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The advantages of Akaitcho

Nunavut’s MP reflects on the lessons she learned and connections she made while attending residential school.

By NUNATSIAQ NEWS

ALISON BLACKDUCK

YELLOWKNIFE — Nunavut MP Nancy Karetak-Lindell is proud to say she went to a residential school.

Karetak-Lindell was an Akaitcho Hall resident from 1972 to 1974 while she attended Grades 9 and 10 at Sir John Franklin Territorial High School in Yellowknife.

She had to go to Akaitcho because the school in her home community of Arviat only went up to Grade 8.

Last weekend, she was back in Yellowknife as one of the more than 400 former students attending Akaitcho’s all-alumni reunion.

“I always say that I went to a residential school,” she says on the last day of the reunion. “But almost in the same breath, I say, ‘But it’s not like what you’re hearing about all the residential school issues today, because it was a home-away-from-home.’”

In 1958, Akaitcho Hall opened its doors to students from all over the Northwest Territories, including the Kitikmeot and Kivalliq regions.

Akaitcho was one of 20 such residences built and administered by the federal government throughout the Western and Eastern Arctic.

The residences were created so students from small, remote communities could attend high school.

Unlike earlier residential schools, the new residences weren’t affiliated with any religious denomination.

And in the late 1960s, the federal government transferred responsibility for the residences to the territorial government.

“Akaitcho evolved as education in the North evolved,” Les Cameron says.

Cameron and his wife, Mieke Cameron, moved north in 1971 to teach at Sir John.

Today, both Camerons still work at the high school. Les Cameron is still a teacher and his wife is now the principal.

“The territorial government was experimenting with curricula that was based on visits with people from Wounded Knee, the Maori of New Zealand and the Navajo from the United States,” he says.

“The territorial government wanted to know how those people were being taught, what was the cultural significance of education to them… Instruction in (indigenous languages) became popular at that time.”

It was in this rich environment, both Camerons say, that the majority of Akaitcho students hit their academic stride.

“Interestingly, the kids at Akaitcho got younger,” Cameron says. “In the previous decade, the kids were often 18, 19, 20 — they’d come here to learn a vocational trade.

“In the 70s, it changed,” he says. “The kids were 14 or 15 when they came here, and they came to get an academic education so they could go further. That’s what we were part of and that was beautiful – it created significant changes for the kids.”

Akaitcho closed its doors in 1994 after secondary education became available in most of the communities it once served.

Since the early 1990s, disclosures about the sexual and physical abuse of indigenous students in Canada’s residential schools have made headlines nationwide.

Some people — like Canadian historian John S. Milloy — have accused the federally-run residential school system of committing cultural genocide.

According to Milloy, the system was set up to destroy indigenous societies by assimilating indigenous people into mainstream Canadian culture.

Most of the schools in question were federal day and residential schools run by various religious denominations.

Already, a number of class-action lawsuits have been filed by hundreds of former students against former administrators, teachers and church leaders.

Leaders of some churches, including the Anglican Church of Canada, claim that if they lose the court battles they face financial ruin.

But Karetak-Lindell is grateful for the years she attended residential school.

For her, Akaitcho was a welcoming place that helped propel her into the leadership role she’s twice been elected to.

“At Akaitcho, we were in a structured environment compared to where we came from,” she says. “That taught us perseverance and how to discipline ourselves.

“It taught us a lot about doing things in life that we didn’t always want to do, but those things had to be done.”

Karetak-Lindell is also grateful for the friends she made at Akaitcho.

“We had to learn how to live with people from different cultures who spoke different languages and came from different parts of the NWT,” she says.

Those friendships, she says, helped her political career immeasurably.

“When I was going through my nomination for my candidacy for the Liberal party, there was somebody challenging me — never mind the election — and my nomination meeting was in Cambridge Bay,” she says.

“People like David Kaosoni and Joe Ohokannoak — I went to school with them here at Akaitcho Hall — they were back in Cambridge Bay supporting me and my candidacy.

“And you know, that friendship went back 25 years and that’s pretty difficult to defeat, I say.”

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