength will come from our unity.

It’s a tall order but my greatest wish is that we leave this Gathering united in our determination to move forward together, to reconcile with our families, with ourselves and with our Nations. This is the moment when we can all take that step secure in the knowledge that we have each other.

My friends, thank you for being here, for listening to me. I look forward to visiting with you all and singing and dancing together in honour of being survivors of our shared past and towards a bright future.


PO Box 9, Lower Post, BC V0C 1W0
Phone: 250.779.3181 | Fax: 250.779.3020