Although Carolyn was born in Sanikiluaq, Nunavut, from the age of seven to sixteen she lived in Quebec at the Federal Hostel at Great Whale River (Kuujjuaraapik). She went on to attend other educational institutions in Brandon, MB, Ottawa, ON, and Winnipeg, MB, before returning to Kuujjuaraapik.
“If I hadn’t been in school, I would have been following my family; hunting, camps, everything that they’re used to do. I grew up in igloos, dog teams, hunger, coldness. That’s what I hold on to. It’s the most important thing in my life. After a while when I got older, yeah, it helped.”
Carolyn Niviaxie is originally from Sanikiluaq, Nunavut, but she lived at a hostel in Kuujjuaraapik from age 7 to age 16. Even though she endured terrible abuses at the hands of her guardians, she persevered and went on to attend post-secondary institutions in the cities of Churchill and Brandon in Manitoba, and Ottawa, Ontario. Today, Carolyn is an active advocate for healing in her community, and has shared her story in the hopes that it will inspire other Inuit to embark on their own healing journey. She also believes it is very important that all Canadians understand what happened to Canada’s Aboriginal peoples. “I think Inuit should believe in themselves, believe in their culture, and be proud of who they are. Give their knowledge to whoever can listen. Other Canadians should know that we were taken away from our families. It was hard being a child, just like it would have been for them, too.”
First of all, I’m from Sanikiluaq, Nunavut. I was born there, so I went to school there for about a year, and then right after that I went to Kuujjaraapik, to the hostel. I was seven years old. I went there until I was sixteen. So many, many years. Right after that I went to Churchill [in Manitoba] for two years. After that Ottawa. And after that Brandon, Manitoba. That’s the schools I went to, and it was about fifteen years altogether from the beginning to the end.
I went home in the summer time. We never used to go home for Christmas, for funerals — I lost a lot of relatives, a lot. When we did something fantastic our parents never came so they don’t know what we went through, like graduating from a certain school. They didn’t know. They bring relatives to see the ceremonies, but never in those times.
The ones that lived there, they had their homes. But us, we were from other communities.
The first day of school was exciting, scary, all rolled into one.
The teachers were very strict. There was no talking. No speaking in our language. It was very, very strict, like school used to be. We were punished when we spoke our own language by staying in the corner, staying after school, spankings, and pulling our hair.
They taught us all of White man’s ways. I think I knew more of Canada or the United States or other countries history, except my own. I thought I was going to have to live like a White man and follow it. If not I wouldn’t make it. That’s kind of how —
If I hadn’t been in school I would have been following my family; hunting, camps, everything that they’re used to. I grew up in igloos, dog teams, hunger, coldness. That’s what I hold on to. It’s the most important thing in my life. After a while when I got older, yeah, it helped.
Where I come from it was slowly coming, the changes [to the community]. It was like one of the last civilizations coming there. It was very isolated, the place, so the changes were very slow at that time. I think it was our generation that changed it a lot later on. But in other communities where I come from right now, Kuujjaraapik, they didn’t live in igloos any more. They had houses, man-made, not like an igloo.
I came back one time when we had no more dogs. They were all killed by the RCMP. So that was one of the biggest changes that I remember. And the people started building their own homes, wooden homes, not in tents or igloos any more. A lot of changes came to be.
In a way some things are good, and in a way some are bad. The good is people are able to make money, have jobs, not like it used to be, because everybody had to hunt for a living. But the changes were when people start having jobs. I can just see it in my mind.
We started living in one place. We used to be like a whole family with lots of tents or igloos. We start living in one place and there was school and nursing, stores, so people didn’t move around a lot any more at that time. At the end, I mean, around the middle.
My parents were in Sanikiluaq/Belcher Islands. It’s a small island but there are a lot of people there. Many times I felt happiness that I was going to be with my family, be with my own people. My [summers] there were carefree, helping, working a lot with my parents, my mom. But it was a very short summer. I would get water, wash clothes by hand and clean up, help with the others.
Our parents were very, very strong. I can tell you, look, some of them used to be wiped out of all their children and they ended up with no children. They were very strong. Why should it have happened to them? They told me that I had to go to school or else. I didn’t really understand why. I just had to go.
I used to write letters once in a while and my mom used to write me every few months. The letters used to take very long. The only time my mom ever sent me money, it was just five dollars in all that time. I was older so I bought cigarettes, lots of chips, pop and gum. That was the only time she ever sent me money because they didn’t make any money, eh, except for carvings.
School changed me, very much. But we had very good teachers, even if they were very strict, we learned everything. It changed how I believed life should be, but it could have happened differently. I know older people than me and they didn’t go through that, so they are more relaxed. Me, I panic at every little thing. That’s from school.
I remember —
We used to be in the hostels in Kuujjaraapik. I ended up —
I was the youngest at the beginning. Our hostel mother didn’t take care good care of me.
She used to put me in bed right after school. I was not even allowed to come down out of bed until the next day only. All those hours I had to stay in bed. I even used to go to the washroom without trying to let her know. It was mostly that lady. The others were okay.
She used to have a boyfriend, too, a White man. Her boyfriend used to give me toys or something good for a little girl. I used to have it only for a few minutes and then it was taken away, given to her relatives or somebody else.
She used to have a son, too. He was a boy, a very bad boy. He used to hit us a lot and then he used to tell on us – what we did, what we said – and then we would be punished. We used to get food, too, eh, enough to last a whole month. It was for us, but it was given to all her relatives. Some of them were camping throughout the year so she used to send them the food we were supposed to eat. So we used to end up having cocoa with lots of salt in it. That was mostly our diet. It used to give me a stomachache, and diarrhea.
They used to give us clothes, too, eh, the government, the federal government. But we didn’t see them sometimes. We didn’t even get to wear them sometimes. At that time I was with her I only had pajamas, like pants, and if you did anything in them and they tore, that was it.
But over the years we had different hostel parents. At the beginning I was the youngest and at the end I was the oldest so over the years —
We used to line up like soldiers, walking in one line. We were not supposed to step outside the line. Every weekend we used to go to different relatives to do housecleaning, get water, like they used to have tanks for water, and getting water, carrying water until it was full, all day. We had different chores; one just to cleanup the house, one just to get water, for different relatives, in different houses. Sometimes we used to be only one person for that house, or two, depending on how bossy they are.
But then, when I started going to school elsewhere, like Churchill, it was different. We still had to go to school to be the best we could, but we had supervisors instead of hostel mothers and we were living in dormitories with a lot of girls, with supervisors. We had to be in at a certain time in the evening. We had our chores, too, but it was not too bad. We used to be rewarded if we did good.
And then after that we moved to cities, like Ottawa and Winnipeg, and we lived with families, in a family. It was like freedom. We still had to do the best we could. That was the main thing. I don’t remember too much bad about being in Ottawa or Brandon. A lot of other students went to Winnipeg, too.
But being in the hostel was very difficult, one of the most difficult —
And leaving our families was very difficult, too, going so far away. There were no telephones. I think I can talk more about day-by-day things but the main thing was the hostels were very, very bad.
Going to school was not too bad but living in the hostel was very hard. Only the teachers know what happened, maybe. The teachers, the first nurses, the government people. I don’t know if they really understood but it was so hard for us to adapt.
I can just imagine what it was like for my parents;
“Where is my daughter?”
“What is going to happen?”
“What is she going through?”
“What is happening with her?”
“Where is she?”
“I need her.”
“If she was here she would have done this, but there’s no one.”
And the fathers with all their sons taken away, they needed help a lot. They needed us.
I have three children and nine grandchildren. I have talked to them a lot about what I went through. I tell them I used to live in that (indicating) like this, you know, like igloo. They just say “unbelievable”. I don’t know if they believe me or not, my grandchildren! But my children, they believe me.
I tell them that they have to do good if they go to school, do the best as they can be, to be the best as they can be and not miss a day, unless they’re sick. That’s the sort of belief we have right now. It’s not like it used to be when we lived off the land. Nowadays people need jobs.
In school I had to be the best. If not I wouldn’t have been able to make it in this world. If I didn’t do good, I thought I would be nothing. So that helped me to be who I am, to become somebody. That I would be like a White man, the way they do and have a family.
I was taught planning ways so my children are —What do you call that? Planned. Our parents, they were just dropping babies, eh, like every year. But the way we were taught was to go to school first, finish my school, get married and plan my children, how many I’m going to have after having so many years, you know.
But my children are not like that. They are different than the way they were brought up and the way I was brought up.
When one of them didn’t want to go to school I didn’t pressure, I didn’t pressure him. I didn’t say “you have to go”, I just let him stay home, or go somewhere with him, even though I knew he had to go to school in order to do good.
I was kind of strict with them. But I had no choice. Our society was very different. You cannot just go and do a bad thing just like that. But I didn’t do a bad thing just like that. That’s not what I mean.
I’m proud of my home. I don’t want to change it, even though they tried to change me. I believe in my culture. It’s my home. My language, that’s where home, is; it’s in the people, our people.
I think Inuit should believe in themselves, believe in their culture, and be proud of who they are. Give their knowledge to whoever can listen. Other Canadians should know that we were taken away from our families. It was hard being a child, just like it would be for them, too. They have their cultures, and we have ours, too; we still have ours and now we should keep it strong, and keep our culture just like they do, too. We’re just like any other people in the world.
I think I have a lot to give, a lot of stories. I can write a book but I never did yet, about everything. I still have a hard time thinking about what it must have been like, being a parent with all your children taken away when they should be there to help you. I think our parents were very, very strong. They were strong.
My hope for the future would be that the world is changing, our communities are changing, that we have Inuit doctors, nurses, we have a lot of teachers now, in any field, with their own language, that’s my hope for the future.
I think we can build a school with our own language. It’s possible, from kindergarten to university, no problem. I saw that a long time ago already, when I was younger.
I think we’re on our way there. We just have to believe in our children and our grandchildren, pass on our knowledge to them and we’re on our way, slowly, but I just hope we don’t lose our language, our culture, or where we came from. Everything is a journey. I hope for the better.
I want the younger people, young people, to carry on with their lives and know that everything is not a dead end. There is a future.
Sometimes we believe it’s a dead end, eh. We shouldn’t. There’s always tomorrow. All those sayings, eh, there’s a silver lining in every cloud, things like that.
A lot of the things that are happening with young Inuit are a result of the Residential Schools, I think so. It’s their parents’ sickness. Like me, without realizing it. We passed on our hurt to them without realizing it — not wanting to. That’s one of the hardest times I’m having right now. Our parents, they’re gone.
All I want is for our young people is for them to do the best they can, day by day. There’s always tomorrow, not just today. You can get better. Just do the best they can do in whatever they’re doing.
I think, to get better, it would have to be for us to change the way we are in order for them to believe in us, so we are not just suffering all the time. We need to work together, young and old. To let them understand we care.
But I think they would have to understand what we went through in order to understand, in order for their lives to go straighter instead of going down all the time.