Updated: Apr 7
By Katherine LeBlanc
In 1999 Eileen Vance-Duchesne published an article about Kate Carmack’s untold story in a publication entitled Our Home. Having listened to Elders explain that the true discoverer of the gold, catalyzing the Klondike gold rush, was in fact Kate Carmack and not her husband George Carmack, Eileen decided this story needed to be told. “It really tore at my heart, for a woman that was on the same journey as them, that struggled the same struggles as them , for her to not get her appropriate recognition.”
When I sat down with Eileen this past month it became clear to me she has a passion for raising attention to the stories of people who are typically swept under the rug. But this hardworking woman isn’t just talking about stories from the past, she’s breathing new life into them and carrying forward stories that are happening right now while working as Executive Assistant to Chief Doris Bill.
The Journal Our Home was created by Eileen and 2 friends after Dannzha (or the Yukon Indian news) had to close their doors. Eileen worked for the Yukon Indian news right out of college where she started out as the office manager and worked her way up to executive director in two years. She ran the organization for 9 years until the funding was cut. Just as she is seeing in Shākāt today, staff had bonded, they worked long hours, stuck together and they didn’t want to close. This is why the revitalization of the Shākāt Journal (the Dannzha’s summer edition) is so dear to her heart.
“That is one of the publications that I lead and to see the young people pick that up and carry it forward and make it their own, it took me to a time in my history that I thought was completely over. It tore my heart when I had to walk away from that project but to see it being picked up and held up by the youth now, my heart was so full. You guys took me to a new place.”
Yukon Indian news was also where Eileen first heard of residential schools. When she was growing up her father kept her separate from the community. “I never understood why”, she says. It wasn’t until she found a tape by Northern Native Broadcasting, Mission School Syndrome, that she even knew it had happened, let alone to her father. “I was quite touched by it,” she says, “did this really happen?” She got a copy of the video and took it home. When her dad came to visit she asked if he would mind watching it with her.
“You could tell he was quite somber about the whole thing, he was holding himself in. And then when the video was over I had to ask him, straight up, ‘did this happen to you?’ And that’s when I found out my dad was a residential school survivor. I had no idea. It gave us a better understanding of why some of the things that happened in our family did. We weren’t as close as we could have been but then my dad didn’t know how to parent either. He tried his best and he tried his best to keep us away from the communities for fear that we may go through a similar situation.”
Through co-workers and friends Eileen was exposed to what was happening in the communities. There was some “bad treatment of first nations people,” she says. “They weren’t included, it was all about getting them away and condemning them from what was theirs.” Shortly after she recalls beginning to see a movement towards reconciliation. The 94 Calls to Action laid out by Justice Sinclair marked a turning point for these efforts. Most importantly though, Eileen says reconciliation is being and must continue to be lead by our young people. Speaking specifically about Shākāt, Eileen says, “Every project that I’ve seen you do so far is reconciliation. It’s all inclusive. It doesn’t matter where you come from, you want to learn from each other.” And this is why she is pouring into the youth.
“Times have changed,” she says, “if anybody is going to make a difference it’s going to be the young people.” When the Kwanlin Dun youth advisory committee to council expressed interest in a round table Eileen wasn’t surprised at this point when it grew into a full blown town hall. To see elected officials come to the table with youth. To see young people raise their voice now, share their concerns and define their own futures is exactly the kind of thing she has worked so many years to foster.
“I think it’s very important as adults that we don’t impose our views and judgments on you because they’re ours and it comes from our own baggage. You don’t need to be carrying that for us. I strongly encourage you to do your own thing, create your own opinions about stuff. You weren’t born to pass judgment on people, you’ve learned that. I just want to inspire the young people to think for themselves in a positive way, communicating your opinion positively. I think you guys are leading the way. “
Eileen has gone through her fair share of trials and perhaps it’s partly because of the women that came along and held her up during these times that inspires her to empower and turn up the volume on the unheard stories in the Yukon.
After the disappointment of the Dannzha shut down, Eileen really found herself wondering what she was going to do next. “Fortunately for me I applied for a job in Ottawa with Audrey McGlaughlin. She had her faith in me and took me to Ottawa.” In listing women that have inspired her, Eileen is sure to include Audrey “for believing in me. She taught me a lot. I probably taught her a few things too.” Eileen is a northern woman and while she welcomed the experience, she needed to come home. Following this, in the late 90’s, she ended up at Kwanlin Dun in the area of land claims. She assisted many negotiations and did a lot of communications work. “They didn’t really have a job for me, but they had multiple things on my desk that I was doing.” Eventually she began working directly with the Chiefs. Five, in total.
Then came some personal trials. Eileen lost her mother and her relationship fell apart. She left for 8 years and when she returned she struggled to find meaningful work. Austring Fendrick & Fairman hired her, believed in her and built up her strength. “I will admit I was broken at the time. I give them big credit for having faith in me.” At this point she was invited back to Kwanlin Dun First Nation under Chief Doris Bill, her long time friend and source of inspiration. “I’m just glad to be there, holding her up now because as a friend for over 25 years she has held me up.”
In this first term with Chief Bill, Eileen was assigned to the Vulnerable People at Risk Initiative. This is a comprehensive plan to end homelessness through the combined efforts of all four governments and 57 organizations with the Safe at Home Initiative. She’s still not happy about where we are with vulnerable people, specifically hard-to-house homeless and she continues to carry it forward. Eileen’s passion for this demographic cannot go unnoticed. In talking about Chief Bill losing her 2 brothers to the streets Eileen says,
“I want to make her proud. I guess I can be a bit of a bull dog when it comes to this file. We are starting to see some movement… actually I hope that the youth will become engaged in this conversation because I see it happening to our young people as well and that’s very troubling. None of our people should be homeless and especially our young people.”
This file hit home for Eileen, too. She has been through her fair share of abuse as a woman and had to completely rebuild her life. “Sitting in those discussions you realize at one point you were homeless yourself.” She attended numerous meetings over 8 months with community partners and while she is very grateful for the support they gave her and the education, it was emotional and triggering.
“I think I had a hard time admitting that in the beginning because it’s true, you don’t want to admit to people that you’re broken. I feel better in saying that now, that I was and taking ownership of that but I also give recognition to the people around me that held me up. We all need that and people like Doris Bill and the youth even here today.”
Eileen is careful to outline her many role models. Her mother, Pat Joe, Audrey McGlaughlin, Judy Gingell, Betsy Jackson and Doris Bill. Her courage in telling her story in full, picking herself up and humbly acknowledging the women that helped her do so is yet another example of Eileen’s determination to bring meaningful change through sharing. When Eileen speaks of the mural of Kate Carmack done by the youth here in Whitehorse it appears that her efforts have come full circle with one of these stories that she holds so dear.
“When I saw the mural going up on the chamber of mines wall, next door to Skookum Jim , I thought there was no place more perfect than that wall. I just felt that the youth were taking that story to a new level that I had not been able to get and I just felt like at that point you guys were holding me up.”