Lillian Elias

Lillian attended Residential School in Aklavik, NWT from the time that she was eight or nine years old. She was the only one of the twelve children in her family to attend.

“I remember when I went home a few years down the road, about three years after I had been in the Residential School, I found that we were just like separating, the students and the elders were separating because these ones were talking too much in English and they couldn’t understand them. And we couldn’t understand the Elders speaking in their language. That’s what I find that changed.”


Lillian Elias currently resides in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, but she attended residential school in Aklavik, Northwest Territories from the time that she was 8 or 9 years old. Of twelve children, Lillian was the only one to go to school, which she did so that her parents could maintain their family allowance and support her other eleven siblings. Despite being taught exclusively in English in residential school, Lillian was able to maintain her Inuvialuktun language by speaking it during the summer months and by volunteering to translate for her grandmother and others at the local hospital and government offices when she was young. Prior to retiring from teaching, Lillian carried on her efforts to preserve the Inuit language by integrating it into her classrooms. Today, Lillian organizes and participates in Inuit language symposiums and is the Canadian member of the International Inuit Elders Council of the Inuit Circumpolar Council.


I live in Inuvik, Northwest Territories. I used to live in the Delta. I attended RC [Roman Catholic] Residential School. I was eight or nine years old. I don’t remember why they had to send me to school until later on in the years, after I had been there for three or four years, I found out that the reason they had to put me in there was because they were going to lose my Family Allowance, or all the children’s Family Allowance if one of the children didn’t go to school. So my parents thought I was the bravest one to go to school. They thought I could cope with the things that were going on. There were twelve of us. They didn’t go to the Residential School. They just sent me to school because my cousins were there. We didn’t live together out on the land. They were in different places, wherever the animals were we had to live. We followed them.

My parents brought me to school in the fall time. I think it was in August before they went back out on the land for the winter. They don’t come in until Christmas time when they do go out, just for groceries and that. So they left me there, crying. I remember that day very well because it was just like losing my parents, you know, losing my loved ones, just like they were gone forever. It’s like I would never see them again.

The first day that I walked in there I didn’t speak a word of English. I didn’t even know what was Dick and Jane, who they were, you know how they taught us Dick and Jane in the classes, but I didn’t even know how to say “come” or “goodbye” or “hello” or anything. It was really hard. I did a lot of sign language. Today I’m pretty good at sign language! You didn’t dare speak your language, even if you didn’t know how to speak in English. You would get roughed up. One of my friends – we just came in – I can see her plainly today because I was so afraid of this Nun who came up to her and she looked like she was going to kill her. She grabbed her by the neck and just shook her. “Don’t ever let me hear you speak your language again!” Those were the sort of things we had to go through. It was really hard. We weren’t allowed to speak roughly or say nasty things to the other children or even look at the Nuns with an ugly looking face. I don’t know what was ugly to them. “Don’t look at me like that!”

And we all would have to sew our own mukluks at that time. The bottom moose hide is like this (indicating) and that’s what you had to sew. The moose hide wasn’t soft. At eight or nine years old I would have to do that. I would have to make my own mukluks.

They cut my hair, my long beautiful hair.

We all slept in – I would say there must have been a hundred students there, maybe more if – I can’t really remember. But there were a lot of us, I remember, a lot of us and we had little beds side-by-side all the way back like this (indicating). It was scary trying to go to sleep by yourself whereas when you were at home you slept with your little sister or your little brother beside you and it was really hard.

The older students looked after us. They had what they called “charges”, taking charge over the little ones. You had to listen to them or else, because if we didn’t listen to them they would get into trouble. So in order for them not to be in trouble, not to get into trouble, they would make sure that we listened to them, even if they had to rough us up.

Today I’m sixty-five years old and I still remember clearly, just like a picture, a picture of the things that happened in there. We used to go downstairs and us little kids used to have to put logs in the fire, put some wood in that big furnace. We had to go all the way downstairs if they told you to go down and fill it up, you have to go down, you and another person. But still it was hard work. They were heavy.

When they roughed us girls up that’s when I really would get scared. I never got roughed up myself, but I got put in a post a couple of times because I said one word in my language.

I think that’s why I really fought to keep my language. Because they didn’t want me to speak it I thought to myself, “you’re not going to keep me from speaking my language”, and so I really picked it right back up when I got out of there. I picked it up with my grandparents. I lived with my grandparents all the time. My grandparents being there, and my mom and dad and my aunties and my uncles, we had like a little community.

In the summer time we got home. In June. But later on, about three years after, I remember going home for Christmas for a few days. My parents had to come to town and live in town, live in the community. The community was Aklavik and they had to come to town and stay there for a few weeks or a month or so just to have me out there, just to keep me for a few days with them. It was beautiful. I just didn’t want to go back but I had to.

I was in school for five years, really. That’s a long, long, long five years. It was more or less like forty years because the year moved so slow. How long is it going to be until June? You wait for June so you could go home. My husband didn’t go home at all. He died thirteen years ago. I lost my husband. And I know it’s through Residential School. I know for a fact it’s through Residential School because he didn’t know how to talk about the problems that he went through. He was a quiet person. He was there for eleven years. And sometimes he wouldn’t go home because him, he was from further away. He was from the Tuk area.

I never heard anybody talking Inuktitut. It would have been so nice.

My friend and I were talking about it not too long ago. We always talk about the times we were at school. We were saying at least if we saw one Native person coming to the whole school, you know, just to come and visit, it would have been so nice to see that person. Every time you saw a Native person you were so happy. It didn’t matter who it was, even though you didn’t know them. There was a hospital right beside so we got to know a few people from the hospital. We were not allowed to hang out around there either.

They were all Nuns, Fathers or Brothers. They taught me how to read and write. When I looked at Dick and Jane I thought Dick and Jane were in heaven when I saw all the green grass. That’s how much I knew about Dick and Jane. Goodness, they must be in heaven! And there were animals. I didn’t know what they were. That’s why today I think I’m really working, finally working on the things that students know the things that they know about, to learn about something they don’t know and they have to find out about it, let them learn about something they see like Caribou or whatever.

We ate rotten fish which was just yellow. You had to eat it. It was so yellow. I don’t know how yellow it is. But you had to eat it. If you didn’t eat it you will be in trouble. There was a friend of mine who didn’t want to have her porridge. I guess she got tired of eating porridge and she wasn’t going to eat it and she wasn’t feeling well either. Well, the Nun saw it. They called the other Nuns and they just worked her up again. You could see it. Everybody saw it. You get so scared when you see something like that. Right in front of the kids. It doesn’t matter. Just so long as I guess they tried to teach other kids how to – You better listen or else this is what is going to happen to you, too. It was so scary, just like being in jail, rather, I think.

I just loved the Christmas concerts, because these Native people would come and watch us. Just to see them, eh, you’re up there and you’re doing things and you see all these Native people. You’re so excited, it doesn’t matter if you know them or they’re not your relatives or anything. Just to see them. They were so beautiful. I just loved it when they would say we are getting ready for the concert. I looked forward to seeing all these Elders and people from the communities because they used to go to Aklavik for Christmas and Easter and different things like that. They used to go there for occasions so they used to come and watch us. It wasn’t my relatives. It was just the people who came from different places. Sometimes my father and my mother would come and it was nice to see them watching me. My parents came by dog team. Probably took a whole day. They would have to get up really early in the morning if they want to make it right through. But sometimes they would have to camp. Of course they had children, too. They had to make sure the children don’t get cold. What I used to wear was really nice. I don’t remember getting cold when my grandmother from my father’s side was alive. She would make us every year Caribou skin for the all inside, Caribou skin on top, right from (indicating) all the way down, mitts and everything. I don’t remember getting cold. They were so beautiful. [At school we wore] canvas shoes, canvas parkas and duffle, I think it was. It wasn’t really duffle either because it was cold. It was a parka. You would have to wear it. You can’t wear your own. No, not what you went there in. That’s what you went to school with. They won’t allow you to wear those kinds of clothes. Everybody had to be the same, the same kind of mukluks, the same kind of parkas. I don’t know why. I never understood that part. Maybe they wanted us to dress like them!

It was hard for my parents, very, very hard. First of all, they didn’t want to put me in school. These people came around from the government telling them that if you didn’t send any of your kids to the Residential Schools you’re not going to get Family Allowance any more. They were going to have no Family Allowance and that’s the only thing that was the extra money, eh, that they had besides their fur.

Maybe I was hiding a lot of things to talk about. You know, I think that’s where they changed me there. Even though I don’t want to think that it’s like that, it is. That’s where they changed me, to hide things that I don’t want people to know. Or I don’t want to talk about. I understand every one of the persons who are out on the street because it’s a really hard thing to ever talk about. It’s really hard for us Native people, myself anyways, to talk about your feelings, your hurts. You were shunned if you did that. I find that a lot.

Where some of us are so fortunate to get out of it, very, very fortunate to get out of that feeling, even though today I still feel it. If I have some things that are hard to talk about and I don’t get it out, but I do a lot of talking like this, to different ones. That’s why I say if these people that are out there would just – but they don’t know how- start talking about these things they would be set free also. My family is one of the fortunate people that are —

Alcoholism. We drank a lot. We did drink a lot when my husband was alive and when I was a teenager I drank a lot because of that, not knowing who to turn to and not knowing who to talk to because a lot of people that I tried to talk to wouldn’t understand me. They wouldn’t ever understand the situation that I went through.

It’s very important to talk about whatever is in your life that you need to talk to even a person that you don’t know, I think that is the most effective way to go about it because sometimes when you know someone and you talk to them, you don’t seem to get across to them or they don’t know what you’re talking about. But if you talk to other people that you don’t know, when they start telling you that this is what is happening in your life then you know that they’re not digging into your life or trying to find out about your life.

Home is where your family is. That’s what you call home. Your home is where your relatives, your family, your mom and dad, your grandfather and your grandmother when they’re around, that’s what you call home. To me it’s very important to have relatives. Like for ourselves we keep going, even though I have lost my mother and my father. All those are gone now. We still keep going. We still gather together for occasions, birthdays or whatever, we still get together. We talk amongst each other. We talk about our problems and we help each other a lot. We uplift each other a lot.

The only thing that I heard in Residential School about my home was that it was not a fit place to live in. We were poor. We had nothing. We didn’t have good blankets. We didn’t have the foods they were giving us. I’ve heard people talking about that. These are the things that are really very, very hard for me to talk about when they put your home down. They say that your home is cold. It’s not warm like this. Would you rather be home where it’s cold and you don’t have much to eat, and that’s where your home is. You would rather be there but you couldn’t tell them these things. If you start crying about going home they would tell you all these things. They would tell you what a pitiful home you had just to try to stop you from crying. They make you cry harder because that’s where your home is.

Not only that, the other thing I can remember is they would bring a big barge. We used to burn wood at the Residential School. They would bring a big barge; it was a big barge, maybe as big as this room but longer, just full of logs. There were logs right to the top and all over. Guess who would take them out of there?—Us. Yeah . A little plank like this (indicating). You could barely stand on it. And you’re scared. If you turn around and try to go too fast you’re going to fall in. I’m pretty sure from talking to other students, too, I’m sure that someone drowned and nobody said anything because our plank is so tiny. This is what you call a plank —

It goes from the scow up to the bank and we would be as close as this (indicating) I guess, all the way down. There was a chain of us right up to the furnace room, right up to the furnace room. You had to go down the stairs. But there were some boys on the stairs, too. You would stand on a couple of stairs; go down a couple of stairs, all the way to where they piled the wood up. Every fall we had to do that. Every fall my arms used to get just red.

There were some students who tried not to hurt their arms but they must be bleeding or something, because those woods are not smooth. They’re rough. They were trees like this (indicating). We would have to do that. I can still clearly remember that, clear like a picture. I can remember it so well. I don’t remember anybody dying because they were so secretive. I used to be scared to die, too. I used to just think, “gee, I hope I don’t get sick”.

And this cod liver oil that we had to have. Today I think about It and all those — How many hundred girls using the same spoon? They would give us cod liver oil every morning. Sometimes you just don’t want to take it but you have to. You wait for your cod liver oil.

I remember when I went home a few years down the road, about three years after I had been in the Residential School, I found that we were just like separating, the students and the Elders were separating because these ones were talking too much in English and they couldn’t understand them. And we couldn’t understand the Elders speaking in their language. That’s what I find that changed.

Every year there’s more.

My children never stepped in a Residential School because their father wouldn’t let them. He was there too long. From his trap line he had to move to Inuvik. He left his traps and I just know he loved to trap, but he wasn’t going to see one of his children go to the Residential School. He was going to prevent that. Never! So, all four of my children never as much as walked into the Residential School.

It was because of what he went through, eh. I kind of know what he went through, but the only time that he would talk about it is when he was drinking. He wouldn’t talk about it otherwise. But the only time he talked about it was when he drank. I had to have a few, too. It’s very hard to talk about it because he would have been still here if it wasn’t for that. I know they killed him.

I think a couple of years ago maybe there was my cousins and myself and quite a few of us were talking about when we were in school. “You did all that?” Our children were trying to understand what we went through. They couldn’t believe that we went through all that. But other than that we never talk about it. It’s something that is too hard to talk about. For me I had to go back to the same way that my parents brought me up. But my husband wouldn’t let my children cross anything. Never cross his ways, you know. There was no way his children were going to do anything like that. I noticed that. He was a very strict father. And I knew it was from when he went to Residential School. I knew. I could see that. I understood him and we supported each other with that.

There are lots of alcoholics, lots of people who do really good for a few years, maybe five or six years, and they just — Something hits them and they just start drinking again. There’s lots of dope now back home. That’s what the students are going through, too. That’s why I told you that’s what affects the people today, not knowing how to talk to anybody else, not knowing how to make them understand what they’re going through.

Another thing that I see is how the young people start turning to booze and to drugs is because of the Residential School. The parents suffered enough so they start drinking and everything and that’s how come the young people start doing those kinds of things too. Because the parents don’t know how to talk to them, I guess. I’m not putting them down. That’s the way I am. That’s the way I am. I never knew how to make them think differently than what they were going through because I felt guilty already because we drank so much, they were drinking and that. But today they are well-to-do, my children. I’m so proud of them. There’s nothing I could be so thankful for, you know, for how we brought them up and yet they turned around this way. They are just beautiful. They all don’t live at home, except for my daughter. She still lives in Inuvik. I have three boys; one in Kamloops, one in Calgary and one in Edmonton. That was the only way that they could get out of the rut they were in.

These kinds of things I think are some of the things that we have to think about. Help those people that are down there. You just want to help them so much but you’re only one person so to try to do that it’s going to be hard. You need a group.

Talk. Talking, and loving them I think is the most important. I find that you don’t go telling them that they’re wrong. You’re bad. I found that out when I was teaching the teenagers at the high school. Today they are twenty or thirty years old but they won’t pass me by without giving me a hug because I loved them to where they are today. Yeah. I see them doing so well, a lot of them. They still want to look after me. It’s their turn to look after me.

Canadians should really try to find out and ask questions. Find out for themselves. Sit one-to-one with somebody who has been through — Sometimes people think you’re just talking like this just because, but it’s not. It’s not. They have to find out the true facts of what we went through. And that’s when they’re going to finally realize that these people did go through all the things that they say they did.

Take a look at some people, some Native people. You know they say that the majority of Native people who live on the street, all those there in Vancouver or wherever, it’s because they can’t talk and they can’t deal with these things. That’s why they’ve got lots of counselors for themselves, like the people that have never been to Residential Schools before they’re trying to help their people, or other people to quit drinking and different things like that. It’s the same thing today. It’s just like when you’re in a circle. We have centers. When you’re in those and when you’re in the circle, I would advise them to go to more circles and then they’ll really understand how to help those people with a lot of talking.

I just have to tell other Inuit to keep going. We just have to keep going where we come from, we have to keep talking about it, talking to whoever you’re comfortable with, and don’t keep it inside or it’s going to eat you up. Whatever is inside of you is going to turn into cancer or sickness.

We should try to bring our people back home, back to who we were before. Go out on the land. That’s where you can really feel the healing, the healing part of you, you can feel it when you’re out on the land. For myself, that’s what I’ve been looking for and that’s what my hopes are that they will bring even the younger people out on the land.

Me and my husband used to do that. I still do every summer. I’m retired but I still work hard! We go to my camp. We go walking on the hills. I have hills not far, right across my place. We go for berries. Just different things. We eat out with them and travel around with them with the boat. Just being on the land is a healing part for me, and even for them. They find out about different things, different plants and what you use them for, and sometimes I just purposely don’t bring anything for medicine; no aspirins or anything like that. I just take them without things like that and then they find out that there are other things out there. Plus I always say that your culture, your language, tradition, if you have those three you feel good about yourself. That’s what I told my students for ten years. If you know who you are, if I know who Lillian is, for the rest of my life I’m going to be feeling good about myself.

I got strong. I’m very powerful, I must say, I am today because of when I think back and I think that I couldn’t do this, I couldn’t do that, that’s why I never lost my language because I wasn’t going to let them beat me. I wasn’t going to let them take everything away from me. They could take my pride and things like that but not my language. My grandmother told me that herself. When she put me in the school, she said, “Don’t forget your language.”

How I kept it is by doing it voluntarily. I used to bring my grandmother up to the government offices and I would interpret for her. I would bring her to the hospital and interpret for her. My mother, I would interpret for all of them, anybody that needed. It was voluntarily working. Today I feel so proud of what I did because any time they need someone to do translations and interpreting or anything they come to me.

Today I am the Vice President for ICC [Inuit Circumpolar Conference]. I travel a lot with them. I was over in Kuujjuaq in northern Quebec last summer to speak to NTI [Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated]. I was there and they were talking about young people and the Elders. That was real nice. I really enjoyed it. I had a chance to speak to them about how to help them with speaking of the —

You know, what they’re doing is the right thing. They are walking in the right direction because youth and Elders never separate. If they want to know anything there was always an Elder there. And the youth —

We have to understand this part, too, we have to understand the youth because the youth’s mind is not like mine. Mine is really the opposite. I want them to do it this way. You can’t go around telling them that because I taught for ten years and I had to remember, yeah, I was a teenager once. (Laughter) So this is what I do.

I would just like to encourage all the Residential School students not to forget. If they forget everything else they should try to get home again. Try to get home. Try to go out on the land or speak to people they think might be able to help them. Unless you know who you are and your background all these nice things are going to come back up.