Reconciliation in the Arctic

“I accept his apology,” said Looee quietly. “Because I feel that you can’t move forward otherwise. But there are those who don’t, and that is their choice.”

Less than a week after I left Iqaluit they welcomed another visitor. The Pope chose to come to the north to deliver an apology for the Catholic church’s role in residential schools. Many saw it as significant that he would come, for the first time, to Nunavut. Some of those who met privately with him, to share their stories, felt a change, a release.

But many did not. They felt that words were a start, but where were the reparations? Where was the counselling that so many needed?

Twenty five years ago I lived in Bella Coola, in Nux’alk territory on the northwest coast of BC. As a teacher at the local high school, I tried for years to get a ProD, a professional development session, where the elders in the community would come to talk to us. But there was always some other, pressing need. We needed some program to analyze how we responded to questions in our classroom. We needed to find out about this new, amazing thing called the internet.

“Oh, we don’t need that,” said the young, inexperienced teachers. “We learned about that in our training.” And the old teachers— they just shrugged.

“You might know about it,” I tried to tell them, “but you don’t KNOW. You need to witness. You need to hear from the people who went through it.”

I wasn’t a lone voice. Eva Mack, who had come in the 60s from England, married a local, and was considered an elder in the community, was on my side, or perhaps I was on hers. But we were only two. And I think she had fought so many battles that she had little energy for this one.

I left Bella Coola after 5 years. And twenty years later, it is finally in the public conversation. The horror of residential schools.

Now, people know about it. Now, children and adults wear orange shirts. Now, people search for records and probe the grounds of schools for unmarked graves. Now, it is part of our national conversation.

Here, in the Arctic, people celebrate the Pope’s visit with songs they were once banned from singing. Some wear traditional clothes, but they have developed and changed with the times. Not everyone suffered from residential schools; for some the experience was fine, for a few, especially in the later days when some residence staff were Inuit, it was positive. But everyone knows someone who was abused and traumatized.

Nancy tends the qulliq

Today, we applaud as Nancy and Alexandra throat sing, a practice once forbidden because the church thought it was shamanistic. They wear the traditional arm and face tattoos that were shunned for so long that their traditional meaning is often lost. These strong young woman are rediscovering, recreating their culture. But they are also adapting it to the modern world.

I am astounded by, amazed by, the strength and resilience of the Inuit. For them to have survived, even thrived, in this harsh and unforgiving environment is astonishing.

I hope that they will have the support of their country and their fellow Canadians as they recover from the wrongs that were inflicted on them. Let reconciliation come.

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