Saturday, June 20, 2009

Truth and reconciliation: Inuit in the cold

Canada's very own Truth and Reconciliation Commission, appointed by the federal government to look into the treatment of aboriginal children in residential schools, is finally up, if not running: it is expected to report in 2014. Yes, you read that right.

The TRC got off to a shaky start last year, with all three appointees eventually resigning. A new panel is now in place: Manitoba Judge Murray Sinclair (Mi-zhana-Gheezhik), who will chair the Commission, Wilton Littlechild, the Alberta regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations, and Marie Wilson, currently vice-president of operations for the Workers' Safety and Compensation Commission of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. Her spouse is Stephen Kakfwi, a residential school survivor and former Premier of the Northwest Territories.

There is no Inuk on the Commission. Yet the Inuit's terrible experiences in residential schools easily rival those of the First Nations. Their distinct circumstances, language and culture have not been taken into consideration by the government.

The Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) asked earlier this month for the establishment of an Inuit sub-group within the Commission. But Peter Taqtu Irniq, a former Commissioner of Nunavut and one of the founders of the territory, goes further.

As a child, Irniq lived in Turquetil Hall, the children's residence of the infamous Sir Joseph Bernier School in Chesterfield Inlet, run by Oblates and Grey Nuns. Physical and sexual abuse were rife at the school. Irniq doesn't mince words, and I hope readers will forgive me for quoting so many of them here, but they deserve wide circulation:


Our language, beliefs, and ways of living – of relating to and teaching our children, our food habits, our system of naming our children, our relationship with land and animals, and our bodies – were assaulted by a government determined to make us ‘ordinary Canadian citizens’.

What is the use of telling our residential school experiences to the three Truth and Reconciliation Commissioners who know nothing about our past, as Inuit, who know nothing about our culture, who don’t speak or understand our language? The experience of all Aboriginal people in Canada is unique. Our experience is no exception. Imagine our parents, losing their children to government and church-run residential schools, being forced to move from their camps where they knew how to live and survive to shacks and wooden houses in settlements run by the RCMP and government officials, being sent south for the treatment of TB, in some cases never to see their loved ones and their land again, in some cases having to work underground in mines and in factors, railroads and offices in a strange land called southern Canada. And all of this change taking place between 1950 and 1965, in a world that was supposed to have learned so much from the suffering of people colonized all over the world.

We deserve to be heard. We cannot just take what is offered to us! Our residential school and life experiences are as unique as any other. The failure to appoint an Inuk Commissioner to the Federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a national disgrace.

You could see it coming. We were ignored right from the beginning. We had to scramble to get a list together of not only the large residential schools some of us attended, but the small, one and two room matchbox-style homes used as residences in some settlements. No one setting up the Commission had ever heard of these experiences. Look at the wording. On the website of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the mandate of the Commission is described like this: “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission aims to provide those affected by the legacy of Indian Residential Schools with an opportunity to share their individual experiences in a safe and culturally appropriate forum”.

We Inuit are not Indians. There is nothing safe or culturally appropriate for Inuit about the forum the federal government has created to hear our residential school experience.

Inuit, Indians and Metis are recognized in this country as three distinct groups of Aboriginal people. The Government of Canada should have made sure that all three were represented on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. There is no excuse for this. If the appointments were made in the Prime Minister’s Office – which is highly likely then our Prime Minister is badly informed about the status and diversity of Aboriginal cultures and experiences in this country.

And there is little excuse for this oversight. During the spring of 2008, I, along with Tom Sammurtok, Frank Tester, a professor at UBC, Survivors including Marius Tungilik, Jack Anawak and Paul Quassa, lobbied hard with the Prime Minister of Canada, the Minister of Indian Affairs, and Mary Simon, President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, for an Inuk to be named as one of three Commissioners. Our efforts clearly fell on deaf ears.

It is time to act. We Inuit should have our own Truth and Reconciliation Commission, following the example of Qikiqtani Inuit Association, who established a Truth Commission, headed by Jim Igloliorte, a respected Inuk judge from Nunatsiavut (Labrador), to look at the experience of Inuit in the Qikiqtani region dealing with the difficult times Qikiqtanimiut experienced in the 1950’s, ‘60’s and 70’s.

Irniq makes a strong point. Harper's snub to the Inuit was unconscionable. The TRC claims to be looking at the experiences of First Nations, Inuit and Metis, but its full name, as set out on its website, is the "Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission," and it's hard to avoid the impression that the Inuit are a bit of an afterthought, "Inuktituk [sic] translation" notwithstanding.

If the current make-up of the Commission is anything to go by, and I think it is, then an Inuit TRC needs to be established. Given the iffy record of the Harper government on Aboriginal issues, however, this may have to await an election--another good reason to call one. You listening, Iggy?

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