May 07, 2009

The Experimental Eskimos

A retrospective of Inuit assimilation hits screensA little known chapter in Canada's past, when it forcibly assimilated aboriginal youths by taking them away from their parents, was highlighted this week in a new documentary.

"The Experimental Eskimos" screened for the first time at Toronto's Hot Docs Festival, the largest in North America.

It tells the story of three adolescent boys who in 1962 and 1963 were sent to school in Ottawa, 2,900 kilometers (1,800 miles) south of their homes in the Canadian Arctic.

Government documents show the purpose was to create leaders among a group that had only recently left their nomadic lives.

"The question was, can Eskimos be civilized?" asked Peter Ittinuar, one of the men in the film. Addressing a Toronto audience after a packed screening of the film, he noted: "We were the guinea pigs."
How the experiment worked:The three boys profiled in the film went on to become leaders who were instrumental in the creation of Nunavut, the world's largest self-governing aboriginal territory in Canada's far north.

Footage from the 1970s and 1980s show the brash and articulate long-haired young men dressed in suits making their case to politicians, including then prime minister Pierre Trudeau.

They succeeded in getting recognition within the constitution for Canada's first peoples. But the early years of being separated from their parents and uprooted from their culture took its toll.

In the film, the men speak of their anguished pasts, which included alcoholism, failed relationships, and run-ins with the law.

"It took decades before I could tell my story as I lived it," recounts Zebedee Nungak, one of the three men shown in the film. "We have served as leaders and that's good. But each one of us has lived with addictions and dysfunctions."
Comment:  What happened to these boys sounds like what happened to many Indian children taken to boarding schools. They learned how to navigate the wider world and use it to help their people. But they suffered personally from the loss of their homes and culture.

For more on the subject, see Eskimos:  The Ultimate Aborigines and Native Documentaries and News.


Rob said...

'Experimental Eskimos' tells story of attempt to assimilate Inuit kids in 1960s

When federal bureaucrats plucked three smart young Inuit boys from their families in the 1960s and sent them to high school in the south, they probably had little idea that they would help transform Canada.

But Peter Ittinuar, Zebedee Nungak and Eric Tagoona did just that, making their mark in federal politics, gaining aboriginal rights and negotiating landmark land claims treaties such as the James Bay agreement and the creation of Nunavut.

Their education came with a steep price—the loss of their language and culture as they were steeped in white culture living with families in Ottawa, resulting in alienation from their families and friends back home.

They were told down south that whites were superior to Inuit. Then they also faced insults when they returned home and lacked the traditional skills common in the community.

Rob said...

For more on the subject, see The Experimental Eskimos Trailer.