There was a time when Jeanne Mike faced a lifetime sentence of loss and longing, a sentence which began when she was removed from her family home in Pangnirtung at age seven.
Mike’s braids were shorn and she became one of seven known Inuit children who were collected into a federal government program called The Eskimo Experiment.
For many years, Jeanne Mike believed her parents agreed to send her away from home to Petite Riviere, Nova Scotia in 1966.
“How could you let me go?” she wanted to know.
But as she learned from her father’s testimony at a 2012 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) sub-hearing in Pangnirtung, her parents were rendered powerless in the face of racist government policies.
“Dad talked about never being asked permission, never giving permission, either verbally or written,” said Mike.
“Back at that time, you couldn’t say anything. You couldn’t say no. When the Qallunaat came and said, ‘OK, Jeanne is going,’ you had no say. There was no denying. That’s how helpless they felt back then.”
Just as suddenly as she was taken away, Mike was returned to her community a few years later, assimilation well underway.
“We went back to Pangnirtung and we had no friends. We were missing our friends and longing to go back to Petite Riviere,” said Mike.
The changes in the young girl took a toll on her family.
“My dad told me that when I returned home, I couldn’t speak Inuktitut. I couldn’t eat country food. I have no idea how they managed to feed me,” said Mike.
The young child no longer fit in with the other children in the community.
“They cut my hair. Girls back then never had short hair. We always wore them in braids. Quite often I would get bullied. I would be made fun of. ‘Oh, you’re a Qallunaat. You’re not Inuk,'” Mike recalls, adding her brothers, a few of her male cousins and her older sister Eena were protective of her, and instrumental in her slow reintegration.
She also recalls her parents’ embarrassment. As an English speaker, she could address Qallunaat.
“My parents would often be embarrassed of me to speak to white people in a challenging or talking-back way,” she said.
“It must have been a difficult time for all of my family.”
Mike’s lawyer Stephen Cooper represents all seven of the Inuit taken from their communities in this program, The Eskimo Experiment. The two unsettled legal claims, filed in the Nunavut Court of Justice in 2008, speak to the experiences of Peter Ittinuar, Zebedee Nungak and Eric Tagoona – 12-year-old boys sent to Ottawa in the 1960s – as well as Mike, Leesee Komoartok and Rosie Joamie, who were sent to Petite Riviere together, and Baker Lake’s Sarah Silou, who was sent to Edmonton.
“I’m very child-focused, principally, because they’re the people who hire me,” said Cooper, who has represented many Indigenous children captured by federal assimilation policies for almost 30 years.
“But, from a sociological perspective, the parents may have suffered even more than the children.”
These days, Mike prides herself on being able to put on a Qallunaat hat.
“I can sit there and say, ‘You want to play hardball with me, I have no problem with that.'”
Breaking through the pain
Mike says she doesn’t know why her family, which includes 11 siblings, never spoke about her removal and return. But once her father testified, that silence started to ease a bit. Last year her brother Johnny Mike talked with her about those years.
“He said, ‘You know, the atmosphere changed at home once you left.’ And he said it never returned. He said, ‘It never felt the same again even after you came back.’ So there was a huge loss in the family which even my siblings felt and was never regained,” said Mike.
As an adult, Mike initially worked in finance and administration, but soon turned her attention to healing.
“I went into social work. I realized then so many people were hurting. Up until then, I thought everyone grew up in a close functional family. So I became determined to help and most of all saw how disempowered some Inuit were and I wanted to empower them.”
Mike also worked as a child and youth outreach worker, acted as project coordinator for Pangnirtung’s Pujualussait Committee, and became an ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training) trainer. She most recently completed Our Life’s Journey counselor certification at Ilisaqsivik in Clyde River.
“My mother passed away when I was 24 years old, which devastated me. I felt a huge loss that lasted until my son died and then the continual loss I felt for my mother transferred to the loss of my son,” she said.
“I felt like I was living a lifetime sentence of loss, missing and longing. The repressed feelings of longing for my parents and siblings were triggered when I lost my son. It has taken almost 19 years since he died to cope, heal and come to terms with these losses to finally feel I am in a peaceful space, and it feels really good.”
Cooper is all too familiar with his clients’ experiences as ‘the victims of colonial thinking and racist policies.’
“In the most formative years of their lives … they’re told that their families, their cultures, their language, their history don’t matter,” he said. “As young children they grow up thinking themselves inferior. Then they often, as happened with these seven instances, try to reintegrate themselves into their communities, often with mixed results. Even with the seven that we’re talking about here, you can see people who succeeded or failed in equal measure. Some managed to get through for their entire lives and tamp down the harm, some managed to do that for a period of time, then collapsed, and some were the reverse. Some collapsed then managed to pull themselves back out of the pit that had been dug for them.”
Government holds missing pieces
Mike has no doubt there’s a generational effect caused by The Eskimo Experiment, with silence as a common thread.
“When I had my own children I had separation anxiety that controlled me from going away for any length longer than a week. I have since overcome the anxiety,” she said.
“My children and I are close and I have not spoken to them about this and don’t know if they are affected. Both of my daughters are pretty independent at age 25 and 22. My youngest son still lives with me.”
Mike still feels like she was kidnapped, and her memories are broken. Recovering them hasn’t been easy.
“Having been through Our Life’s Journey in Clyde River, I talked so much about my experiences … I realized that I have so many repressed memories, there are memories that I don’t even have. I don’t understand how I could not have memories of missing my family. No doubt that happened, but I just don’t remember,” she said.
“Here I am at this age and I remember being a child and feeling like … and where did the rest of it go? I just felt like I went from childhood to … here. It’s so bizarre.”
The Government of Canada holds the historical documents of this experiment on Inuit children which has had repercussions for half a century. Mike wants to look at the facts and determine for herself if the experiment was worth what she’s lived.
“It took a lot of counseling just to get me here where I’m at peace with myself. But now I’m determined to see this (legal claim) to the finish. I know I have to be persistent about this, otherwise I’ll be gone before I get any information,” she said.
What the government can’t provide is her identity, and at 59 she’s clear:
“I am named Appalialuk, who had been the older brother of my father and our kinship term was as such. Our parents and grandparents always told us to help each other, love each other, so we have done that.”