Ottawa Inuit pour their hearts out at TRC event
“It’s not something that should be covered up any more”
Christopher Herodier Snowboy was only four years old when he was taken from his home in Chisasibi, Quebec and sent to St. Phillip’s Residential School in nearby Fort George.
On the first day, the Inuk-Cree boy had his pants hauled down and he was strapped on his behind for speaking his native language. On the second day, it was far worse.
“That man, he fondled me. And then he hurt me down there,” Snowboy said, pausing to stare at the ceiling, take a few breaths and wipe away tears. “When I cried, he told me to stop. He said I was a big boy.”
Snowboy was one of 16 brave souls to sit at a microphone Aug. 16 in front of more than 100 people — most of them strangers, many of them weeping themselves — to describe how residential schools traumatized their childhood and continue to poison attempts at normal, healthy adulthood.
Others who spoke publicly included Simeonie Kunnuk, Simona Arnatsiaq and Violet Ford.
The disclosures were made possible by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Inuit sub-commission which wanted to ensure urban Inuit, many of whom live in Ottawa, are given a chance to be heard.
Seven people made statements in private, said sub-commission co-director Robert Watt.
“I was really surprised to see so many people there,” said Watt, “and not just Inuit but non-aboriginal observers. I think a lot of them were civil servants who came from departments who work on Inuit-related issues.”
Jack Anawak, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. vice-president and veteran Inuit leader, attended the hearing with his 15-year-old son, Lee Wah-Shee-Anawak.
The elder Anawak said he’d already made a statement during TRC hearings in Iqaluit but decided to speak again in Ottawa.
“It wasn’t until I was 42 that I realized I had been sexually abused,” Anawak said candidly, during a break in the hearings.
Anawak, along with many of today’s Nunavut leaders, attended the Sir Joseph Bernier Residential School in Chesterfield Inlet, a notoriously abusive institution run by the Oblate priests and Grey Nuns.
Anawak said he planned to inject a little comic relief when it was his turn at the microphone by describing how, when he was a child, he wanted to be a fireman even though he lived in a land of igloos.
“I also want to inject some hope,” he said. “Today, we can have our own government after less than 50 years in politics. It shows the resiliency and adaptability of Inuit. So none of us should be despairing of our situation but instead, we should work on getting ourselves into jobs and careers and getting out from under the inferiority complex we have suffered during this process of forced assimilation.”
Wah-Shee-Anawak said he was proud of his dad.
“I’ve heard some of his stories before. I’m just here to support him,” said the mop-top teen clad in a Billabong shirt. “I think it’s good to get these stories out there. It’s not something that should be covered up any more. We need to know what happened there.”
Anawak admits he’s taken a few wrong turns along the road to healing.
In an attempt to remedy that, he will spend the next two months at Bellwood Health Services Addiction Treatment Centre in Toronto to address a lifelong struggle against many corrosive demons.
The residential program involves 45 days of alcohol rehabilitation and then two weeks of trauma counselling.
“To be honest, I’m nervous of what I might find out in trauma counselling, but better to find out then to keep that screw loose inside me. I want to tighten up that screw—with a pneumatic drill,” he said, smiling.
“I’ve spent about 30 years trying to help people. It’s time to help myself. Too many of us involved in social issues forget that you have to look after number one if you want to help others.”
Reepa Evic-Carleton, program coordinator for the Mamisarvik Healing Centre for Inuit in Ottawa, chaired the TRC hearings.
When asked how she thought the proceedings went, she used the word “wonderful,” which seemed at odds with the day’s sombre, agonizing tone. She explained.
“It’s good when people start to open up. It’s the beginning of a journey that they’re already on. It’s good to be listened to. It’s good to be heard,” she said.
“I hope people will continue healing and keep talking about their trauma and their pain. It gets easier. Eventually those stories can become memories. They start to lose their power. They don’t have to control you anymore.”
The five-year, $60-million commission, which is examining and recording how aboriginal children were treated in residential schools in Canada from the late 1800s to the 1990s, expects to wrap up hearings by 2014 and issue a final report in the 2014-15 fiscal year.
Jennifer Hunt-Poitras, Watt’s co-director on the Inuit sub-commission, said hearings will continue this fall in Gjoa Haven and Yukon.
And, she said, after months and months of negotiations, Corrections Canada has finally agreed to allow commissioners into the North Slave Corrections Facility in Yellowknife to gather statements from inmates. That will happen in late October 2012.
So far, the TRC has visited about 20 Inuit communities across northern Canada and gathered roughly 1,000 survivor statements from Inuit.