Inuit Elder Remembers His First Day at Residential School: ‘I Was Kidnapped’

Young residential school students are photographed working at desks while at the Sir Joseph Bernier federal day school in Chesterfield Inlet, Nunavut.
Young residential school students are photographed working at desks while at the Sir Joseph Bernier federal day school in Chesterfield Inlet, Nunavut. Piita Irniq, then 11, is photographed on the far right, with his head down in studies.Library and Archives Canada

While stories of running away were common at other residential schools across Canada, Piita Irniq, now 75, says it would have been impossible at Turquetil Hall, located in Canada’s far north. “You’d freeze before you get home,” he said.

Piita Irniq is confident his first day of school in August 1958 was unlike that of most boys. He was 11 years old when he says he was forcibly taken hundreds of miles away from his family by plane to spend the next 10 months at residential school. It was there at Turquetil Hall he was made to leave behind his family, forget his culture, and assimilate to the rest of Canada.

“I prefer to say kidnapped,” Irniq, now 75, told Inside Edition Digital. “Residential school was not a home. It was a horror – a house of horrors.”

Canada, in tandem with the Catholic Church, adopted the residential school system from the 1870s to the 1990s as a way to remove Indigenous children from the influence of their culture to forcefully integrate, over time, Indigenous populations with the dominant European culture quickly taking over the country.

Attendance at the boarding schools was mandatory, and reports of sexual and physical abuse, overwork, disease and hunger were common. The U.S. also instituted its own set of residential schools, the survivors of which have their own stories of enduring similar abuses.

Today, Irniq, an elder and former politician, calls himself an Inuit cultural leader, and travels from province to province and country to country to teach others about his people’s history, culture and language.

And as Canada mourns the thousands of bodies of First Nations children discovered at residential schools across the country, Irniq hopes this is the awakening necessary for non-Indigenous people to finally listen to what they are saying.

“When we started out talking about this, they didn’t believe us one bit,” Irniq said.

But he’s confident that the grim discoveries being made with a disturbing frequency is just beginning.

“I’m sure there will be more,” Irniq said. “I’m wondering, also, if there are other unmarked graves in other parts of the world of Indigenous people.”

Early Life in Canada’s Far North

Life in Canada’s far north has changed drastically over the course of Irniq’s lifetime.

“I was born in an igloo and lived in an igloo for the first 11 years of my life,” said Irniq, who now lives in Canada’s capital city of Ottawa. “I think a lot about Inuit moving from igloo to internet in less than 60 years.”

"This picture was taken in May 1964 in Naujaat of my mother Irene Katak, my little brother Isaia Ivaluqut Ipuittuq and my father Athanasi Angutitaq. Note that we all had different names. That was the custom of the Inuit before family surnames were introduced by the Government of the Northwest Territories in 1971." - Piita Irniq

Inuit, an ethnic Indigenous group distinct from First Nations or Métis, refers to the group of people native to the Arctic regions of the world, including Greenland, Denmark and Alaska in the United States.

There are currently more than 65,000 Inuit primarily living across 51 communities in the northern-most parts of Canada. They mostly reside in the territory of Nunavut, a term which means “our land” in their native language of Inuktitut.

Inuit are traditionally a coastal people, with a history spanning more than 30,000 years, originating in Mongolia before settling in their homelands today, Irniq explained.

Irniq, who explained that his name means “son,” grew up in Naujaat, a hamlet on the Arctic Circle in Nunavut that colonizers named Repulse Bay until the name was returned in 2015.

As a boy, “the only people who lived in houses were the fur traders, the Hudson Bay Company (originally an English fur-trading company that governed parts of Canada in its early days) people and the Roman Catholic Church people,” Irniq recalled. “The rest of us lived in igloos in the wintertime and tents in the summertime.”

Irniq recalled being raised traditionally the first several years of his life. “I grew up as a very traditional Inuk. I was taught to be a good hunter, a good fisher, a good family man. And all these things that went with an Inuk in the 1950s and ‘60s.”

But that changed when they were forcibly relocated from their igloos in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Today, their communities look very much like those of the rest of Canada.

“Nobody lives in an igloo anymore, and we all live in wooden houses in the Arctic,” he said. “And we are heavily wired, … Facebook, email … like Vancouver, Toronto, Washington, you name it.

“Having lived two lives, igloo life and this modern life, is really exciting for me because I have an opportunity to teach without fear, without being punished by the church,” Irniq continued. “Passing on what we have lost at the residential school to our youth is [a] really important thing to do, and it just moves forward our past to the present and for the future.”

Abuses in Residential School

At just 11 years old, Irniq and the other children of his community were taken hundreds of miles away to residential school as a part of a mandatory government policy.

“I was forcibly removed, taken, kidnapped by a Roman Catholic priest and a government man in August of 1958 so that I could be taken, like all of my generation of Inuit, to go to a residential school,” he said. “We were taken away from our parents. We were never the same people again.”

Irniq was taken from his home in Repulse Bay, more than 250 miles away by plane to Chesterfield Inlet, where he and other Inuit children were made to live at a residence named Turquetil Hall and attend classes at the Sir Joseph Bernier Federal Day School.

During its 14 years in operation, Turquetil Hall housed nearly 400 children from 10 different Arctic communities, many of which were  located even further away than Irniq’s home in Repulse Bay.

A group of boys stand outside the grounds of Turquetil Hall. - Library and Archives Canada

Despite the residence and school being located in Chesterfield Inlet, with Indigenous kids from Chesterfield Inlet also attending the day school but living at home, Irniq explained that boarding students had no exposure to the local community.

“We were separated from local boys and girls from Chesterfield Inlet who also attended Sir Joseph Bernier federal day school.” Irniq recalled. “We were not allowed to visit local people in Chesterfield Inlet even though we had lots of relatives. We weren’t allowed to visit and they were not allowed to visit the hostel.”

The goal of Turquetil Hall was “the education of the Eskimo for the benefit of the Eskimo community,” according to documents cited in a 1991 analysis into the residential school. Today, the term “Eskimo” is considered derogatory.

Turquetil Hall, a residential school located in Chesterfield Inlet in Nunavut, Canada. - University of British Columbia

The school was, at best, a tool in the goal to see these children assimilate, according to Irniq. “We were there to learn to speak and write English and arithmetic,” he said.

At worst, it was a form of cultural genocide – something the present day federal government has acknowledged and apologized for.

That was most clear in Irniq’s first month at residential school, when a teacher caught him speaking Inuktitut. “She motioned me to come to the front of the class, and she had a really big ruler, three-foot ruler on one hand and she said, ‘Open your hand,’” he recalled. “And I opened my hand and she hit me so hard with the ruler and said, ‘don't ever let me hear you speak that language again in this classroom.’”

Children work at desks in a classroom at Sir Joseph Bernier Federal Day School. - Library and Archives Canada

Irniq added that, despite English not having been a language they would have spoken at home, they were punished severely for speaking English poorly.

Primary documents from the school claimed “students were allowed to speak Inuktitut amongst themselves out-of-school and in the hostel,” and that “most of the Grey Nuns were conversant in the Inuktitut language.”

But stories where students were punished for speaking their native language are common among survivors of residential schools across the country, with many claiming they were punished with pins in their tongue.

And, Irniq said, “the Grey Nuns did not speak Inuktitut well.”

School officials also claimed at the time that excursions like ice fishing, building igloos and arts and crafts festivals were built into the curriculum, but Irniq’s recollections of those times were instead filled with dark and traumatizing moments.

“Residential school was a horrible, horrible life for Inuit,” he recalled. “We prayed about 13 times a day. We were punished for little things that happened, something that we were not used to at home. They used to punish us by taking us by both ears.”

Irniq’s memories concerning the food they were served were especially difficult to share. “I could vomit just thinking about some of the food,” he said.

Traditionally, Inuit cuisine consists of muktuk, the skin and blubber of a bowhead whale, beluga or narwhal that’s usually eaten raw and dipped in salt or soy sauce. Because it is not cooked, muktuk is dense in nutrients like vitamin C, which is especially important in the Arctic, where little vegetation grows.

In a gross misunderstanding of the culture, however, Irniq recalls, “they used to serve us frozen cow beef, which was totally foreign to our stomach. And they used to feed us boiled arctic char with dirt in it.”

He recalls looking forward to Saturday mornings, when they were served cornflakes with milk, “and that was tasty.”

As was common in many residential schools, Irniq said many of his schoolmates were sexually abused. “Many, many of us were sexually abused by the Grey Nuns, by the brothers, by the Roman Catholic priests,” he recalled.

Nuns preside over girls in their dormitory in Turquetil Hall. - Library and Archives Canada

While stories of running away are common among residential school survivors in more climate areas of Canada, Irniq explained that it was not possible for kids living at Turquetil Hall.

“Our winters are very severe up north,” he said. “You’d freeze before you get home.”

In the winter months, temperatures in Chesterfield Inlet can dip as low as -31 degrees fahrenheit, and strong winds are common. Some students would have come from secluded island communities only reachable by plane. Others were taken from communities nearly 1,000 miles away. Others still were as young as 4 or 5 years old when they arrived at the school.

That was his life from August to May for the rest of his adolescence.

“The only time we saw our parents again was in May, after spending 10 months at the residential school,” he recalled. “Every time the church would bring us back to our communities, we would speak nothing but Inuktitut from May, June, July and August with our parents and with the people in the community.”

Two boys pose for a photo before being taken to residential school. - Library and Archives Canada

Not everyone had such a positive experience during the summer homecoming, however. During his work with the Truth and Reconciliation Project, Irniq learned of a girl who, one summer, failed to return home.

“Like all the other parents, she went to meet the plane and her daughter was missing,” he said. “She was never told by the Roman Catholic Church authorities that her daughter had died. For many, many years she was looking for her child. Turned out, she was buried in Chesterfield Inlet.”

Overcoming Trauma and Renewed Cries for Justice

Talking publicly about his trauma has allowed him to move on from his anger, Irniq explained, but still like many other Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada, he has continued to call for accountability.

“We're at the critical period of time when so many Canadians have now recognized that in fact there were many, many wrongdoings taken by the Roman Catholic church, the churches and the Canadian government in the last 100, 150 years,” he said. “And we can correct the past.”

Demands for justice across the country are on-going, including in the case of Oblate priest Johannes Rivoire, who served Irniq’s community of Naaujat along with Arivat, then known as Eskimo Point, in the ‘60s.

Rivoire was accused of sexual abuse. He was charged with one count of indecent assault on three different alleged victims, and two counts of having sexual intercourse with a female who was not his wife and was under the age of 14. The offenses occurred between 1968 and 1970, according to the Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC).

One of Rivoire’s alleged victims was Irniq’s lifelong friend Marius Tungilik, who died of suicide at 55 in 2012.

Piita Irniq, left, and his friend, Marius Tungilik, right. - Piita Irniq

“He always used to talk about Rivoire sexually abusing him when he was a young boy in Naujaat, Repulse Bay, in the ‘60s,” Irniq said.

Tungilik also attended Sir Joseph Bernier residential school in Chesterfield Inlet, and was among the first to speak publicly about the alleged abuse. Like Irniq, Tungilik also dedicated his life to public service in Nunavut.

Tungilik’s sister told CBC News that he drank heavily as a result of the abuse. His friend Jack Anawak told Nunatsiaq News a few of them met weekly in a support group, and it wasn’t long after Tungilik failed to show up for a meeting that he took his own life.

Rivoire is believed to be in France, where he allegedly fled after allegations against him came to light in 1993. Inside Edition Digital’s attempts to locate Rivoire were not successful.

A warrant for Rivoire’s arrest was issued in 1998 but it does not appear that Rivoire, who is now 90, will be extradited, or will ever stand trial in Canada.

There is currently no active prosecution against Rivoire, PPSC told Inside Edition Digital, adding that the charges were stayed in 2017 and were not re-activated.

“His victims in Naujat are being retraumatized all the time, and that is not fair,” Irniq said.

Officially, there is an extradition treaty between Canada and France. However, according to section 696-4 of France’s criminal law, France will not extradite if the person in question has French nationality.

It's not clear if Rivoire is a French citizen, but reports say he began his life as a priest in France and was sent to Canada from France.

But there are renewed calls for Rivoire’s extradition, with federal and territorial leaders earlier this month urging for his prosecution either in Canada or in France.

They hope such actions will be taken against Rivoire, as they were in the case of ex-priest Eric Dejaeger. Dejaeger had fled to Belgium when accusations against him came to light, but he was returned to Iqaluit court in 2012 on 80 charges related to his time as a priest in Nunavut in the 1970s.

Dejaeger was ultimately convicted of 24 counts, including three counts of unlawful sexual intercourse, 10 counts of indecent assault on a female, five counts of indecent assault on a male, three counts of buggery on a male, one count of bestiality, one count of sexual assault on a female and one count of unlawful confinement, CBC News reported.

He was sentenced to 19 years in prison at the Warkworth Institution in Campbellford, Ontario.

“I look at the churches, the Roman Catholic Churches,” Irniq said. “What the hell were you thinking, Roman Catholic church? What the hell were you thinking?”

In February 1996, Bishop Reynald Rouleau issued an apology to former students of Chesterfield Inlet’s residential school. “Tragically, others among you were sexually abused as children. By taking advantage of the trust that you and your families had given to the personnel of the school, the abusers perpetrated a profound violation against you, physically, emotionally and spiritually, but sexually as well,” Rouleau said. “I apologize with all my heart. As bishop of this diocese I am ashamed and outraged that this happened to you. I apologize with all my heart for the role that members of the church took in all that.”

The 1996 apology was crafted with the input of Inuit leaders like Irniq after many did not accept an apology he issued in 1993.

Rouleau had been affiliated with The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate in the 1960s. The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate operated 48 residential schools across Canada, including the Kamloops Indian Residential School, where 251 mass graves were found, and the Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, where 751 additional mass graves were announced to have been discovered shortly after.

Oblates of Mary Immaculate were also involved in the operation of Turquetil Hall, where Irniq had been taken.

Rouleau retired in 2013 and was succeeded by Bishop Anthony Wieslaw Krótki, who once left his congregation in Igloolik, an island in Nunavut, after receiving threats, according to Nunatsiak News. While the church never elaborated on the nature of the threats, Krótki was not alleged of any wrongdoing. 

While Irniq is not alone in his feelings toward the Catholic church, the topic of religion remains contentious among Inuit and the broader Indigenous community alike.

At least a dozen churches across Canada have been burned down and even more have been vandalized over the last several weeks in the wake of the ongoing discovery of mass graves at former residential school sites.

But many Indigenous leaders are calling for a stop to the arson.

Jenn Allan-Riley, an assistant Pentecostal minister at Living Waters Church in B.C., explained that she is the daughter of a residential school survivor, and condemned the violence.

“Burning down churches is not in solidarity with us indigenous people. We do not destroy people's places of worship,” Allan-Riley said in a statement earlier this month. “It also brings up former traumatic feelings of violence and threats to their lives. Some residential school survivors have remained Catholic, and now have lost their place of worship and comfort.”

Residential school survivor Cheryle O’Sullivan said that she did not believe the arsonists were Indigenous people. “When Indigenous people were first colonized, that was our totem poles that were burnt to the ground, our ceremonial houses, our big houses, our longhouses, burnt to the ground. our masks, our regalia,” she said. “When those churches are burnt to the ground with that goes all of the evidence, the archives of who is running those churches during the residential school era.”

Growing Inuit Influence and Passing Down Traditional Knowledge

Irniq has dedicated his life to issues surrounding Inuit self-determination – from advocating for the inclusion of Inuit programming on Canadian television in the early 1970s, to ensuring Inuit involvement in government in the late 1990s, to being appointed to serve in office as the commissioner of Nunavut in the early 2000s.

“For me, as Inuit, we’ve been able to put voice and power to our parents who were powerless and voiceless when we were forcibly taken away by the church and the government in the ‘50s and ‘60s,” he said.

Irniq was also heavily involved in the development of Nunavut as a distinct territory from Northwest Territories. Nunavut officially became its own territory in April 1999 as a homeland for Canada’s Inuit.

Irniq helped craft former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2008 federal apology to survivors of Indian residential schools, in which it was said that the policy of residential schools was “to kill the Indian in the child,” based on the idea that “Aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal.”

Irniq also worked with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in their six-year report on residential schools in 2015.

Piita Irniq's copy of the 2008 federal apology issued to residential school survivors. - Piita Irniq

In the wake of Canada’s reckoning, and as more and more bodies are discovered buried at former residential schools, Irniq hopes non-Indigenous people will educate themselves and continue healing the relationship between Indigenous people and the rest of Canada.

“Canadians have a right, Canadians a duty, Canadians have a responsibility to know what happened to us at the residential school,” Irniq said.

Such acts will move the country toward Inuuqatigiittiarniq – an Inuktitut term for “living in peace and harmony, with love [and] compassion, caring and respecting one another,” Irniq said.

And Irniq is continuing to do his part toward helping such healing occur by helping preserve and promote Inuit language, history and culture.

“We have our own government with a lot of Inuit involvement,” he said. “But at the same time, we try to make sure that we keep our Inuit culture alive. At the residential school … we had a loss of culture, loss of language, loss of traditional beliefs and shamanism, and loss of parenting skills.”

In addition to delivering lectures on history and teaching Inuktitut language classes, Irniq was most recently invited to Nunavik, the northern region of Quebec and the homeland of Inuit in the province, to give a lesson on Inuit drums and drum dancing.

“I often refer [to it] as a celebration of life, because when we had good winters in the years past, traditional times when no one died and no one was sick, and when the days were getting longer, men would build a great big igloo and we would hold celebrations, drum dancing and Inuit women would sing and have big feasts,” he explained.

“You should see the pride and hope and strength they gained from making their own Inuit drums,” Irniq said. “We're placing a lot of strength and pride and hope for many many Inuits who have lost a lot of Inuit culture.”

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