Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

(TINA FINEBERG)
(TINA FINEBERG)

Web-exclusive commentary

Let's give the unique Inuit experience a voice Add to ...

Members of the new Truth and Reconciliation Commission into residential schools have reportedly been chosen. Once again, no Inuk is among them.

Recent Inuit history is one of upheaval, pain and much confusion. The creation of Nunavut was our attempt to deal with the changes we have experienced and to take back our culture, our language and our lives.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the federal government tried to make us "fit" with what it believed to be the values and ways of living common to Canadians. It was a journey we were supposed to make in 10 to 15 years.

In all of this, our experience with residential and federal day schools was profound. Our language, beliefs and way 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 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 tuberculosis, in some cases never to see their loved ones and their land again, in some cases having to work underground in mines and in factories, railways and offices in a strange land called southern Canada.

And all of this change taking place from 1950 to 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 to the 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 commission's website, its mandate 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 Métis 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 commission. 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 the University of British Columbia, and survivors including Marius Tungilik, Jack Anawak and Paul Quassa lobbied hard with the Prime Minister, 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 the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, which 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 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

I am calling on our leadership - on people such as Mary Simon, Pita Aatami, Paul Kaludjak, Jose Kusugak, Charlie Evalik, Nellie Cournoyea in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, Eva Aariak, Leona Aglukkaq, our Nunavut MP, and others - to rise to the challenge. Let's give Inuit experience a voice and let's use the opportunity to reach out to all Inuit in need of healing so that we, our children and our children's children can live healthy, respectful and informed lives.

Peter Irniq is the former commissioner of Nunavut and a residential school survivor.

 

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories