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The Northern Hearings commenced on March 14, 2011 in Inukjuaks, a community located within the region of Nunavik, Quebec. In honour of the TRC and the Inuit Sub-Commission's arrival, the community built a special iglu to welcome the visitors. It was a first for Commissioner Littlechild, who had never been inside an iglu before!
The hearings in Inukjuak began with the lighting of the qulliq by Elder Elisapee Inukpuk. After opening remarks the Commission received dozens of Nunavimmiut Survivors who have had the courage to speak publicly, and often for the first time, about their experience in Residential School.
On March 15th the Commission travelled to Kuujjuaq where hearings were held over two days allowing for more Survivors to share their truth with the Commission. Prior to the statements a Feast was held in honour of the TRC. Hundreds of people attended the Feast and enjoyed delicious country food.
Over the course of the first three days of the Northern Hearings, some themes have emerged. Dislocation and isolation are among the most prominent of the themes. Many Survivors spoke of the great distance between their home communities and the Residential Schools attended. Some students traveled as far as 2,500 miles. For most of the children, the distance created further isolation as they were not allowed to travel home for holidays like other students. Many children did not see their families and home communities for years. Commissioner Littlechild spoke of this saying, "the loneliness and pain seems to have been much harsher because of the distance - you were so far from home - for you to go 2,500 miles and not be able to go home - the loneliness of that is something Canada has to learn and understand."
For many students, the isolation was further compounded by deprivation of all that was familiar to them. A number of students described a constant hunger- for their country food and a longing for the comfort of their family.
In the North, the Residential School program was implemented quickly and often aggressively. Within one generation, Inuit went from a nomadic hunter-gatherer existence, to living in settlements with their children being sent away for long periods of time to Residential School. The abrupt transition from their traditional ways of life were further complicated when the RCMP killed their dog-teams. Left without a means to hunt and provide for their families, whole communities were devastated and forced to depend on a Northern Allowance to purchase food and other necessities. Parents were threatened with the loss of their government assistance if they refused to allow their children to be sent off to Residential Schools.
Commissioner Marie Wilson spoke of the Residential School System as part of Canada's history: "This is Canada's story. This is Canada's history. It was Canada that passed the laws; Canada that passed the policies that made all of this possible. And it is Canada's responsibility to know, to recognize and to address its consequences."
These consequences referred to by Commissioner Wilson stem from a disconnection from family and culture due to their experiences at Residential School. As children, when they returned home, many did not know where they belonged and struggled with their identity as Inuit. For some the struggle continued for many years.
The struggles rooted in Residential School continue today as whole communities deal with high suicide rates, teenage pregnancies and different forms of abuse.
The consequences of Residential School were echoed in the statements of Survivors of Survivors. The Commission heard first-hand of the intergenerational impact the Residential School system has had on Inuit communities as the children of Survivors came forward to share their experiences. They spoke of growing up in homes with parents who were struggling to cope with all that they had lost. For many, home was not a safe environment, but the children who are now adults have a better understanding of their parent's behaviour and the impact it has had on them. The communities have begun their healing.
Chair Commissioner Justice Sinclair spoke to the Survivors of Survivors saying:
"It is important for us to hear from the children of Survivors because that communication is important. Reconciliation between the parent and child and grandchild is important. Before we can even talk about reconciliation among peoples we have to talk about reconciliation within the family. Reconciliation starts with talking in the family."
Despite the devastating impact of Residential School on Inuit culture, the language remains very strong. This was apparent as the Commission received almost all of the statements in Inuktitut. As testament to the strength and resilience of Inuit and the richness of their culture and traditions, events in Nunavik featured excellent performances of throat-singing and drum-dancing.