Healing circle visits former residential school students

Mobile treatment allows alumni to share repressed memories



Monica Ittusardjuat uses a colleague’s analogy to describe the pain left by the residential school system.

She said it’s like usiraqtua – water spilling over the edge, in every direction.

It touches everyone.

This week, to try to stem the tide, Ittusardjuat will head to Chesterfield Inlet, the latest in a string of communities to benefit from Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.’s program for former residential school students and their families.

Ittusardjuat hopes the visit will help break the cycle of violence, addiction and suicide that she said has spread throughout the territory, and between generations, as a result of the residential school experience.

Many social problems facing the territory come from when the federal government uprooted hundreds of Inuit children and placed them in schools far away from home, she says. Many students witnessed or were the victims of physical and sexual abuse.

But Ittusardjuat also thinks that the tragic trend can be turned around, allowing the anger from the abuse to become a “path to healing,” that will also touch everyone around the person receiving therapy.

“You will be like a pail full of berries,” Ittusardjuat said in an interview in her office in Iqaluit last week. “Everyone will want to take one. You will have peace, love and joy. And everyone will want to have what you have.”

Ittusardjuat has been criss-crossing the territory for the past year, as part of the Qauma Mobile Treatment Project. The program organizes healing circles and trips out on the land with former residential school students and their family, with counsellors, sex abuse therapists, and traditional healers. Ittusardjuat also sets up training for local counsellors to follow up the month’s worth of workshops.

She’s been to Igloolik, Taloyoak, and Sanikiluaq, each chosen by a committee of former students, including representatives of an urban Inuit organization in Ottawa, and Survivors Tasiuqtiit, a group of volunteers devoted to helping fellow Inuit deal with the after-effects of residential school.

Ittusardjuat, 52, who attended several residential schools herself, has seen many people hurt by the anger that results from those years, that builds up and causes people to lash out.

She said most former students have the same symptoms as a war veteran who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Years later, they will have flashbacks of being hit or tied up by teachers. Some might have seen school officials pierce their classmates’ tongues as punishment for speaking Inuktitut, Ittusardjuat said.

Reports on the topic show that many former students try to block out the memories, often through heavy drinking. But they come back, along with other destructive behaviour.

“When you’re in pain, it affects your loved ones,” Ittusardjuat said. “You, yourself, become violent.”

The program uses Inuit traditional knowledge to help re-connect people with their families, Ittusardjuat said. The circle begins with the lighting of the qulliq, ayaya songs and drum-dancing.

Elders and traditional healers, such as Meeka Arnakaq from Panniqtuuq, bring the participants out on the land. But most of all, they encourage the former students to talk about what they went through, instead of keeping the memories to themselves.

“We don’t pretend we will leave with them all healed,” Ittusardjuat said. “When we leave, it doesn’t stop there.

“They have to take responsibility for their own journey.”

After next month’s trip to Chesterfield Inlet, the committee overseeing the Qauma project will choose the next four communities to be visited. The $4-million program, funded by the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, will continue for the next three years, covering 16 communities in total.

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