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Beat addiction by reclaiming Inuit culture


Piita Irniq is a survivor of residential school. Galya Morrell photo

What began as a desire to “explore the idea of drinking,” became a 28-year addiction with alcohol for Piita Irniq. At the age of 21, Irniq drank alcohol for the very first time while living in Ottawa. His curiosity for alcohol eventually turned into a coping mechanism for dealing with a dark past.

Irniq was born and lived in an igloo in Naujaarjuat for the first 11 years of his life. He grew up in the “traditional” Inuit way, speaking Inuktitut, living off the land, travelling by dogsled and learning how to hunt. With his parents, he went fishing for Arctic char and trout, and hunting for caribou. During his childhood, “the land” provided Irniq with a sense of “freedom” and happiness.

In 1958 however, everything changed. Without consulting his parents, the missionaries sent him to residential school.

Between 1958 to 1963, Irniq attended Sir Joseph Bernier Federal Day School in Chesterfield Inlet. It was during this period, his “childhood was taken away” from him. Irniq experienced sexual, mental and physical abuse.

With the abuse, young Irniq was stripped away from his Inuit culture, language and traditional beliefs.

It was in 1967, when Irniq first moved to Ottawa to seek a higher education, he began drinking alcohol.

“We would go out drinking every weekend for years that I was down here (Ottawa), and it continued on to the time when I went to Yellowknife in 1971 and the following years when I got into politics.”

During his time in politics, Irniq explained it was “so easy” to go to a reception and start drinking.

“I wanted to be like 'white' people who drank at various receptions and in bars,” said Irniq.

However, hidden underneath the social aspect of alcohol, the truth was Irniq did not want to remain sober.

Irniq admitted he eventually turned to alcohol to deal with the pain and trauma of residential school.

“I started to drink alcohol to erase what happened at residential school.”

“When I was drinking I forgot what happened in residential school, but when I became sober the memory of what happened came back. Over the course of many years, it came back,” explained Irniq.

Piita Irniq on the right, sits with his father Athanasi Angutiaq, little brother Isaia Ivaluqut Ipuittuq and mother Irene Katak in May 1964 while in Naujaat. George Swinton photo

Quitting alcohol to reclaim culture as a sober leader

After drinking for 28 years at least twice a week, Irniq found the willpower to quit drinking alcohol.

On Aug. 17, 1995 while in Toronto, Irniq made the decision.

“We just finished a leadership conference. And here I thought I am one of those leaders, but I’m hiding behind the bottle. I’m hiding behind the booze, trying to be a leader, and at the same time drinking to get drunk.”

At the time, Irniq had a major role with negotiating the Nunavut Land Claims for the Inuit people. He was also serving as a member of the Legislative Assembly.

“I got also tired of hangovers and missing important meetings when we were negotiating Nunavut Land Claims. I wanted to get away from all that.”

Although the need to act as a leader for Nunavut was a motivating factor, Irniq also wanted to set an example for his children by becoming a good family leader.

“I wanted to be a sober leader.”

Irniq talked about his father, Athanasi Angutiaq, with respect. He described him as a “role model”, an “inspiration” and a “strong believer” of his Inuit culture.

He recited the story of how his father’s company would “always” offer an ounce of whisky each day after work to his father.

Despite this, his father “never” fell in love with alcohol, explained Irniq.

Instead his father had said, “I didn't fall in love with it (alcohol), as long as I can have seal broth, caribou or Arctic char.”

This particular statement was the “biggest” inspiration for Irniq to quit his addiction.

It made him think that he should consider taking back his Inuit culture, which he lost during residential school.

“I wanted to become who I have 'always' been. An Inuk, who believes strongly in my past, in my culture, in my Inuit language, in my ancestry, who survived for many thousands of years, without ever having alcohol,” said Irniq.

The determined political leader was tested during an Air Canada flight when he was offered alcohol.

“I thought to myself, if I could say ‘no thank you’ for the first offer on that airplane. The rest will become easy to say, ‘no thank you.’”

He mustered the strength to decline a drink and since that particular moment he has never drank again.

Today, it has been 24 years since his last alcoholic drink.

Healing through the land - “the psychiatrist”

According to Irniq, the land is “very” peaceful, harmonious and healing.

“I’ve always wanted to heal from what happened at the residential school, and I tried to spend as much time as I could on the land because the land is always healing,” said Irniq.

Over the years, Irniq has visited the North to feel “refreshed” and ‘rejuvenated.” He compared it to how southerners feel when they visit their cottages.

Irniq even referred to the land as a “traditional psychiatrist.”

“It’s really good for your mind and your body when you spend as much time as you can on the land.”

Irniq believes you have to be “very” determined to quit drinking alcohol.

“It takes a very strong person to quit drinking,” he emphasized.

He encourages people to learn and connect with their Inuit culture, history, customs and traditions in order to help recover from addiction. Talking to people you trust about your addiction and seeking help is also very important, said Irniq.

“To want to quit drinking, it’s nothing to be embarrassed about.”

“You gain a great life if you decide to take that route and I encourage people to do that.”

Irniq, who continues to live in Ottawa, said he still has no desire to drink again.

As long as he has caribou, seal, Arctic char, and fresh water from the Arctic, “it’s goodbye to alcohol forever,” said Irniq.