About a thousand Iqaluit residents, almost all in bright orange T-shirts or hoodies, walked down the main street of Nunavut’s capital on Thursday for National Day of Truth and Reconciliation.
Jack Anawak spearheaded the march and wore an orange and white flag with a banner “all children matter” in memory of all children who died in boarding schools.
This show was a proud gesture from a man who survived years in a residential school and has been at the forefront of them since the early 1990s to have their traumatic experience recognized. But instead of focusing on reconciliation, he said Inuit should decolonize and rise.
“I think we have to assert our rights that have always been there. We have fallen under colonialism. We went through a period where we were pretty much in a cage,” Anawak said.
“We were not allowed to speak inuktitut. They were trying to do away with our culture. They were trying to do away with our language. Without a process of being conquered we were just taken over … we just have to say that enough is enough.”
Anawak was born in Naujaat, Nunavut. At the age of eight, he was led hundreds of miles to Sir Joseph Bernier School in Chesterfield Inlet, Nunavut, on the west coast of Hudson Bay.
There, Anawak said he witnessed his classmates being beaten with the sharp end of a long ruler and pushed into a corner to wear a down hat.
These were among the stories that Anawak told Inuit leaders who met in Iqaluit on Thursday for the annual general meeting of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), the national organization of the Inuit.
Anawak, now 71, has a long history as a political leader among Inuit and has served as MP, MLA and ambassador for circumpolar affairs. He has also become public with his battle with addiction.
His message to them at the ITK meeting: if we are to reconcile and heal, we need to think in our own cultural way about how to proceed.
‘We are still Inuit’
Pita Aatami, who heads Makivik Corp., the organization representing 11,000 Inuit in northern Quebec, said Anawak at the meeting.
“If we are to reconcile with the government, they must recognize that we are running our own affairs,” Aatami said.
ITK President Natan Obed, who agreed with Anawak’s point on decolonization, said ITK continues to work towards this goal in education, health and other areas.
Aluki Kotierk, chairman of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the Inuit organization representing 30,000 Nunavut Inuit, later spoke with those gathered in Iqaluit before the march. She said it was a heavy day, full of thoughts of many young children who never returned home.
Everyone present observed a moment of silence before the march began.
At the end of the march on Iqaluit Square, Kotierk helped distribute packages of frozen caribou. She called the food distribution a marker that “we are still here.”
“We are still proud,” she said. “We still love our food and we are still Inuit.”