THE INUINNAIT EXPERIENCE
The Residential School experience for Indigenous people across Canada—including Inuit—began in the late 1860s. From 1867 to the closing of the last residential school (Oka Country day school in Kanesatake, Quebec) in 2000, over 150,000 Indigenous children attended residential schools. These schools were most often operated by religious organizations and financed by the federal government; their role being to provide Indigenous children with the Euro-Christian education the government believed was necessary for successful assimilation into colonial society. As government-supported boarding schools, these institutions were designed to both distance Indigenous children from their ancestral cultures and guide them into western learning, lifestyles and worldview.
The Inuit encounter with Residential Schools differed from that of First Nations. This was largely because Inuit were not recognized under the federal Indian Act until 1939, which meant that the Canadian government did not see itself as directly responsible for their welfare or education. These responsibilities were often independently assumed by Roman Catholic, Anglican and Moravian missionaries, who took it upon themselves to educate Inuit youth in religious instruction rather than broader curriculum. The mission-school era came to an end around the 1950s.
Around 1950, the scope and scale of schooling in the North began to change. In 1949 there were 111 Inuit children receiving full-time education, and by 1959 that number had risen to 1,165. This was due to the federal government's increased efforts to assert sovereignty over the Canadian Arctic. To accomplish this, Inuit were relocated to remote corners of the Arctic and settled into concentrated urban communities where they could be more easily administrated. The expansion of schooling also played a role in the government control of Inuit lives and was undertaken with virtually no consultation with Inuit. Inuit children were shipped great distances—sometimes thousands of kilometres—to a scattering of newly established government schools, and were often separated from their parents for years at a time while attending. A separate system of day schools, called small hostels, were also installed in more than a dozen Arctic communities to encouraged Inuit parents to settle on a year-round basis so as not to be separated from their kids. In the western Arctic, 'large hostels' were also built to bring together hundreds of children from different regions and backgrounds. These 'large hostel' schools physically removed children from their families as a way to undo their existing learning in Indigenous culture, language, and beliefs. Students were shamed and punished for exerting their Inuit identity.
Inuinnait were impacted by schooling later than most Inuit groups, as their first encounters with western culture took place only after 1910. The first missionaries arrived in the region about 1918; their efforts initially concentrating more on spiritual conversion of communities than the educational development of children. The first government supported religious school to open in the Inuinnait region was the Coppermine tent hostel in Kulguktuk, its location chosen because it was a central location for the many Inuinnait families living throughout the Coronation Gulf. Run by Anglican missionaries, the school was operated five months a year, and housed twenty to thirty students. When the school closed in 1959, Inuinnait children were transitioned to large hostels and residential schools in more remote locations including Yellowknife and Inuvik. Inuinnait communities were repeatedly faced with the trauma of the annual arrival of a government-chartered airplane or boat to take their children away to school. Often, neither the parents nor the children knew where they were going.
The experiences of Inuinnait children attending residential schools varied by individual, but the outcomes of their schooling were often the same: loss of language, loss of culture and loss of identity. After years of remote schooling, many children returned to their communities without the Inuinnaqtun language, skills, or teachings that had previous defined their identity. Many bore the scars and shame of physical and emotional abuse. Without proper recognition and resources to deal with their pain, the damage of residential schools was passed along to the their own children and following generations.
In recent decades the breaking of silence and stigma surrounding the trauma of residential schooling has led to a movement towards cultural and language revitalization. The support of residential school survivors and their families in the acts of reclaiming Inuinnaqtun identities and language have become critical acts of healing.
For many Inuinnait, the already heavy burden of Residential School trauma is compounded by a feeling shame at their lack of language skills, and by a feeling that it is not okay to make errors when speaking.
Listen to Margo Neglak's story about losing her language while attending Residential School in Inuvik, and her struggle to reclaim it. The video is in both Inuinnaqtun and English.
RESIDENTIAL SCHOOLS AND HOSTELS ATTENDED BY INUINNAIT
There were only a handful of residential schools and hostels designed to accommodate Inuinnait from across the western Arctic.
The following information and photos from each of the schools attended by Inuinnait have been sourced from Truth and Reconciliation archives and websites, which can be accessed by clicking on the schools' names.
FEDERAL HOSTEL AT CAMBRIDGE BAY
January 1, 1964 - June 30, 1997
The Federal Hostel at Cambridge Bay was part of the Northern Affairs Branch Small Hostels program. Small Hostels were supposed to come close to the traditional home life of Inuit children. Cambridge Bay was chosen as a site in the Small Hostels program because of its central location. In 1969 educational authority was transferred to the Territorial government. In 1970 two new 12 bed hostels were constructed. During the 1970s, one of the hostels burned down and a new 16 bed facility was constructed. Children staying in the hostels attended local day schools