“You used us unwittingly, you didn’t ask our parents, you just took us.”

“Eskimo experiment” claimants seek cash, apology


Inuit who as children were taken south as part of Ottawa's so-called "Eskimo experiment" are suing the federal government, demanding compensation and an apology.

Seven Inuit children were used as "guinea pigs" in the 1950s and 1960s when the government brought them from the Arctic to live with families from Alberta to Nova Scotia.

There they attended southern schools, without a chance to speak Inuktitut, learn traditional practices and eat country food.

"If you just said to the government ‘You used us as an experiment, I think you should pay us for that,'" said Peter Ittinuar, who lived with a family in suburban Ottawa. "You used us unwittingly, you didn't ask our parents, you just took us and in official documents you employed us as experimentees to determine how policy would be written about educating Inuit kids in Canada."

Statements of claim filed in the Nunavut Court of Justice allege Canada denied the seven former students the right to communicate with their family for long periods.

The court documents allege the seven Inuit were forbidden from practicing their culture, and were "taught that their native language, cultural practices, customs and spiritual beliefs were inferior, wrong, sinful and shameful."

That led to "a loss of cultural identity and sense of belonging within their own community and within Canadian culture," and "a loss of Inuit skills that are necessary to traditional living in the North."

One of the plaintiffs, Zebedee Nungak, described in a 2000 article in Inuktitut Magazine his life in suburban Ottawa as growing up alongside "textbook Dicks, Janes and Sallys" while taking part in judo and swimming, playing in rock bands and going to the cottage on summer weekends.

"Here we were, literate Eskimos, able to read and write English, and relate to the works of Shakespeare, yet no longer able to cut snow blocks with a pana (snow knife)," Nungak wrote. "Well versed in calculus, we didn't know how to remove the sungaq (bile sac) from a seal's liver."

Nungak wrote this "cultural starvation" crippled his "sense of identity."

"These scars are hidden from the eye, but cut deep into our souls."

The seven plaintiffs are seeking a total of $350,000 each in damages. More importantly, Ittinuar said, they're looking for an apology, much like former residential school students, who received cash payouts and, last month, an apology from the federal government.

"I think we deserve no less," Ittinuar said.

Yellowknife lawyer Steven Cooper, who's representing the seven, said Ottawa must make amends to groups left out by the residential school settlement. Social experimentation was common in the 1950s and 60s, he said, and part of the reason his clients are suing the government is to ensure their story is documented.

"These were kids who were considered by southern governments to be the best and the brightest and were expressly removed from their communities, not unlike residential school students, but with the intent of experimenting with them," Cooper said.

At least one organization is documenting the issue: White Pine Pictures of Toronto is producing a documentary entitled "The Experimental Eskimos."

Cooper said it's unlikely any hearings on the suit would go ahead before the new year. For his part, Ittinuar said he hopes the suit can be settled out of court.

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