Leaning on culture and openly talking about the past will heal communities afflicted by the ongoing impacts of colonialism, testified an expert at Monday’s MMIWG hearing in Iqaluit.
“(Inuit) have seen a lot of changes in our lives. There are a lot of things I went through that confuse me,” said Elisapee Davidee Aningmiuq, describing federal day school abuse, which instilled shame toward Inuit culture.
Davidee Aningmiuq offers cultural programming in support of community health and well-being with the Tukisigiarvik centre.
“They were putting us down as Inuit for speaking Inuktitut. It was like a ‘not good enough’ sign on your chest,” she said.
In federal day school teachers forbade her from speaking Inuktitut and struck her with a ruler as punishment.
The abuse staff at day schools perpetrated resulted in a fraught relationship with her own children, who she would scold over the use of English in her home, she said tearfully.
“Because of all of the lies that I believed about myself, I didn’t live a very healthy lifestyle. The tears are, because I’m sorry to my children. I’m sorry that I scolded my children,” she said.
“It was me going against those that were telling me not to speak my language. It was stuff that was coming out from the deepest part of me that was damaged.”
In her youth, while simultaneously being shamed for her own language, a priest remarked on her inability to make kamik, or traditional footwear.
In consultations with homeless and marginalized people in Iqaluit, Davidee Aningmiuq realized there was no support for single mothers and children to go out on the land, which led to Tukisigiarvik’s creation, she said.
The knowledge that hundreds of women have learned to make kamik through the program is a source of pride, she said.
“One elder, she got in a canoe. She said ‘this is the first time I’ve been on a canoe since my husband died.’ and her husband had been dead for some 20 years,” she said.
People without means to travel on the land, or who feel tied to their duties of child rearing, are reluctant to seek out cultural land-based activities, said Davidee Aningmiuq.
“It is so important to teach self-esteem building, to work side by side with people who have been oppressed for so long, … to give them some hope,” said Davidee Aningmiuq.
Inuit cultural organizations should have indefinite funding, rather than piecemeal short-term funding to sustain their operations, said Davidee Aningmiuq.
“We need financial assistance to be able to take people out on the land so that they can learn or re-learn some of the cultural activities that bring pride, that bring back self esteem, that bring back the diet. The diet is so very important to us too,” she said.
Listening to the radio, Davidee Aningmiuq said the tone of Inuit has become less angry because healing is taking place, but it must continue.
Over time Davidee Aningmiuq came to terms with her reluctance to speak the English language and dedicated herself to healing cultural programs.
“Healing needs to happen for us to start communicating and working together. It’s important for people to have a place like that where they’re welcome, where they can get their identity back,” she said.
Finally, Inuit are speaking their truths and opening up a dialogue about injustices they endured, and starting the healing process, said Davidee Aningmiuq
The colonial experience “was too painful for our parents for our elders,” she said.
“It hurts me too when I think of how some Inuit would go to their local dump for food because they were relocated. They didn’t know the hunting grounds. It’s only when we start talking about it and only when someone believes us that and we can continue to speak the truth that comes from us,” she said.
“We were so put down. When somebody breaks your soul it’s painful. The feeling you get afterwards (making kamik) is deep. It’s very therapeutic,” she said.
“Sometimes I wish my mother was here to see this. I wish that those women who encouraged me were here to see what I can do. There’s been a lot of healing through them, there’s been a lot of tears, a lot of joy, a lot of happiness.”
Informal mental health supports underserve Inuit
Asked how the recommendations of the inquiry can be effective, Davidee Aningmiuq said policies must be made for and by Inuit.
Poor continuity at government agencies and frequent turnover of staff forces Inuit to explain their needs to new staff repeatedly, said Davidee Aningmiuq.
It’s a “hiccup” in the system,” said Davidee Aningmiuq.
Mental health facilities should operate at the community level, similar to the Ilisaqsivik centre in Clyde River because currently elders are “working underground” to help others in the community.
Individuals are providing services, sometimes at their own personal expense, she said, referring to a man who offered a sobering place for men until one night his house burned down.
In helping others struggling with homelessness, he too lost his own home.
“(Elders) are the ones who get called at night, at all hours of the day. We need to formalize counselling and mental health facilities that can take people at any time. Not in three weeks, or when you’re in crisis, or when it’s too late,” she said.