Inuvalit witness stolen lives

The pain of residential school abuse is mirrored on Laura Tabac's face as she bears witness to hidden past horrors.


The pain of residential school abuse is mirrored on Laura Tabac's face as she bears witness to hidden past horrors.

July 25, 2011

INUVIK, N.W.T. — Pictures tell stories. Stories tell us who we are. For 15-year-old Mary Masazumi the story falls into the category of mystery.

Her father Alfred is dead and there are no family photo albums at home in Fort Good Hope that stretch back into her father's childhood. Mary hoped to fill that gap pouring through binders of photos from the archives of the Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith.

The diocese came to Inuvik for the Northern National Event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada June 28 to July 1 with as many photos of students as could be found. The photos were the most popular attraction outside the commission hearings.

Masazumi's father went to school at the Immaculate Conception residential school in Aklavik — at least she thinks it was Aklavik.

"He hasn't told me about residential school," she said.

Like many young people in the North, Masazumi grew up surrounded by adults who seemed to have no past. None of her relations ever wanted to talk about how they grew up.

In Fort Good Hope just about all the older generation went to residential schools. They grew up institutionalized, away from their families, guilty of being aboriginals with the wrong language, an odd culture and suspect religious tendencies.


The Dene community sent a small flotilla of fishing boats down river to Inuvik for the TRC event. They also filled up all the available flights. For Masazumi it was a journey of discovery.

"Seeing what they've been through is hard," she said.

As she scans the pictures looking for a family resemblance, hoping one of her aunts might be able to identify her father, Joe Grandjambe is also looking for family in the 36 classmates he had at Grolier Hall in Inuvik.

"This is really the only family I have," Grandjambe said. "I really don't have any other family that grew up in this era. . . . I have parents I don't know. I have brothers and sisters I don't know."

But Grandjambe knows there's not much of his residential school family left. He's kept count and only 13 of the original 36 classmates are still alive.

"Most of them haven't died of natural causes," he said.

That includes former Olympian Fred Kelly, who came out of the Inuvik Ski Club to race the 15 km cross-country and the 4x10 kilometre relay at the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan.

"It was the drinking and just trying to recover from the abuse," explained Grandjambe.


But Grandjambe is on the edge of tears even as he smiles at pictures of pretty girls and handsome young men he went to school with from 1960 to 1971. He was taken away to school when he was four years old and lives with memories he would rather obliterate.

"There's things you can't live with. Things you can't share with anyone else," he said. "That possibility of suicide never leaves your mind."

Journalists are prepared to ask questions, but we're not always ready for the answers. What can I say to Joe Grandjambe after he tells me he thought of suicide yesterday, thinks of suicide today and his mind will probably drift to suicide again tomorrow?

It is frightening to find myself in the middle of an interview hanging onto a pen and a notebook with a man's life hanging in the air between us.

The commission is trying to uncover this history, make all Canadians understand their part in it, start a new conversation between aboriginal Canada and the rest of us. This tale of colonization - an exercise of political, economic and religious might be used to break down cultures and consign entire peoples, languages and ways of life to obscure history - is not how Canadians think of themselves, or wish to.

While generation after generation of Americans over the last century-plus have had to own up to their nation's history of slavery, Canadians cling to our innocence.

"Every future Canadian, every person educated in this country, needs to learn about this," said chief commissioner Justice Murray Sinclair. "They need to learn not only about the residential schools but they need to learn a proper history of who aboriginal people are and who Canadians are, so they can look at each other through better eyes.

"We have come across documentation in government records which says any resistance to what the government is doing to these people will be overcome very easily by the fact we have their children in our schools," Sinclair said. "They're not going to fight us like the American Indians are fighting the American government because their children will be in our custody."

There are two parts to this exercise - first truth and then reconciliation. To know this truth is to weep.

In Inuvik, as people told their stories to commissioners or in sharing circles to one another, I struggled to do my job. I took notes, switched on my recorder, chose the right lens and the right position to capture the moment with my camera. But I cried as I worked.

Laura Tabac could hardly speak as she tried to tell of her life since losing her husband. After 30 years of marriage he had finally disclosed abuse he suffered at school.

However he died, Tabac couldn't quite say as she broke down.

"How dare they touch you, my beautiful husband?" she screamed. "I don't want to live any more."

This family's tragedy, this community's pain, has been our doing. We must admit we cannot undo seven generations, 150,000 students pushed through a system that misused education as a weapon against people we thought were strange, a remnant of pre-history.

As Catholics we dare not run away from truth, even if the truth is an open wound in the body of Christ.


Petah Inukpuk came from the eastern Arctic to tell his story holding a picture of his grandfather Quaguag. He wanted the commissioners to see where he came from, what kind of people the Inuit were before residential schools.

"He had immense knowledge," Inukpuk tells me. Having survived millennia in the Arctic his people have the gift of survival, he said.

"To live in this environment, you have to use all of your brain," he said.

But the solution to this cultural breakdown so complete that families have been atomized, language and traditions worn away, eludes Inukpuk. This is different from knowing how to travel, keep warm and feed yourself through months of darkness.

"These people are in pain, but it's not our nature to feel pain," he said. "Our people are becoming like white people, lingering on their pain too long."

"We need to understand that while aboriginal children in residential schools were being taught this about their culture, their language, their identity and their religious views and religious belief, non-aboriginal children in Canada were being taught the very same thing," said Sinclair.

"That means for seven or eight generations non-aboriginal children were being taught that aboriginal people were inferior, their cultures were inferior, that they were irrelevant, that they could only exist in the future if they became Canadians like everybody else."