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Residential school survivors in North gather to heal Add to ...

When eight-year-old Rosie Kagak returned to her high-Arctic hometown of Kugluktuk after two years at residential school in Inuvik, NWT, her brother took her by dog team to a tent where a man and woman were waiting. The woman said something she could not understand and offered her a piece of frozen Arctic char to eat. Ms. Kagak remembers asking her older sister, "Why does she want me to eat raw fish?"

The now-middle-aged woman weeps as she tells her story to a hushed audience. "I couldn't remember my parents. I didn't know who these people were."

Ms. Kagak is back in Inuvik, this time as one of about 1,000 residential school survivors attending the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's northern national event this week. The four-day gathering, which ends on Friday, is the second of seven such events set to take place across Canada over five years; the first was in Winnipeg a year ago.

The TRC was established in 2007 as part of the federal government's Indian residential-school settlement, which also provides mental-health support and financial compensation to survivors of federally run residential schools. In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a formal apology on behalf of the Government of Canada to people who attended the schools. He acknowledged that using the education system to strip aboriginal children of their bonds with their families, cultures and languages was wrong.

The forced assimilation meant that, when Ms. Kagak realized the strangers in that tent all those years ago were her parents, she could not speak to them. After two years of having her mouth washed out with soap whenever she spoke her native Inuktitut, she no longer knew the Inuit language - and her parents could not speak English.

The first residential schools, built by the government and operated by the churches, opened in 1883. The last one closed in 1996. In between, more than 150,000 aboriginal children filled 130 residential schools across the country, about 40 of them in northern Canada.

Many former students, emotionally and spiritually damaged by their experience at the schools, have passed on their pain to their children and grandchildren, who inherited their parents' inability to love, their loss of cultural traditions and their mistrust of government and schools.

This week in Inuvik, survivors from across the North came together to help each other heal. Participants are mostly Inuit and first nations, with a small contingent of Métis. The gathering included people in their 40s, who attended residential schools in the 1990s, and those whose experiences are deep in the past.

Seated in a sharing circle, Ms. Kagak cries for her children. "Our kids have grown, they have [had]their own kids while my husband and I were drinking," she said, husband, Allen, at her side. The couple no longer drinks.

Alcoholism, drug addiction, suicide attempts, physical, emotional and sexual abuse of the next generation plague the lives of survivors and "the intergenerational survivors."

National Inuit leader Mary Simon reports that 75 per cent of Inuit children do not graduate from high school. "A lot of survivors of the residential schools went back home and had very negative feelings about school in general, and as a result, they have never been very serious about getting their children through school," she said.

Improving education statistics and mending mental health across the generations are Ms. Simon's priorities. Several intergenerational survivors are taking part in the TRC activities in Inuvik this week.

Maxine LaCorne, 26, started her healing process a few years ago, even though her parents - both residential school survivors - are not ready to begin their own. "My parents are still in their pain," said the young woman, who grew up watching her alcoholic mother and father beating each other up and has battled drug and alcohol addiction herself. She tells her story to help herself heal, and listens to survivors' stories to "help me understand my parents."

Not all stories told here have been negative. But most detail physical, emotional or sexual abuse, loneliness, shame and fear. One woman remembers a nun scorching her with a hot iron to teach her how to press clothing; another talks of being beaten with a wooden hairbrush; many will never forget being molested by school staff or older students. Stories of being slapped, strapped or punched are so common they cease to shock.

Even so, laughter punctuates end-of-day community feasts and cultural celebrations. Green-vested Health Canada support workers are everywhere, making sure everyone has a shoulder to cry on, and nobody goes home in distress. At daily "expressions of reconciliation," participants, including politicians and members of the clergy, make commitments or offer tangible healing gestures to survivors and their families.

Many involved in the TRC process acknowledge the reconciliation will go on long after the TRC's five-year mandate.

"We were treated so bad," said Willy Carpenter of Tuktoyaktuk, who was at a residential school in Aklavik, about 40 kilometres southwest of Inuvik. After a lifetime of alcohol abuse and prison sentences, Mr. Carpenter, 67, had enough. This week, he is telling his story for the first time to start his healing process. "I've been abused and I've been humiliated," he said. "I'm trying to help myself now."

Special to The Globe and Mail

.................................................................................................................................................................................................... AT LAST, A BIRTHDAY PARTY

As Canada celebrates its 144th year as a nation, residential school survivors at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Northern National Event in Inuvik, NWT, are holding a different kind of birthday celebration.

Because residential school students were not allowed to celebrate their birthdays, many don't even know the date that they were born. On Friday afternoon, as one of the last activities of this TRC event, participants are having a birthday party. They will sing Happy Birthday, eat cake and honour the lost years with childhood friends.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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