'We were treated like dogs.'

School reunion planned as time for healing


Next August, Marius Tungilik hopes to double Chesterfield Inlet's population of 700 as former students of the residential school there – and their partners and children – gather for the school's second reunion.

Tungilik was taken from his home in Repulse Bay in 1963 – when he was only five. He attended the Sir Joseph Bernier Federal Day School in Chesterfield Inlet for the next seven years, until he was 12.

He lived in the accompanying hostel, Turquetil Hall.

There the confused and frightened child was immersed in an English-only environment – even though he didn't understand a word of the language – and punished for speaking Inuktitut.

Over the next seven years he was beaten for even minor infractions of rules he often didn't understand, kept almost continuously separated from his two older sisters even though they were also at the school, and repeatedly told he belonged to a primitive, second-class race.

He was also sexually abused – as were many others who attended the school.

"We were treated like dogs," he says now, even though he recognizes he received good education in English language and culture. Not, unfortunately, in Inuktitut.

"Education is important and we benefited a lot from it, but the way they went about it was totally wrong," he says. "Now we have to clean up the mess they left behind, and repair the damages done."

Fifteen years ago, in July 1993, Tungilik and others held the first Chesterfield Inlet school reunion. About 150 people attended.

It was the beginning of a period of public disclosures on the residential schools experience by First Nations and Inuit former students across the country.

"It was a very emotionally charged gathering," Tungilik recalls. It was the first time for many "to reveal to anyone, experiences they thought they would take to their graves."

A lot has happened since then, including apologies from churches and Prime Minister Stephen Harper for the residential schools.

The federal government has also established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, although it is currently bogged down in the search for a new commissioner after the resignation of Justice Harry LaForme.

Tungilik feels it is time for a second gathering.

"Many former students have expressed regret about not feeling ready to go to the first reunion," he says. "So we would like to give them the opportunity to share with the rest of us, and to join us in our healing journey."

He is calling this gathering a healing conference, rather than a reunion.

"Healing is such an important component of the residential school experience," he says.

The Embrace Life Council will also play a major role this time, organizing healing workshops and making sure both professional and traditional counsellors will be on hand for those who need to talk to someone.

The other major change in emphasis, is that this time, Tungilik is encouraging family members to attend along with former students.

"We know our children, our spouses and our partners also suffered as a result of our unresolved childhood issues," he says. "So we want to address the intergenerational impact of the school."

Lori Idlout, executive director of the Embrace Life Council, agrees that the impacts on todays's teens of their parents' and grandparents' residential school experiences are enormous.

Teen suicides, she says, are often related to the fact that the young people just don't know where their parents' and grandparents' anger is coming from. They don't understand how often it's related to traumas those generations suffered in residential school.

"There were whole communities impacted," she says.

Embrace Life runs the Qauma Healing Program for former residential school students, and brings expertise developed there to the workshops it will run at the Chesterfield Inlet school healing conference next summer.

"There are still a lot of very angry individuals out there," Idlout says. "We try to help people understand it's okay to be angry. But there has to be closure."

Tungilik's aim is to raise enough funds to cover all the expenses for both former students and their family members who want to attend the conference. That includes the cost of the event itself, plus travel, food and shelter.

Most of the funding should come from Health Canada, through its residential school resolution program, with additional support from Inuit organizations, and even some of the Nunavut communities.

Chesterfield Inlet residents have indicated a willingness to billet people, and other facilities, like the school may be available, Tungilik says.

But to get that funding – and for planning, he says, "registration is critical."

He needs to be able to document how many people are expected to attend in order to qualify for funding, and to make sure there is food and accommodation for all who need it.

Former students or their families can contact:

  • Marius Tungilik at (867) 462-4200 or mtungilik3@hotmail.com;
  • Ruth deVries at 1-866-804-278 or rdevries@inuusiq.com;
  • Marie-Lucie Uviluq at 1-800-919-1117 or uviluq@qiniq.com.

Tungilik says he really needs to get the bulk of the registrations in by the end of the year.

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