Abraham Ruben

Before Abraham attended Residential School he lived on the land with his family near Paulatuk, NWT. He was a student at Sir Alexander Mackenzie School in Inuvik, NWT for eleven years between 1959 and 1970.

“All of the things that my parents had been trying to teach us kids, to become good men and good women, had been turned upside down. A whole new set of values had been set in place that guaranteed I would have a screwed up childhood, that I would become a screwed up adult with an unbalanced experience and unbalanced views of life.”


Abraham Ruben is from Paulatuk, Northwest Territories, but he attended the Federal Day School in Inuvik, Northwest Territories while living in the dormitory at Grollier Hall for eleven years, between 1959 and 1970. After enduring years of abuse at the school, Abraham succumbed to alcoholism when he was still just a teenager, but in 1971 he enrolled in the art school in Fairbanks, Alaska, and found guidance and mentorship in the world-renowned Inupiaq artist, Ron Senungetuk. Now over thirty years later, Abraham is one of Canada’s best known Inuit artists, whose work has been shown in numerous solo and group exhibitions, and is part of many public and private collections. He currently resides on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, where he has a studio.


I would like to start with the memories that I have of my childhood. Up until the age of eight, my childhood memories are very distinct. I have full clarity. I remember a lot of things from my childhood. But from the start of Residential School in 1959 through the seventies, through 1970, in that eleven-year period there are many consecutive years that I find over the last couple of years with my involvement with the lawsuit of the federal government and trying to recap the events that took place, I have great difficulty in trying to bring back memories where I can link from one month or one year to the other. I think it’s common to a lot of people who have gone through or who have had severe experiences within the Residential School system. A lot of the bad memories have been kind of tuned out.

My experience with the Residential Schools starts with arriving into Inuvik in the fall of 1959. By the time I arrived there were several hundred students who had already registered at Grolier Hall. Grolier Hall was an institution financed by the federal government but managed and manned by Catholic Priests, Oblate Missionaries and Grey Nuns. And they also hired lay people for cooks and cleaning and other things.

So we were told to get into the line-up, take off our clothing, get into long line-ups, get towels wrapped around us and get into the line-ups. There would be a couple of Nuns with clippers, electric clippers and a bottle of coal oil. You get into the line-ups. They would get you in, cut the bulk of your hair off and slap on the coal oil and give you a razor thin hair cut, right down to the roots. After they put you through de-lousing or whatever they call it, you were sent into the showers, scrubbed down and then into another line-up for your clothes. Most of the kids couldn’t speak English and this was their first day run. I would say the bulk of us were just scared to death. No parents. No relatives. You weren’t allowed to talk amongst yourselves.

After the crew cut and the showers and getting new clothes and stuff, we would all get back into another set of lines and be given lockers and then told to get into the line because they wanted to register you. There was a Public Health Nurse along with the Nuns and stuff. I got into the line-up and I was asked my name and the names of my parents. I’m looking at this woman saying “Who is your mom and dad?” And I’m looking at them and by that time I’m just too shell-shocked.

I told them that I couldn’t remember. I turned around and my cousin was in the line-up and I asked him if his parents, who were my aunt and uncle, I asked him, “Are those my parents? Are your mom and dad my parents?” He says, “No. Your mom and dad are Bill and Bertha. And your last name is Ruben.” Through the dim I’m getting this. “Yeah, my name is Abraham Ruben.” I’m finally getting the connection to tell this woman who my parents were.

When we got through that, then we’re into the cafeteria. I think there must have been three hundred or four hundred kids at that point. The hostel was set up with the junior boys and girls on the top floors and senior boys and girls on the lower floors. We were introduced to this Nun who had been in Aklavik. She was the headhunter in Aklavik. I think if awards had to be given out —

If the Gestapo were still in operation she would be the head mistress for the organization. She wasn’t selected because she was good natured and friendly. They were looking for people who would do the job. The treatment that we received under the Priests and Nuns I think says it all.

My first memory of her was being woken up —

That first night at the Residential School I had nightmares. In the nightmares I saw the face of this Nun and I had nightmares all through the night. I woke up in the morning and I had wet my bed from just being disoriented, scared, and all the other elements. She came out and all the other kids had already gone out and gotten dressed. She came out and saw me still sleeping and realized I had wet my bed. She dragged me out and laid her first beating on me. At that point is when I —

My parents had brought me up basically to not take [abuse] from anyone. I started fighting back. She first started with slapping me in the face and dragging me out of bed and calling me “espèce de cochon” which means dirty pig. And she had never seen such a low life. So this was my first introduction to this woman. I fought back and the harder I fought the harder she hit. Then she started using her fists on me, so I just backed off and we called it even.

That was the first of many. I realized then that this would be stock and trade for the next few years. I could see well into the future what my relationship with her would be like. And it didn’t stop. I would get the [living daylights] kicked out of me and I would just fight back.

This is where a mix of traditional beliefs and the situation I was in come into play. When I was growing up my childhood memories are — our basic belief was that you develop relationships based on what your parents teach you. You have an understanding of how people should treat each other. But they also believed that they are in the animal world and the spirit world, and the world of humans had different grades of people; some who are inherently evil. We also believe in the existence of evil spirits. Humans as well as beings in the spirit world have the ability to become malevolent in nature and malevolent in intent. Here I am, a seven-year-old boy and I realized that this thing that has come into my life, from my understanding of my Native background, is that I’ve stumbled across an evil spirit in the form of this woman, this Nun. And that she would be a part of my life for years to come.

My mother and father had often taught me to always resist being taken in by this type of spirit because it will devour you. So in the early years I’m living between our ancient past but also present. The past and present coexisted for us. Then the reality of stepping into a Residential School situation and having this Nun brought in because of her ability to break people. Within a few months or a few weeks she could take a kid who spoke Dene, G’wichin or Inuvialuit and they would stop and start learning a whole new method. I and a couple of cousins were holdouts for several years. We just fought tooth and nail. That first night — That first day and the first night and the following morning was my initiation.

But my first initiations were dealing with spirits. From my parents I had an understanding how life should be lived when you’re growing up in stages to develop. When I started attending school in Inuvik at the Residential School it was initiations of a sordid type. All of the things that my parents had been trying to teach us kids to become good men and good women had been turned upside down. A whole new set of values had been set in place that guaranteed I would have a screwed up childhood, that I would become a screwed up adult with an unbalanced experience and unbalanced views of life.

I had to undergo psychotherapy. I’m still going through it. For my own personal self I had to go in and try to dig into that past because there are periods of three years that are total blackouts and I’ve had to go in and try to dig up a lot of the stuff.

I’ve resolved a lot of long-standing issues. It’s not so much for the day-to-day but for specific — I know that something happened at a specific time but I can’t put a picture to that. You feel inside that something took place but to try to put a picture to it, that’s where I’ve had to go into a self-induced trance and also an induced trance to step back into myself as a child at that point. The impacts of those years have been long lasting because they had hired individuals both for the boys and the girls — I think my sisters and other relatives had gone through similar experiences.

The early years at the federal day school, Sir Alexander Mackenzie was just basic stuff; reading, writing and arithmetic, all of the basics that they wanted you to become conversant with. From the age of seven to ten I could basically do basic reading and writing but I’m also thinking both in English and in Inuvialuktun. I could think and talk in both languages. By the age of ten I think I must have gotten tired of the beating because that’s about the time when I stopped. I couldn’t carry a full conversation with my cousins. Mainly by that point my cousins were telling me to shut up or they would get beaten up as well.

The rules in the Residential School were one thing but in the federal day school, because there were a lot of Native kids also from the town, they didn’t enforce that rule. The kids could speak in their own languages as long as the formal education was done in English. But in the Residential Schools both in the Anglican Residence and the Catholic Residence, you weren’t allowed to speak in your Native tongue whether it was Dene or Inuvialuktun on pain of beating.

They had an incredible amount of control on you as an individual and more so on the kids who were from several hundred miles away from the Town of Inuvik whose parents couldn’t fly in, or come by boat. They couldn’t come in by boat or travel by road or fly in because there was no regular service in the late fifties and early sixties.

There were kids who were brought in from as far as 800 miles away to attend school in Inuvik. The uses of the institutions, the Residential Schools, were not the first time it had been used in the Western Arctic. They had been —

The Residential Schools were in operation during my parents’ time in the thirties and forties in Aklavik. I guess they were Church run institutions. The Catholic Church and the Anglican Church had started early Residential Schools. They may have had federal funding but they were primarily operated by the Churches. My mother had gone to the one in Aklavik when she was a young girl, to the age of fifteen, and [later] my brother. My sculpture “the Last Goodbye,” that was my brother and my older sister. My brother had attended school there. He started at the age of five. I didn’t see him until he turned eight when we were sent off to Inuvik for school.

The children in the Residential School basically lived two lives; one was the time that they would spend at the federal day school with other kids from the town, from other settlements and the children from the Anglican school as well as the Catholic residences. One life was out in the open, a more liberal life. The other was a cloistered life as if they were in a nunnery or —

One was a cloistered life and one was an open public life. In the Residential School you lived your life under the dictates of the Priests and the Nuns and the Supervisors. Any semblance of a family life was frowned upon. You couldn’t speak with your relatives. Contact with older siblings was frowned on. Contact between boys and girls was frowned on. In the early years you could be reprimanded or beaten for holding a girl’s hand or talking or kissing or showing any kind of affection. So, all of the models that would be used in preparing a young man or a young woman for a life of celibacy were incorporated into the lives of the children. So they were developing a recipe for social and cultural disaster is what took place.

There are kids who are susceptible to alcohol and drug abuse, spousal abuse, physical abuse to others and I think there are a lot of illnesses that developed out of it. They become more susceptible to mental illness and psychological trauma. In Grolier Hall during the years of operation and a few years afterwards they found that there were upwards of up to sixty individuals who had died as a direct result of their attendance, either through murder, suicide or alcohol poisoning. That’s a pretty high percentage.

One of the dynamics I’ve got to mention because it has been long lasting — one of the things that took place and I’ll be forthright about it. I’m not going to beat around the bush. The ancient relationship between the Inuit and the Dene over the thousands of years has had a lot of antagonism. There has been open warfare for thousands of years. I think that the only beneficial thing, or I would say maybe one or two that came out of Residential School, was that for the first time in that one generation where you put kids together from different races, different Native groups who were traditional enemies and you put the kids together in a common situation having to deal with common issues and the issues of survival, cultural survival as well as individual survival, you get these kids realizing that the only way to survive is through friendship. You’re dealing with a common enemy. You’re going through all the same stuff and the only way that you’re going to survive is to be able to get along with each other and help each other.

I’ll give you an example. I come from the settlement of Paulatuk. The biggest settlement just south of us is Fort Good Hope. Our group and their group have a thing called the Tuktut Nogait. It’s a National Park set up for preserving the breeding ground for caribou. We have a common caribou herd called the Bluenose herd. It’s a shared boundary. They have actually extended it to include the Good Hope area.

But the other element is that of all the various Inuit or the Dene or the various Indian Tribes in Canada, historically the Inuit of our area and the Hare Indians which would be Fort Good Hope —

I’m from Paulatuk, our home settlement. Colville Lake is the next closest settlement. But the Dene of Fort Good Hope and our people in this area were traditional allies. We would trade. They would come up and we were hunting after the same caribou. They would trade with goods we would get from the coast. In the 1800s when the trade goods started coming up they used Fort Good Hope as a staging ground to set up trading posts along this part of the coast. So traditionally in historical times and in ancient times the Hare Indians and the coastal Inuvialuit were on friendly terms. They were trading. There was no warfare.

So when we get into the Residential School years, after, when there’s an opportunity for a group of people from our settlement to go to Fort Good Hope to commemorate the extension of the Park, it was like homecoming. Because a number of the students had all attended school together. It was like coming to visit distant relatives. It’s the same situation that plays out in a lot of other communities across the Arctic, whether you were going to the Anglican School or the Catholic School. The shared experiences bring those people together and it’s a whole generation of what I call lost children.

When we were allowed to head back to our home settlements in the summer there would be a charter flight to bring us kids back to our home settlements. In my case it was either at Cape Perry, which was seven miles to the north of Paulatuk, or Paulatuk itself. Paulatuk in the mid sixties when we had moved our settlement again —

When we were brought back to our home settlements it was just enough time to get reacquainted. We knew. We had memories of being on the land, berry picking and hunting, caribou hunting, ptarmigan hunting and fishing and sealing and all those things we had spent the whole year just thinking about. Finally we would get out and it would be like sending off a bunch of kids on an adrenalin rush and they’ve only got two months to get back, to catch up, to find out who your parents were, you know, just to get back. As soon as you get home you know time is running out. You are wanting to soak in as much as you can because that’s all that you’re going to have for the rest of the year.

The first year my mother would tell us that we were having difficulty being able to speak our language. So she would speak to us in Inuktitut. She could barely speak English so Inuktitut was her first language. We would get on the land hunting, fishing and helping our parents. When you’re out on the land day in and day out you have to be doing something, either getting water or they would send us off fetching firewood or helping to get the fish out of the nets or cleaning up. We would be like a bunch of prisoners set free. We would just be running and hollering and screaming and fighting and just laughing our guts out just for that brief period of freedom.

That first year I got back I told my mother what had been happening in the Residential School. She was just in a rage. My mother was a big woman. She was about five eleven, two hundred eighty pounds. People didn’t mess with her. She went and talked to the Priest about it and the Priest said that he hadn’t heard any kind of reports of abuses on the kids or beatings. He convinced my mom that the Church at the school, the Residential School, the Priests who were working there, the Supervisors had been in Paulatuk years earlier as a young priest so my parents knew him. The Priest told him that this man you grew up with him, this Priest, you know that he’s a good man so trust his judgment on how the kids would be taken care of. So they left it at that.

But my mother told me she knew who this Nun was because she was a fifteen year old girl when that Nun was in Aklavik and the Nun was doing her stuff with the younger boys, beating the heck out of a lot of kids to break the language. So she knew or had some idea of what was going on but she didn’t know the full extent of it.

So before we went back to Inuvik my mother told me to be proud of where you come from. Be proud of your culture, your traditions and what we taught you. Whatever it takes, just keep fighting.

I’m eight, going on nine years old, and from the first day back I was right onto the same treadmill. The first week I got my first beating and then regularly after that, then using other kids to get on my case to try and wear me down. [The Nun] is using alliances. Then she has set up her network of kids who will do anything to get in good standing with her so you become a target by other kids as well. So she got it worked out. I’m certain that my experience was much the same as other kids going back to their home settlements and reintroducing themselves to their families and their siblings and their culture.

When we would go back to the Residential School the other kids would tell stories of going back, going back to their summer camps and fishing and story telling and going back. They would say, “Going Native”, because being at the Residential School everything about being Native was discouraged; your language and your culture. They would even go down to where the Nuns would be talking about “look at the Native people in town”. Look at the people in town, the ones who were darker or brown skinned were the ones with the poor jobs, ditch diggers, drunks, all of the scum of life, they would call them the scum. They said that you don’t want to be like that and you don’t want to look like that. We’re going to try to do everything we can to help you not be like that.

So double standards. Racial slurs. Anything and everything to try and break that spirit. When we were sent off to our home communities they know that the parents have a different agenda. The parents want to rekindle that spirit because they know that once you’re sent back to Residential School you’ve got someone who has totally the opposite intentions. When I got to about Grade 10, no ten years old, my mother told me that I can’t speak the language any more. I told her the year before that every time we tried to speak they would beat the heck out of us.

My father had wanted me to become a hunter. My mother had different ideas because her grandparents were shamans from the Bering Sea Alaskan traditions and they came over to the Western Arctic in the 1800s; 1880s I think. So she grew up with those traditions but she was also being nurtured as a young child to carry on the traditions from her grandmother.

By the age of sixteen – fifteen –, I was a full-fledged alcoholic. Severe. It started when I was about fourteen making home brew. We would be collecting our allowances and stuff and go into town and get cheap bottles of Calona White. This is the BC version of Doublejack. Cheap hooch. At the age of sixteen I had a number of different levels going against me. From the age of seven to fourteen under the care of that Sister. I was scarred for life from that six-year run with her. And then she made it so that I became the scapegoat for all of the other kids’ problems. There were several of us who became scapegoats in her little circle, so all of the angst and anger that our kids were experiencing, she would have it directed towards us to deflect from her.

Then you go from there, from the junior boys, down into the senior boys levels. Those same things were carried on there. When you are assaulted by other kids, either physical beatings or sexual assaults by other children who have been assaulted themselves the Supervisors basically tell you to toughen up, you’re in the real world now.

So, in this system I think that I may be just repeating the same patterns and stories that other people have told with Residential School experiences, but it’s —

Whether the story is told once or a thousand times, it still has to be told. When I recounted the story to the Adjudicator and to the Government Agents what took place, I told them that the memories of the things that happened I could tell them the textures of the building, the floors, the smells, the way people dressed, the way they carried themselves as if it happened just a few hours earlier and I could give them a minute day-by-day of what I remember to give them a picture of being in that place. How the Nun smelled, about her breath, the texture in her face, her clothing, the way she carried herself, all of those things are right in front of me.

When I started school in Fairbanks, Alaska in January of 1971 — I went to Art School in Fairbanks — my teacher was a fellow, an Elder, by the name of Ron Senungetuk. Ron is Inupiaq Alaskan from Prince of Wales Island. Ron had formal training up to Grade 12. He had a Russian Alaskan instructor who enabled him to get a Fulbright Scholarship and continued his studies at the Rhode Island School for American Craftsmen. Then from there he completed his studies with the Jorge Jensen Design Group in Scandinavia.

When he came back to North America he launched basically single-handedly —he brought contemporary Native art to Alaska. He started the whole thing from scratch. Up until then it was pretty much all tourist art. It was pretty kitschy stuff. He introduced a series of workshops and programs and brought the students in to initiate the Alaska Native Arts Centre in Fairbanks. So when I started in ’71 I was one of eight students that he had with him, which was it think pretty exceptional because with the eight students you had full use of the studios. You could be there eight hours a day, unlike most art classes where you’re relegated to just a few hours a week. But we were in there from eight in the morning until sometimes six in the evening, or even later, for other studies.

I first went there for one semester in 1971. I went back home not because of the ability to learn but because I mentioned before that I was an alcoholic at the age of sixteen, and when I started school in Alaska my problems had not disappeared. I was in there drinking like a fish with the best of them. Drugs and alcohol. But the interest had developed. I understood that this was something I had wanted to do and he gave me the opportunity to do it.

But I couldn’t take much more than one semester so I went back to the Territories and spent a few years just on the road going from place to place, looking for seasonal employment and doing some sculpture. It wasn’t until I returned back in the fall of 1974.

I took two semesters — excuse me. I went there from the fall of ’74 to the summer of ’75.

From 1975 I had spent about twenty years out on the road travelling across the different parts of Canada, going back to Saltspring, Vancouver, out to Toronto, Yellowknife for a short stint, with the occasional visit back up to Paulatuk. What I had learned in Alaska I took with me and met with other artists, met with other people with studios and got public commissions, private commissions to do different projects around the country. Basically I spent twenty years on the road developing my craft.

When I finally got settled down it was a fully thirty years on the road to where I now feel that I’ve matured as an individual and matured as an artist to be able to take my work to the next stage, which I’m now working on. And it’s taking the work from a regional Inuvialuit sculpture work to trying to tell the circumpolar story with the migrations of people.