There was a time when Jeanne Mike faced a lifetime sentence of loss and longing, a sentence that 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. The program was designed to determine whether Inuit children could be successfully relocated from their northern homes into southern cultures and societies located throughout Canada.
In 1965 Sarah Silou of Baker Lake was sent to Edmonton, Alta., and in 1966 Jeanne Mike, Leesee Komoartok and Rosie Joamie of Pangnirtung were sent to Petite Riviere, Nova Scotia.
The girls were relocated to foster homes as part of the same federal government program that plucked three 12-year-old boys – Peter Ittinuar, Zebedee Nungak and Eric Tagoona – from Inuit communities in 1962 and 1963 and placed them in foster homes in Ottawa to attend school there.
The program was called The Eskimo Experiment.
“Three of us (girls) were sent to Nova Scotia, but we were much younger than the boys were. I was seven. The other two were eight,” said Mike.
More than fifty years later, the federal government has yet to provide answers – or restitution – for tearing these children from their homes.
“The most important questions I have are for what reason was I separated from family and community, and what did the federal government gain by sending us south for school,” she said.
The group has been fighting the federal government in court for 10 years. Lawyer Steven Cooper, who for almost 30 years has acted for people who have been “the victims of colonial thinking and racist policies,” represents all seven in two claims filed at the Nunavut Court of Justice in January 2008.
Their case is one of several examples of systematic assimilation efforts – including residential schools, Indian hospitals, the Sixties Scoop – lasting variously from a century to several decades.
“They were all part of the same colonial thinking. ‘These are savages, we are the superior culture. We are going to train them to be more like us, and less like them.’ They did it through a concerted series of steps, whether it was the residential school system, whether it was by removing the children from their home and their culture and placing them around the world, whether it was to subject them to segregated hospitals … it all follows the same theme – which is ‘we know what’s best for them,'” he said.
The name of this particular program of assimilation, The Eskimo Experiment, is the most telling, he says.
“This was an experiment with children,” he said. “By starting with children, our government chose consciously, in my view, to take advantage of their vulnerability and malleability without having a clue, possibly not even caring, about the consequences.”
The Conservative government in power when the claims for the seven were filed threatened to quash the claims, insisting too much time had passed. Cooper and his clients kept their heads down until about a year-and-a-half ago, when a change in government suggested a change in policy.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s call to action 26 states: “We call upon the federal, provincial, and territorial governments to review and amend their respective statutes of limitations to ensure that they conform to the principle that governments and other entities cannot rely on limitation defences to defend legal actions of historical abuse brought by Aboriginal people.”
The Attorney General of Canada is the defendant in both claims. The Department of Justice forwarded questions from Nunavut News to the new Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs (CIRNA).
Citing the “fundamental shift in the relationship between the Crown and Inuit,” spokesperson Stephanie Palma stated via e-mail that “finding a new way forward to resolve litigation in a compassionate, respectful and fair manner is key to advancing reconciliation with Inuit. It is an important path to renewing the Inuit-Crown relationship, based on recognition of rights, respect, co-operation and partnership.”
Palma added, “The government will work with plaintiffs, their counsel and other parties to negotiate settlements to include compensation as well as investments in healing, commemoration, wellness, language and culture initiatives. Our goal is to work with survivors to bring healing, closure and resolution to this dark chapter in our shared history.”
While Cooper says the federal government deserves full credit for implementing a complete change of approach to historical injustices on large claims, he notes that’s not the case with the smaller claims.
“The experimental Eskimos claim is almost as old as the Newfoundland and Labrador residential School claim – 2007 versus 2008 – and much, much older than the Sixties Scoop, which was only commenced last year, yet we have difficulty getting the feds to pay attention to it,” he said.
Cooper is concerned with a federal election on the horizon.
“Action in this case must equate to coming to the negotiation table with the settlement mandate. These seven plaintiffs have a right to have their matter resolved in accordance with the government’s repeated protestations that they are all about reconciliation and addressing historical wrongs. We’re waiting.”
Mike says she’s been “waiting and waiting and waiting.”
“Here we are. I’m 59. Fifty years later and I have no more information than I had before. None of us are getting any younger. In fact, I think one of the girls that had been down is older than me and she’s been sick.”
The claim seeks $250,000 for each of the seven for breach of fiduciary duty and the corresponding negative effects and $100,000 in punitive, aggravated, or exemplary damages for the intentional loss of Inuit culture, plus legal costs.
But Mike says she will consider the legal claim successful as closure “if it includes all documents pertaining to being sent to Nova Scotia.”
Yet, Mike feels some fear about what might be found in government files.
“Maybe it’s something I won’t be able to handle.”