Like an iceberg, 1993, cont.: “Chesterfield Inlet”
The heavy DC-3 flew in low, almost touching the tundra. In the distance, as far as the eye could see, a flat expanse of greenish-yellow spread out, broken only by long flat stretches of water, as if the nearby Hudson Bay was extending a long, watery hand over the barrens.
Everyone clapped as the plane landed on the small gravel airstrip that separated Chesterfield Inlet from the water and the land. As the passengers filed off the plane, cheering broke out. They ran into clusters of waiting friends. In the back of a pick-up truck, I was driven to my campsite, a sandy playground behind the school.
I was among a handful of journalists here to cover the first reunion of the Inuit students who were scooped off the tundra in the 1950s and 1960s to study at Sir Joseph Bernier Federal School, where Oblate priests and Grey Nuns taught them, and — their former students said — often abused them.
In the evening, rocks that framed the shore were pink and gray, punctuated by small purple flowers and miniature daisies. The tide was out, exposing a dark, shiny inlet of sand and seaweed. The air was full of smells, of rank kelp, wet rocks and a slight smell from the flowers. A brisk breeze blew mosquitoes far from the campsite.
“I used to know every rock here,” said C., looking around. “Over there was our skating rink in winter. I remembered it as being so big, but it’s just a pond.”
She was returning after 25 years to Chesterfield Inlet, a community on the western coast of Hudson Bay, population 300, to get in touch with those memories, those of a small child taken from the makeshift camp where she lived with her family on the Distance Early Warning line to attend the federal school here. The school was now closed, and the Turquetil Hall residence she lived in was gone, but she and her former classmates came back.
In July 1993, they were back for their first school reunion. But the reunion was a pretext. Like her childhood friends, C. was there to also make peace with memories of abuse that with the years, which had grown bigger in her mind.
There were the “things-you-shouldn’t-forget” and can’t: the teachers who threw yardsticks and erasers in class when you didn’t know the answer, being forced to drink stale milk or to take meals alone, or not being able to speak to a brother and knowing something even darker was happening to him, but not telling anyone, just remembering and suffering.
“Perhaps they thought we’d never grow up,” said a friend of C.’s from the past. “No one knew the pain behind Turquetil Hall,” said another. “I wish they could see our pain.”
Students came from all over the eastern Arctic, the brightest young Inuit children, hand-picked by missionaries for education.
“I witnessed a lot of physical abuse. One of my classmates was asked a question and couldn’t answer it. A teacher shouted at her and she went stiff, didn’t say a word. The more he yelled, the more paralysed she was,” a former student told me.
“Finally, he had chalk in one hand and an eraser in the other. He threw it at her. She didn’t move. But I could see the blood trickling down her finger. It made me feel so awful. I felt so helpless. But I couldn’t go to her because I’d get it too.”
She said an even harder realization came later, when she had a formal southern education. She’d lost her culture and didn’t feel comfortable with herself or her former home.
“I went through the school system and I can’t erase it. This is me. I’ve stopped struggling with it, ” she said.
J. said he felt he was kidnapped in 1958, from a camp along the DEW line, to attend the federal school where he became isolated from his family, his culture and his language.
“We were so scared all the time that we learned to speak English very quickly. There was a lot of commitment on my part to learn this language. I was told to forget our culture and language because I would never use them again,” he said.
He didn’t talk that first year with his parents until Christmas.
“The mission had a high-frequency radio, so I spoke to my parents. It was the first time I’d ever spoken to my parents on a high-frequency radio, and I didn’t even know what to say. I heard my parents say, ‘Be good. Listen to your teachers and supervisors and don’t do bad things.’ I remember receiving maybe three letters because there were very few planes that went through Repulse Bay in those years. I was extremely lonely.”
At the school, J. played new games, like baseball, which took his mind off his loneliness. He learned how to use a bathtub and toilet, wear shoes, eat unfamiliar, cooked food, and wake up at precise hours.
“Education here was top-notch,” J. said. “It produced many people into the leadership of the Inuit. This is a success story for all of us. But the price was pretty high. I lost a lot of my culture. I lost a lot of my language. I lost a lot of my spiritual beliefs. At home, part of the happiness was to tell me stories at night, legends that were passed on from generations. I’m not able to pass these on to my children. We lost a hell of a lot for what we got in terms of education in Chesterfield Inlet.”
J. said he doesn’t have the good quality that he admired in his parents: their ability to fully enjoy life. He hears the voices of his teachers when he gets angry. For years, he drank too much, held in too much pain.
“At home, I learned about love, your family, your neighbours, but here I learned about the Bible. There’s no emotion. It’s just written on paper.”
Sexual abuse was also part of the exchange, something J. didn’t want to talk about for 30 years. He said he narrowly escaped being a victim of Brother Parent, the one they called Iggaialuk, the big cook. J. said he wanted to be a priest, and Brother Parent wanted to encourage him. So, Parent made him cakes. He’d invite him to his private quarters to look at pamphlets on the church.
“Sexual abuse does not belong only to the men of the Roman Catholic Church. It’s still happening in our communities in the 1990s. We have to be prepared to do something about it so it doesn’t happen again 100 years from now,” he said.
“We were children,” said a fellow former student. “We didn’t even know the meaning of sexual abuse, but the impact of it was so great that we didn’t have the words to disclose it.
“There’s no reason to gloss it over because it’s just another in a long line of sexual abuses across the country and the world in terms of residential schools.
“There is never any excuse for abuse. We survived to succeed in spite of sexual abuse. We were sexually abused and that was 30 years ago. The only thing to do is heal.”
“Chesterfield Inlet” will be continued April 11.
You can read the first blog entry of “Like an iceberg” from April 2 here.
Earlier instalments are here:
Like an iceberg: on being a journalist in the Arctic
Like an iceberg, 1991…cont.
Like an iceberg, 1991…more
Like an iceberg, 1992, “Shots in the dark”
Like an iceberg, 1992, “Sad stories”
Like an iceberg, 1993, “Learning the language of the snows”
Like an iceberg, 1993 cont., “Spring”