The national Truth and Reconciliation Commission is in Igloolik, Nunavut, where many Inuit are expected to give emotional testimony not just about the residential school system, but about more recent trauma as well.


Residents in Igloolik, Nunavut, are invited to speak to the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission at hearings being held Wednesday and Thursday. ((CBC))

Members of the commission arrived in Igloolik on Wednesday morning and began gathering statements from former residential school students in the afternoon. The hearings are expected to continue through Thursday morning.

Acting Mayor Paul Quassa, a former residential school student himself, is encouraging other former students in the eastern Arctic hamlet of over 1,500 to share their experiences with the commission.

"It's part of the whole healing process for our community, for the residents. I think it's going to be good for the community," he told CBC News on Tuesday.

About 150,000 First Nations, M├ętis and Inuit children were placed in more than 130 residential schools across Canada from the late 1870s until the last school closed in 1996.

Some children sent away

The schools were part of the federal government's plan to force the assimilation of young aboriginal people into European-Canadian society. Many students were forbidden to speak their native languages or otherwise engage in their culture at the schools, which were run by churches.

Some Inuit children from Igloolik went to a local residential school that was run by the Anglican Church. Today, a hotel operates in the space where the school used to be.

Quassa said he was sent to a residential school in Chesterfield Inlet, Nunavut, when he was seven or eight years old, while others went to a school in Churchill, Man.

"Nobody knew what to do because they were going to a new environment. And on top of that, they were taken away from their parents by force," Quassa said.

Some former students have reported being physically, sexually and psychologically abused at the schools.

Reeling from priest's return

But Quassa said former residential school students are not the only ones in Igloolik who are coping with past trauma.

Some residents are reeling from the recent return of Eric Dejaeger, a Roman Catholic priest accused of sexually assaulting children while he was a priest in Igloolik between 1978 and 1982.

Dejaeger, now 63, was brought back to Nunavut in January to face 10 criminal charges, which include indecent assault and buggery, filed by six complainants in Igloolik who claim they were abused when they were children.

"We're now talking about new survivors that have been impacted in the same way as a lot of residential school survivors have been impacted," Quassa said.

Quassa and other leaders in Igloolik have been seeking mental health counselling services to help people cope with the latest developments.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which has the mandate of documenting Canada's residential school experience, is holding hearings in Igloolik and other communities across the North over the next two months.

In all, the commission is visiting 19 communities in Nunavik, Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and Yukon until May 27, when the tour wraps up in Whitehorse.