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Adopting a process and approach to help bring about reconciliation

Truth commission to finish hearings this fall

By JOHN BIRD

Judge James Igloliorte and his truth commission team have already visited 10 of the 13 Qikiqtani region communities for their public hearings, and are to complete the last three community hearings by mid-October, visiting Qikiqtarjuaq next week, Clyde River Oct. 7-10, and Pond Inlet Oct. 14-17.

But Igloliorte need go no farther than his own executive assistant, Joanasie Akumalik, for an example of how federal government policies between 1950 and 1980 affected individual Inuit, says Madeleine Redfern, the commission's dynamic, articulate executive director, who is responsible for keeping the whole operation on track.

As a youth, Akumalik was sent to Red Deer, Alta., for vocational training.

"I asked him why he went there," Redfern recalls, "and all he could say was: ‘I don't know.' To this day Joanasie doesn't know why they sent him to Red Deer."

It says a lot about how government officials made decisions for and about the Inuit, without consultation or explanation.

The public hearings are bringing up all kinds of issues in addition to the dog slaughter and relocations, says Redfern, a graduate of the Akitsiraq law school.

She tells of a mother who was taken onto the hospital ship, C.D. Howe for tuberculosis tests, then removed directly south for treatment, with no explanation, and with no chance to leave the ship to see or get in touch with family members.

"We heard stories of family members who were sent down south and never came back. They died down there and their bodies were never returned."

Already this fall, the commission has held hearings in Hall Beach, Igloolik and Kimmirut. Redfern says issues that have come up in testimony this fall include:

  • community tensions in Igloolik caused by the intense competition between the Anglican and Roman Catholic missions there;
  • the decision at the Hall Beach DEW Line base to begin burning all garbage, thus eliminating a source of building and other materials the local Inuit had come to find valuable;
  • the moving of 20 graves to make space for housing at Hall Beach.

Redfern says that "almost everyone who comes before the commission has an incredible historical account to share. A lot of it has been very heart-wrenching, but it really gives you a sense of the strength of the Inuit people to adapt and survive."

"You also see the intergenerational impacts of historical events," she adds. People in pain pass the pain on to their children, even when they try to avoid doing this by not talking about the past.

"One elder in Igloolik said that ‘maybe by not sharing our history with our children we hurt them in a different way.' It's important for people to know their history, for ownership and acknowledgement. We have to recognize that historic events do shape today."

Not all testimony has been about painful or traumatic experiences. "Some people talked about getting their first house," she recalls.

One person described it as "so big, so clean, so beautiful." Others spoke with appreciation about family assistance and medical care.

"We hope that the work of the commission will bring the collective experiences of the Inuit out into the open," Redfern says.

Many people who came before the commission, says Redfern, spoke of their desire to have non-Inuit recognize the unique Inuit historical experience and Inuit culture, and to have them respect that. There is a desire for a mutually respectful relationship.

The commission is on schedule to complete its information-gathering mission by the end of the year, including extensive archival research into the records of institutions like the federal department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, the RCMP, the Anglican Church, the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife, and the various newspapers that have covered the region.

Dates still need to be set in Iqaluit for a couple of public hearings with institutions, says Redfern.

The commission will hold one public hearing with the RCMP, and another with the Qikiqtani Inuit Association itself, the organization that established the commission last year.

There will also be a public hearing in Ottawa.

Then Igloliorte, Redfern and Akumalik will begin reviewing and sifting the masses of gathered material, which will already be catalogued and entered into a searchable database.

The team aims to deliver its report to QIA, complete with analysis, conclusions and recommendations, by September 2009, says Redfern.

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