Residential school survivors, Piita Irniq and Jack Anawak, hope Chesterfield Inlet will serve as the national historic site for Inuit survivors of residential school.

According to Irniq, Sir Joseph Bernier Federal Day School in Chesterfield Inlet was the first residential school established in Nunavut/Northwest Territories; beginning in 1950. Irniq said, from 1950 to 1969, it was attended by many Inuit including himself.

Piita Irniq at Turquetil Hall/Sir Joseph Bernier Federal Day School in 1959. photo courtesy of Piita Irniq

Irniq, who was born in an igloo in Naujaarjuat, attended the residential school at the age of 11, from 1958 to 1963.

“As much as I always said that we were kidnapped, we were abducted by the Roman Catholic Church and the Government of Canada to go to the residential school … it also produced a lot of Inuit leadership of all the people that went to residential school,” said the Elder. “It produced a lot of Inuit leaders of today.”

In the past, Irniq had taken on many leadership roles including negotiating the Nunavut Land Claims for the Inuit people and serving as a member of the legislative assembly.

Inuit survived the loss of their culture, language and traditional spirituality at residential school, said Irniq, who is now an Inuit cultural teacher. “But, we were also very well educated at that school,” he added.

“Our patience and survival and resiliency allowed us to survive, and allowed us to become leaders of Nunavut.”

To recognize Chesterfield Inlet the as a national historic site “would put a lot of pride and strength to the people of Chesterfield Inlet and certainly to all of the survivors of residential school that attended Sir Joseph Bernier Federal Day School,” said Irniq.

Inuit residential school students sit in a classroom at Joseph Bernier Federal Day School in 1963. From left to right at the front is Marie Uviluk, artist Celina Iyyiraq and artist Germaine Arnayaoyok. Piita Irniq sits on the right, in the third row from the front, with his hand on his face. photo courtesy of Piita Irniq
Jack Anawak wants the historic site to recognize the hardships and changes endured by the Inuit children at the residential school. photo courtesy of Jack Anawak

Anawak, who attended the residential school starting at the age of nine, also thinks Chesterfield Inlet should be designated as a national historic site.

“For me, it would mean that Canada recognizes the impact that Inuit had, and the impact our residential schools had on the Inuit,” said the 69-year-old.

At residential school, “we were preparing for a new way of life and that benefited us.”

Anawak said “a lot” of residential school students became involved in governments, Nunavut Land Claims and the new territory of Nunavut.

“It meant that we were coming out from a colonial system and being able to more run our own affairs,” he explained.

Anawak was involved at the “highest levels of government” as a member of Parliament and also became one of the first members of Nunavut’s legislative assembly.

“I’d also like to make sure that the children that went to (residential) school are recognized for the hardships they endured,” added the former politician.

On Sept. 1, CBC reported the federal government is designating two former residential schools as national historic sites: Portage La Prairie Residential School in Manitoba and Shubenacadie Residential School in Nova Scotia.

Joseph Bernier Federal Day School was “a life-changer for all of us,” says Piita Irniq.“It also provided us with the best education possible. As a result, it produced many Inuit Leaders who are still around today to lead.” Galya Morrell photo

Anawak believes an historic site up North would signify that Inuit were also involved in residential schools.

“Inuit are always left out, or we feel really left out when there’s something national going on. And this is one way of ensuring that we are involved from the beginning,” he said.

The Inuit of Chesterfield Inlet should be given “a big role” in determining how the historic site will be created, explained Anawak.

Irniq would like to see an inuksuk and a stone monument, along with a plaque written in Inuktitut and English. He hopes the plaque will address that many students at the residential school went on to become “leaders and shakers and Nunavut-makers.”

“I’d like to see something like this happen during my particular lifetime,” said the 73-year-old.

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  1. It was very different from our way of life, as we were forced to get educated in a awkward lifestyle for all of us, in which we as young Inuit did not comprehend at all. It was like being forced to dive into another demission which was very different from our way of living. As we were to forced to communicate in a very different language. As Piita mentioned, about how we were kidnapped from our own residence to another different way of life. If some people could comprehend on how we were forced to live this kind of lifestyle which was quite unbearable sometimes. Why in a world were we uprooted and plucked like little adults who were made to act like zombies, obeying at all times as if we did not have a will of our own. So many stories to tell, but a lot of us still have our mouths shut !!!

  2. I met a survivor in 1990 at a conference in Ottawa. The wonderful woman told me her story and opened my eyes to that terrible place. I fully support Mr. Anawak’s view.

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