Gathering remembers boys who fled Inuvik residential school decades ago

A remembrance ceremony in Inuvik Thursday included the only survivor of three boys who, in 1972, fled from their residential school in Inuvik for their homes in Tuktoyaktuk.

3 boys ran away from their residential school, only one survived to tell the tale

At a ceremony Thursday in Inuvik, elders prayed over Bernard Andreason, centre in blue, and members of the families of the two boys with whom Andreason fled residential school decades ago. Only Andreason survived their journey. (Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi/CBC)

Nearly 50 years after fleeing residential school in Inuvik, three boys who attempted a harrowing journey to Tuktoyaktuk are being honoured.

Bernard Andreason and his friends Dennis Dick and Lawrence Jack Elanik ran away from their residential school in Inuvik in June 1972. Andreason and Elanik were 11 at the time, and Dick was 13. They departed on foot over land, trying to get back home to Tuktoyaktuk, roughly 130 kilometres north over an immense landscape of lakes, rivers and brush.

After two weeks, only Andreason made it home.

On Thursday afternoon, a ceremony was held to honour Andreason and his friends. Andreason, who turns 58 in August, says he still misses them.

Bernard Andreason, left, and his friends Lawrence Jack Elanik and Dennis Dick.

"[I think of them] when I accomplish something," he said.

"If I graduate from a program, or if I graduate from school, or I've done something to better my education I think of them, and I wonder, 'would they be in my shoes? Would they do the same thing I would do? How would they feel being here today?'"

This is the first time a ceremony has been held to honour their experience.

"I want people to know about what it was like to run away from people that are mean, that just want to punish you," Andreason said.

'Overwhelming' empathy

Steve Dagar is one of the people who came up with the idea for the ceremony.

Steve Dagar, a teacher in Inuvik, helped organize Thursday's ceremony. (Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi/CBC)

Dagar teaches Grade 9 at East Three Secondary School in Inuvik. He and another teacher wanted to teach a unit on truth and reconciliation, and when they learned the story of the three boys who had escaped from residential school, they knew it was something they wanted to bring to their classrooms.

Dagar said many of his students were relatives of one of the three boys, or knew someone who was, so for them this unit was very personal.

"Once they started really delving into the story of Bernard, Dennis and Jack, the amount of empathy these students have shown has been overwhelming. The engagement has been great," he said.

The ceremony began at 1:30 p.m. at the Inuvik gun range near the start of the Inuvik Tuktoyaktuk Highway.

The highway was expected to be closed until 3 p.m for the ceremony.

Andreason plans to return to Tuktoyaktuk on July 11 for another ceremony on the anniversary of the day he arrived back in 1972.

Bernard Andreason stands near the Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk highway in Inuvik. He was in Inuvik for a ceremony commemorating a journey he and two of his friends attempted decades ago to flee residential school. Only Andreason survived. (Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi/CBC)