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Trauma of residential schools still haunts survivors

Elsie Cardinal cries while speaking about her residential school memories, and is comforted by fellow Elder Navalik Tologanak at the National Gathering on Unmarked Burials: Northern Voices conference in Iqaluit. Kira Wronska Dorward/NNSL Media

Editor’s note: This story contains details that may be disturbing to some readers.

“We were dragged right onto the plane… you could hear your mom and your grandmothers… and your little brothers and sisters crying when they see you going on that little float plane.”

Those were among the jarring recollections that Navalik Tologanak shared about her residential school experience during the National Gathering on Unmarked Burials: Northern Voices conference held Jan. 30-Feb. 1 at the Aqsarniit Hotel in Iqaluit.

It was the sixth in a series of national conferences over two years by the Office of the Special Interlocutor for “an important gathering where individual and community experiences will be shared about the sacred work of searching for the disappeared children,” said Kimberly Murray, independent special interlocutor for Missing Children and Unmarked Graves and Burial Sites. “Throughout the gathering, we will listen to survivors, and be guided by Indigenous knowledge and ceremonies.”

After opening comments, the first panel comprised three Elders who recounted their painful experiences at residential schools: Tologanak from Cambridge Bay, Alexia Kublu from Iglulik and Elsie Cardinal of the Fort Chipewyan Metis in Alberta.

In addition to the Elders and co-chairs Sylvia Cloutier and Naomi Tatty, an empty chair was present to invite the spirits of the missing children to join, as well as various sacred items from various communities. Small packages of tissues were given to attendees at the beginning of the conference.

“I am able to tell my story because I’m one of these people who can talk,” said Tologanak. “There are so many people out there… they start telling their story and it stops. So many stories do not come out… for some… the pain is too deep.

“First of all, I went to residential school from [Inuvik] to [Cambridge Bay]. We were sent on those DC-3 planes, and at that time, there wasn’t really a community [in] Cambridge Bay. Most of us that age were born out on the land, and lived out on the land, but those little little float planes still found us. They landed at our parents and our grandparents’ camps. And they still found us and took us,” she recalled, her voice tinged with emotion. “But we had to go.

“We stayed 10 months out there. Long weekend in September we were picked up, or grabbed. And then we’d be home end of June. And that was the favourite day of the whole year — of our whole lives… the day we fly home to our parents, our siblings, our hometown. And to this day — I’m almost 70 years old — and I still celebrate end of June [despite] how old I am. So let’s celebrate our children who don’t go to residential school anymore…no one will ever take my grandchildren again, ever, like they did me. Never.

“It was hard, we had to live [with] abuse, and be scared all the time growing up… We couldn’t even eat country food, of course… We weren’t tasting seal meat and caribou.”

Remembering the dead

“When I was three years old, I was sent to Edmonton to the Charles Camsell Hospital to the TB sanitarium… I don’t remember much, but there were lots of Inuit,” said Tologanak.

She then tells of how her great-grandfather’s body was never returned to Cambridge Bay from an Alberta sanatorium, where he died. The same thing also happened to her great-grandmother, who died in Alberta and was buried in an unmarked grave.

“Where’s my great-grandmother?” asks Tologanak. “I’ve never seen her picture. Where’s my great-grandfather?…Where are they? I want to find them, and I want to put a memorial on their graves, but I can’t because I don’t know where they are. So let us work together to find all our family, and put names on the graves, or send them home. I don’t know. But let’s work together to do this and make this work. And also for all the children who never made it home. Let’s bring them home, and if we can’t bring them home, let’s go to them, and have ceremonies and show our children or family members. Let’s make it work, because it’s awful when you can’t find your grandparents’ graves.”

Tologanak then called on government leaders and Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated to work together “to get this resolved to be part of our healing and get on with our lives. And teach our children, the younger generation, that’s going through so much right now, and to heal them… and to teach the world and the rest of Canada what we’ve been through. We are strong. We are here. We are survivors.

“We girls had it easier because the pedophiles in that school went after the boys more,” she recalls. “It’s that untold anger that… gets swallowed [and expressed] in anger and drink. Those of us who can talk about it need to be their voice.”

More gatherings for Inuit proposed

The theme of buried trauma and the continued need for its expression was at the forefront of discussion throughout the three-day conference, the first in the North, which had a quarter of the country’s residential schools, but currently only receives four per cent of government funding to address the trauma.

Murray, a Mohawk, emphasized that she’s getting towards the end of her two-year mandate and funding for these conferences.

“It’s so important to hear from survivors, and thank you for raising the issue of not having enough survivors at this gathering, and I will work with leadership to make sure there are further gatherings for Inuit… as we begin these conversations for the ongoing search for children and unmarked burials… [Elders] have shown the courage and leadership it takes in sharing the truth about the burials.

“The truths of the atrocities that Canada has committed against the Inuit, First Nations and Metis people… We have to thank the survivors for their words this morning. There’s so much that we have to learn from you, and we need to continue to listen to your truths as you share at the gatherings, with the world, and with the country. So nakurmiik, thank you.”