Forty elders from across the Qikiqtaaluk were present Aug. 14 in Iqaluit the day Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett presented the Government of Canada’s apology for harmful colonial actions in the region between 1950 and 1975.
“When an apology is made, it influences everyone. When there’s been a conflict, whether it be about the dogs, relocation or any type of issue, until there’s an apology everyone around us will be bitter, with animosity. That’s why we’re here today,” Pangnirtung elder and former Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA) board member Joanasie Qappik told Nunavut News after Bennett’s apology, by way of QIA interpreter Julia Demcheson.
Qappik said an apology has been expected for a long time.
“We needed to forgive,” he said.
“If there is forgiveness then everybody comes into peace. That’s what we witnessed today. That’s what this is about – about apology and forgiveness. The way it was done, the Inuit way, we’ve always dealt with issues like that, in order to reconcile.
“Now that there’s been an apology, we can now say that we are no longer worried. Now that there’s been an apology, what was in front of us is now gone, it is no longer in the present moment.”
The apology, in fact, was crafted with the help of Inuit elders.
Along with the apology, the government provided $20 million as an initial investment towards new QIA programs that will both heal the past and create opportunities for youth moving forward.
The QIA and the federal government also signed a memorandum of understanding to establish the Saimaqatigiigniq Fund.
Read: The apology text
The apology, the funds and the memorandum of understanding are the result of the work completed almost a decade ago by the Qikiqtani Truth Commission. From 2007 to 2010, the commission staff, led by commissioner James Igloliorte, interviewed almost 350 witnesses during public hearings, reviewed 130 interviews taped by the Qikiqtani Inuit Association between 2004 and 2006, and amassed an authoritative collection of historical documentation about the relationships among Inuit and governments from 1950 to 1975, according to the final report.
The Qikiqtani Truth Commission: Community Histories 1950–1975 and Qikiqtani Truth Commission: Thematic Reports and Special Studies represent the Inuit experience during that colonial period, as told by Inuit.
Elder Simon Nattaq, who was also present at the apology, said the RCMP used their pistols to shoot dogs.
“Our fathers were the ones who lost their dogs and they are no longer here. My father was one,” said Nattaq.
“When (we) were trying to work with reconciliation in dealing with the issue, the RCMP did their own investigation and tried to protect themselves. Instead of becoming angry about it, instead of fighting back, what we chose to do was peacefully work. That’s what we witnessed today.”
Nattaq further said everyone who witnessed the apology was at peace.
“They seemed peaceful and content. That’s what we felt. That’s what we have to share and pass on to everyone,” he said.
Iqaluit Mayor Madeleine Redfern was the truth commission’s executive director. She was also present at the apology.
“The sheer breadth and depth of what people had to share was unbelievable. The mandate of the commission, the fact that it got broadened, was really important because it turned out there were so many aspects of Inuit lives that were completely out of their control,” Redfern said.
“Where you got to live, whether your children got taken from you, whether you were sent down south for tuberculosis treatment – there was virtually no concept of consent, of providing people information, of ensuring that people knew where their loved ones were, what happened to them. It’s … very shocking, the extent of wrongs and harms.”
Redfern said that in some cases people had never even shared their personal experience with their spouses or children.
As an example of lasting harm, Redfern pointed to the impact of moving Inuit into communities – by enticement, threat or force.
“What the report states is that depending on how and why Inuit moved into the communities… If you came in first and you got the first houses and the first jobs, you did relatively well. If you were forced to move in and there were no more houses, people ended up building homes out of garbage material or eating from the dump because, simply, there was not enough good planning or enough good implementation,” she said.
“So that history also helps explain why our communities are the way they are today, the relationship that Inuit have with other Inuit, the relationship that Inuit have with government.”
While Redfern was extremely disappointed the release of the report almost a decade ago did not yield acknowledgement or apology from the Canadian government, she recalls a Cape Dorset elder’s words while the commission was trying to develop recommendations.
“You can’t demand an apology. For an apology to be sincere, it comes from the person or the entity that has done wrong, recognizing the harms that occurred,” she said.
“Reconciliation is not just a single event. It’s an ongoing evolution of the relationship and a commitment to do better.”
Redfern also said those years are a shared history and a shared reality.
“And it’s a shared future. There is a lot of change that’s required, and a lot of awareness. And there’s a lot of hope.”
Redfern said the apology is one step in the process for Inuit, and it is both difficult and necessary.
“There’s a lot of hope that this will be the beginning of true change. There was that sense of hope with the negotiation of the land claim agreement, with the implementation of it, with the creation of a new territory, the creation of our own public government. And yet, over the last 20 years, we see more and more Inuit struggling. There’s more homelessness. There’s more disparity. As well, there’s more people who are struggling to feed their family. There’s a lot more violence. There’s more suicide,” she said.
“And so we have to tackle these issues head-on. And we have to do it together. The Government of Canada alone is not responsible. We need to have all levels of government and Inuit organizations work together if we’re truly going to bring about the betterment of Inuit lives.”