Peter first attended Residential School in Chesterfield Inlet, NU in 1958. Like many young Inuit who went through the Residential School System, Peter was later sent to the Churchill Vocational Centre in Churchill, MB.
“I have always maintained that southern Canadians have a right to know what we went through at the Residential School. Health care givers have a right to know what we went through at the Residential Schools. You see, with the Residential School my generation of Inuit went through quite a lot. We were sexually abused. We were physically abused. We were mentally abused.”
Born in 1947 in Naujaat/ Repulse Bay, Nunavut, Peter Irniq began attending the Sir Joseph Bernier Federal Day School in Chesterfield Inlet in 1958. Peter also attended Sir John Franklin School in Yellowknife 1963 – 64 and was later sent to the Churchill Vocational Centre in Manitoba with many other Inuit to receive training in a southern trade. Today, Peter is an Inuit cultural teacher, a consultant, and an accomplished public speaker who has held several political offices, including serving as the Deputy Minister of the Department of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth in 1998 and 1999 and Commissioner of Nunavut between 2000 and 2005. Having been brought up by the residential school system to learn the Qablunaat way of life, Peter has since campaigned successfully to have Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, or IQ (Inuit traditional knowledge), incorporated into the Nunavut and Canadian systems of government, as well as to have Inuit language and cultural programs integrated into Northern classrooms.
I remember my very happy times when I was a little boy prior to going to the Residential School in Chesterfield Inlet. I lived much like my parents as a very traditional Inuit, the Inuit lifestyle. I was always dressed in Caribou clothing in the winter time and switched to store-bought clothing in the spring and summer time. We already had Hudson’s Bay Company traders trading with the Inuit for furs and sealskins and carvings and things like that when I was just a little boy. I grew up as a seal hunter, as well as caribou hunter, and a trapper in Naujaat/Repulse Bay.
We noticed one summer day in August 1958, a boat was coming up to our outpost camp. As Inuit we lived in a tent at this particular outpost camp where we used to fish every spring when the fish were swimming downstream, Arctic Char. In August of that particular year we noticed a boat coming to our outpost camp in Naujaat/Repulse Bay. So as usual my mother started to boil tea outside, with heather. She was making tea for the visitors that were coming into our outpost camp.
When the boat got there the Priest came off, the Oblate Priest came off the boat first and said to my father that he came to pick up Peter Irniq and that I was going to school in Chesterfield Inlet. Well, there was a bit of commotion at that point because my parents were not consulted about the fact that I was going to be going to school. So here I was going into a boat leaving my parents for the first time in my life in 1958 and I was going to school in Chesterfield Inlet.
In a few days I was going to fly for the first time on a Beaver, a one-engine Beaver airplane on my way from Naujaat to Chesterfield Inlet to go to school. There was no consultation prior to the departure, which was the way we were picked up by Roman Catholic Priests whether you were in Naujaat/Repulse Bay or whether you were in Igloolik or in Gjoa Haven or Pelly Bay. There was no prior consultation with my parents.
So when we got to Chesterfield Inlet we were met by Grey Nuns and a number of people. A year before I had learned a little bit of English words here and there from Roman Catholic Priests, two of them, who were In Naujaat/Repulse Bay. So I learned a few words like “seal” and “caribou” and “box” and “fish” and things like that, and we learned how to say “what is your name?”
So when we got off the plane I noticed this very small Oblate member of the Staff standing next to me and he said, “What is your name?” And I said, “Peter”, almost whispering because I was really, really shy to learn to speak English. So he said, “Peter?” Yeah, “Peter.” So he was one of the people who met us and he was part of the Roman Catholic Staff. He was a Brother within that group of the organization. They brought us to this big Turquetil Hall residence. There they took our clothes, our traditional clothing. I was wearing sealskin boots. They took all of our traditional clothing and for the first time I saw and wore shoes. For the first time I saw a pair of jeans. For the first time I saw a short-sleeved shirt and that’s what we were wearing.
We had overnight become White men and White women, little children. We were beginning to be taught to become like a European at this particular school. It was very strange to me when I first went to this school because I just wasn’t used to going to school. There was a blackboard. Actually, it was a green board and our teacher was a Grey Nun. There were a, b, c at the school and a few pictures of the world, a map of the world, and pictures of the Pope on the side of the wall and a picture of the first Grey Nun, or a Nun some hundred or couple of hundred years before. So that was the first thing I noticed in that particular classroom when we were brought into this classroom.
We had a very large dormitory where they had about forty beds, or maybe a little bit more. The beds were all lined up. We had a huge, huge dormitory for the young boys, and young ladies upstairs. I was used to a 14 x 12 tent, which housed six members of my family, seven members of my family. I was used to that, or a 20-foot in diameter snow house in the wintertime. So getting into this huge, huge place was a huge cultural shock for me, and I’m sure for many other young people, children, who went to Residential School that particular year or the years before, or the years after.
We had to wash the walls and we had to wash the floors. Along with the other boy from Igloolik I was a garbage boy, carrying the pail that the Grey Nuns had thrown away after they ate, you know, oranges and things like that. So we threw out orange peelings in a pail from the Nun’s meal into the ocean. That’s what we were told to do so those were part of our responsibilities. So I became a garbage boy when I got to Chesterfield Inlet.
The food was terrible. I have to say the food was terrible. Once a week or every two weeks we had muktuk, which is whale blubber, or whale skin. That’s something I’m used to at home. They fed us frozen cow beef, cow beef from southern Canada. That’s something that I wasn’t used to. And I think the reason why they fed us that was because we’re used to eating Caribou meat, raw, frozen, or fish frozen, or things like that but I wasn’t used to eating frozen cow beef. I never ever got used to eating that raw frozen. And the other one that was very horrible eating was they would boil the Arctic Char, which is something that I’m used to at home. But they left the guts in the Arctic Char so that food just tasted horrible. And yet we had to eat it. We had no other choice but to eat the Arctic Char with guts, you know.
The one I used to look forward to during the week, especially at dinner, was eating corned beef. That was something that I got used to fairly quickly and I still like it to this day. The other one that I used to look forward to was Saturday mornings when we would eat corn flakes. They had a really big box of corn flakes. That was about the only time we had corn flakes, every Saturday morning. So the food was to begin with very horrible. But there were some nice little parts to it when we would have corned beef and corn flakes and things like that. We never had any sweets at that hostel. We had two cookies Saturday afternoon with milk and that was the other thing that I remember very well at that particular time.
In the spring time when we were going home, about two weeks or a month before we would be going home, when the days got long and we had no more dark nights, that was something else that I would look forward to, because at that particular school we were severely punished by our teachers when we couldn’t add arithmetic or we didn’t know anything about Social Studies or anything like that, or even science. After all, we were not used to learning about southern culture. We learned about our own culture at home, the Inuit language, Inuit culture, as a hunting society.
We were expected to know all about camels in Saudi Arabia. Those were the kind of things that we learned at that particular school. We were expected to know all about the fishery in eastern Canada and forestry in western Canada in British Columbia. We didn’t know anything about these very strange parts of our world.
Inuit learn by observing our fathers and our mothers sewing clothes and hunting and building an igloo or anything like that, so we learn by observing. We are very adaptable people. We adapted overnight. I wasn’t used to reading Dick and Jane. I learned about Inuit legends, for example, so I wasn’t used to southern European culture. So, particularly that first year I don’t have many memories of happy times because we were always severely punished by the Staff at the Residential School as well as our teachers at Sir Joseph Bernier Federal Day School.
We were not allowed to speak our own language. When they caught me speaking with one of the people in that particular picture in the classroom, a Grey Nun teacher told me to open my hand and she took a yardstick and really hit me so hard I can still feel the pain today, you know. She said, “Don’t ever let me hear you speak that language again in this classroom. You’re here to learn to speak and write English and arithmetic. Forget about your culture. Forget about your language and forget about your Inuit spirituality.” Those were the things that the Grey Nuns, both the Staff at the residence as well as at the school used to tell us. So I don’t have any memories of really good times throughout that particular year.
When we were about to go home, say, a couple of weeks before, we had quite a bit of fun because we would go out and play football out on the sea ice. As people who are extremely free on the land, free to do whatever we wanted to do, we enjoyed outside activities like playing football and things like that. The other thing, too, the Sisters both the supervisors and the teachers, used to get extremely nice to you just before we went home. I remember this particular Sister who used to come to me and say, “Peter, when you get home tell your parents that you had an extremely wonderful time this year at this hostel and at school, and make sure you tell your parents in the summer time that you’re coming back.” Those are the kinds of things I remember so well.
In previous years Naujaat only had five wooden buildings. Three belonged to the Hudson’s Bay Company and two belonged to the Roman Catholic Church. And as I said, the rest of us stayed in tents and igloos in the wintertime, or in an occasional sod house in the wintertime, which was warmer than a snow house.
So when I got back home that first year in May of 1959, I was already twelve years old because I left home at the age of eleven and my sister and my brother-in-law were waiting for me at the village of Naujaat. My parents were living — we always lived away from the community. They were living about fifteen kilometers away from the settlement, a small settlement. As I said, the place only had about five buildings all together. So they came to pick me up by dog team and that was the only transportation system that we had in those days. I noticed out in the distance my mother and father were coming to meet us.
I was so happy to see my parents I ran over and kissed my parents and my little brother. He had learned to speak at that point because he was only two or three years old when I left. So I got on their komatik, their sleigh, and we went back to our camp, the spring camp that afternoon. I was really, really happy to be back home with my family and familiar surroundings where I was free to speak my own language again and learn a great deal about my culture and language. That was a very big excitement for me to get back to Naujaat and to my parents again. I had a happy return to my home and had a happy reunion with my family that particular spring, particularly that spring of 1959 when I returned home for the first time after a year.
And the reason why it was so hard was because we weren’t able to communicate with our parents for the entire nine months that we were in Chesterfield Inlet. We just didn’t have communication facilities, no telephones. I remember I got two letters from my mother that particular year in 1958 and 1959.
So the entire summer I spent at home was like being in heaven again, a place of happiness, where I was free to go out, to go out hunting, to go out fishing, to go out seal hunting with my parents, free to speak my own language, free to do whatever I wanted to do for the next few months. So I had a really wonderful time being back at home with my parents and my relatives free to go back to the community that I grew up in, free to do the kinds of things that I have always done as a little boy in Naujaat/Repulse Bay with my friends in Naujaat.
We paid a very high price for going to Turguetil Hall Residential School. Because the whole idea of Residential School, as presented to us by the Canadian Government was to assimilate Inuit, assimilate Aboriginal people of Canada to become like White men and White women. So when we first got to school we were expected to speak English. As I said, we were not allowed to speak Inuktitut in the classrooms.
The year 1958, whether I knew anything about it at the time or not, was the beginning of the end of my own culture and my own language and of my own Inuit spirituality. We started to read Dick and Jane schoolbooks, which were extremely foreign to the way we were brought up. The way I was brought up was listening to my father or my mother telling me stories about Kiviuq, for example. Kiviuq is an Inuit legend that I learned about as a little boy. Those kinds of things were non-existent at that particular school, at the residence. So we lost our culture. We lost our language. I still speak my language. I still know about my own culture but we lost a great deal about many different aspects of our culture and language, as well as our Inuit spirituality.
Also we lost parenting. A lot of people who went to a Residential School lost a great deal in terms of parenting skills because for nine months, ten months of the year we had these surrogate mothers and fathers. The Grey Nuns, the Christian Brothers, the Christian Fathers, Roman Catholic Priests who were supposed to be our parents didn’t know anything about parenting. After all, they weren’t married. They didn’t know anything about marriage so the only thing they knew, how to discipline us, was to give us severe punishments for little things that we wouldn’t have got punishment for when we were in our own community at home.
So in terms of relating to my adult life I missed out a great deal about parenting skills. I am not as good as my parents were. I am not as good as my parents were in terms of bringing up my own children, for example. So we lost a great deal in terms of the most important aspect of our life and that is parenting skills.
My parents had a difficult time. They lost their children. They lost their child that they were bringing up to believe that he was going to grow like a true Inuk with abilities to hunt, abilities to speak, ability to know the land, the environment that I walk on. They were going to bring me up exactly the same way as we have always been brought up, like the traditional way of life from 10,000 years ago in Nunavut, or within Inuit homelands. But they missed out on that. They no longer knew anything about me after I had been to a Residential School.
As a matter fact, my life changed drastically after I had been to a Residential School and their life changed drastically also. I was going to be their helper growing up in Naujaat to become a good family provider, a good husband, a good Caribou hunter, a good seal hunter. They missed out on that after I was brought to Residential School. So they missed out on a lot as well in terms of bringing me up to be a good member of the Inuit community, as a good hunter and as a productive member of the society.
As a matter of fact in 1963 and 1964, particularly 1964, when the government sent me to the Churchill Vocational Centre —You see, in the 1960s in particular the Government of Canada was sending Inuit to southern centers all over the place. They sent Inuit to take on mechanics and heavy equipment courses in the 1960s. So they got to know the Eskimo as a good mechanic. That’s the expression the Government used to have about the Inuit. “Oh, you Eskimos are so good with your hands”, they say. “You’re very good mechanics.”
So in 1964 they established the Churchill Vocational Centre for Inuit only from the Northwest Territories, well, Nunavut and Nunavik in northern Quebec. So they brought those of us who had gone to Residential Schools together so the Inuit could be together and they brought us to Churchill Vocational Centre.
So in 1964 I attended Churchill Vocational Centre and never got back to my home community. It’s something that I’m sorry about. It’s something I feel pretty bad about over the course of my past years. But this is the way I was now brought up by the Residential School system. So I never did come home to live again in Naujaat/Repulse Bay.
I returned home in later years but I never did go back to the community to live like many other young boys and young girls who had gone to Residential School. I was a very changed person. In 1965, the Government of Canada, Indian Affairs, brought me to Kitchener, Ontario. The District Education Superintendent at the time came to Churchill Vocational Centre in the fall of 1965, after I had been attending that particular Vocational Centre for a year. He came over and started looking around for what he called a smart young Eskimo and he found me. I guess I was a smart young Eskimo, so he found me!
He said that we’re going to send you to Kitchener, Ontario and we’re going to get you a job there working in a furniture factory. Here I am wiping furniture coming straight out of the igloo. Now I’m wiping furniture in 1965 at the age of eighteen years old. That’s something that changed my life quite a lot as well. The whole idea of that particular period of time for me and the Government of Canada was we were samples, examples, for the Canadian Government. We were guinea pigs for the Canadian Government because they said that if you do a good job in Kitchener then the other Eskimos will have an easier time getting a job in southern Canada. So we were examples for the Canadian Government, guinea pigs in the 1960s.
So after living this life do you think I could go back to Naujaat and live in an igloo again, or live in a tent in the summer time?
At the age of eighteen or nineteen I had now other opportunities that I have seen. One good thing about southern Canada to me was that I learned southern Canadians, no matter who they were, were free to speak. They had a freedom of speech. They were free to criticize their government. They were free to criticize the Prime Minister of Canada. They elected their people, they elected their leaders and things like that.
At home in 1965-66, throughout the years following a few years anyway, we were still living under colonial government, the Canadian Government, the RCMP, and even
the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Roman Catholic Church. If there’s one thing southern Canada taught me in the 1960s was that I learned that I was a Canadian. I have freedom of speech. I can speak any how I wanted to. That’s how much I was changed.
In the early 1970s, we saw the formation of The Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, the Inuit Brotherhood of Canada, and regional associations that were established in various Inuit homelands in the Arctic, so there were lots of changes. We started to talk about the creation of Nunavut, which means “our land” in my language. We started to see the development of political structures for Inuit in the 1970s. Some of the changes that we saw in the 1970s were the changes that I myself helped to make those changes in regard to the creation of Nunavut, for example.
I am someone who was brought up by the Church, the school system, Residential School system, to forget about my own language and about my own culture. One of the things I’ve been doing was to introduce Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, which is Inuit traditional knowledge, to my fellow Inuit in the government organizations, whether they be Government of Canada or the Government of Nunavut or Inuit in general, southern Canadians, through various universities, such as Acadia University, the University of British Columbia, the University of Manitoba, you know, organizations like that.
I’ve been doing a lot of work helping to preserve and protect and promote Inuit culture. I do this through various lectures, various travels throughout the country. When I was a young man because of the colonialism I became very shy of my own culture. I became very embarrassed about my own culture because that’s how we were brought up to be by the Canadian Government colonialism in our communities. We were always laughed at because we lived in igloos. We were laughed at because we dressed in Caribou clothing and because Inuit traditionally kiss by kissing with your noses. That’s how the society knew us at that time and they made fun out of these things.
For my part, for myself, I became extremely embarrassed to be an Eskimo throughout the years when I was going to southern schools like Yellowknife and Churchill and southern Canada, but in the 1970s I started to want to take my culture back. As I said, there was a freedom of speech in southern Canada that we didn’t enjoy when I was a young man in Naujaat/Repulse Bay that I used to start promoting to my fellow Inuit in the early 1970s. So I entered politics to do that. I entered politics and became a Member of the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories and spoke about more Inuit involvement, Inuit cultural programs in the classrooms. I spoke about a need to have more Inuit cultural inclusion programs for Inuit, you know, young people as part of the education system so that young men for example can learn how to build an igloo.
I have always maintained that southern Canadians have a right to know what we went through at the Residential School. Health care givers have a right to know what we went through at the Residential Schools. You see, with the Residential School my generation of Inuit went through quite a lot. We were sexually abused. We were physically abused. We were mentally abused.
Canadians should be asking more about what happened to us at various Residential Schools throughout Canada. That’s what they should be asking. They should be taking more interest about these Inuit who moved from an igloo to the microwaves in less that forty-five years, so that’s what they should be asking more about us, about the experiences of Residential Schools, the legacy of Indian and Inuit Residential Schools in Canada.
I have told my fellow Inuit in the last couple of years that they should speak out; they should speak out more about their experiences at the Residential School. This will form part of the history, Canadian history, particularly the Inuit. It’s something even though that we were abused by the members of the Church at that time, we don’t hold grudges against the people who did these things to us. It embarrassed us. It embarrassed me.
Over the course of many years I got into drinking to hide the kind of shame that I was put through by the church members, particularly a Grey Nun at the Residential School. When she was doing this, this is the person that had authority. She had a cross, a crucifix of Jesus Christ in one hand. She represented God. She represented the Roman Catholic Church. So she had a lot of authority. What can you do? Who can you go and tell? Even if you were to complain about things that were happening to somebody in Chesterfield Inlet, nobody would have believed us anyway.
I would like to see that Sister again and ask her why she did that to me for an entire year, and the year after. I would like to be able to ask her why she did that to me. It’s something that our parents would never do to us. It’s something that no one in Inuit society would have thought about doing. It’s not right. It is not fair when so many of our Survivors were so young, as young as six years old. They were really just barely out of their mother’s back, from their amauti, the amauti that Inuit women carry their babies with.
One of the things that I would like to state clearly, and I would like to be understood clearly, is that my generation of Inuit who went to Turquetil Hall at Sir Joseph Bernier Federal Day School have never said anything negative about the education system that we got. If anything, we have said the school that we attended, the education system that we got in English was a top-notch education system. We all became leaders in the end. We endured a lot. We had a commitment. As much as that particular teacher used to call us bloody dodos and no good for nothing, a bunch of hounds of iniquity, he taught us pretty good in terms of English. But those were the pretty good things that happened to us in terms of getting our education system. The education system that we got was top notch in Chesterfield Inlet.
But the abuses —
We want to make sure that these kinds of things never happen to young people again, little children, in the future. We don’t hold grudges against those people, but we want to make sure that these things never happen to young people again, little children, never again. Never!
I go back to that very first year that we were at Turquetil Hall Residential School, Sir Joseph Bernier Federal Day School where we told not to speak our own language, Inuktitut language. But you know those of us that were told not to speak our own language in that classroom today, we have become big supporters of more Inuktitut courses in the classroom. We don’t want our language to disappear so we want the education system to supplement what we already know and teach Inuit language and Inuit culture from kindergarten to Grade 12. My generation of Inuit who were taught never to speak their language again in the classroom, we’re the ones who have put up a big argument, very big time, to include more Inuit language instruction in the Inuit language.