This First Person piece is a speech written by Tanya Tungilik, one of three people to address Pope Francis in a private event during his visit to Iqaluit on July 29. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
My name is Tanya Tungilik, I am here on behalf of my late father Marius Tungilik.
My dad was loved dearly by his parents. He had fond memories as a child, and was not called by his name, but by terms of endearment like “my wonderful son,” or anikuluk by his two older sisters. He was carefree and had nothing to be afraid of … until 1963.
In Naujaat, August 1963, his parents told him that they were going to meet a plane. It was always a big event when an airplane came in. The next thing he knew, he was put on that plane. He didn’t know why. He cried the whole way, holding onto his cousin Jack Anawak for dear life. My dad was just five years old. That plane took him to Chesterfield Inlet.
The Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS) can be contacted toll-free at 1-800-721-0066.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
In addition, the NWT Help Line offers free support to residents of the Northwest Territories, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It is 100% free and confidential. The NWT Help Line also has an option for follow-up calls. Residents can call the help line at 1-800-661-0844.
In Nunavut, the Kamatsiaqtut Help Line is open 24 hours a day at 1-800-265-3333. People are invited to call for any reason.
He was brought to the Joseph Bernier Federal Day School, administered by the Oblate priests, brothers and Grey Nuns. When he got there, they gave him a haircut, bath and a uniform with moccasins. When the Grey Nuns gave the boys that first bath, they scrubbed them really hard, then they masturbated them in the bathtub.
They asked each one of them who they were and my dad couldn’t remember his name. They would wake them up in the mornings. He didn’t know how they slept the first few nights because they cried all night. His chores were to sweep the stairs and do the dishes. Breakfast was porridge almost every day. They had crackers in milk, and sometimes the milk was rotten. They were also given rotten fish heads. When they went to the washroom, they were only given one or two squares of toilet paper to use.
My dad and his classmates would sleep at the student residence at Turquetil Hall, and one of the supervisors there was Brother Lucien Parent. Shortly after my dad began going to school, Parent would start bringing my dad to his room next to the dorm, and give him jelly beans. Candies were rare back then. He would masturbate my dad and ask him how it felt. Parent would also tell my dad to masturbate him as well. The strange mixture of excitement, of being included, the secrecy involved, sexual arousal, of being bad in a holy place, of wonderment, confusion, helplessness, shame, of being used, overwhelmed my dad.
A number of the students started noticing that more children were seen entering Parent’s room, and joked about whose turn it was to “milk” the brother. After awhile, they thought that if it was OK for adults to act this way, it was OK for them too. Late one night, they crept out of their beds quietly and masturbated one of the boys. They got caught by one of the Grey Nuns, who did not bother asking them why they committed such an unthinkable, outrageous act.
The next morning, the boys were called to the front of the dorm and accused of molesting one of their own, and they were made to strip and then strapped by a belt in front of everyone. That was enough to deter Parent; it never happened again to my dad.
The beatings by one teacher, George Demeule, during one semester was very difficult for my dad. He once asked my dad, who was at the back of the class, what he had written on the blackboard. My dad didn’t know he needed glasses at the time, and said “I don’t know.” The next thing he knew, the teacher lifted my dad out of his chair, threw him on the floor, and screamed that maybe from now on, he would learn to pay attention.
The physical abuse that took place that year was unbelievable. The children were very scared most of the time because they had no idea what would happen next. The teacher frequently went around the classroom with an 18-inch ruler and beat them on their backs, as he went from desk to desk. And whenever he got angry at the children, he would throw chalk at them.
They treated them very differently from back home. There were no signs of affection or love. Everything was regimented. They had to learn, speak, write and read in English. They had to follow the clock.
Around the 19th of May they went home. Just once a year. He didn’t know what that was like for his parents. He never really asked them. He knew they were so happy to see them come back every time. They would shower him with love. It must have been hard for them. His parents told them to listen to their supervisors, whoever was taking care of them, because first of all they were white. In that time they felt inferior to white people, and secondly his parents were very religious, they had to listen to the clergy.
They were not allowed to have any contact outside of the school with the residents of Chesterfield Inlet. They missed out completely on a valuable resource of knowledge and expertise that was available right there.
They were told that they were Eskimos. That they did not amount to anything. The only way they could succeed was to learn the white way of life. They were made to hate their own people. They looked down on the other Inuit, because they did not know how to speak or read English.
When you’re told over and over again that Inuktitut is a forbidden language, that our way of life is primitive, you begin to think and see your own people in a different light. You see them sitting on the floor eating with their hands. You think, OK, primitive. That’s brainwashing.
Being made to feel inferior or superior with your own kind is psychological abuse. None of them spoke about it. So for many years it was probably the best kept secret of what actually happened in school.
They could not contact any members of their families, because there were no telephones, and they could not run away because their homes were so far away. They were deprived of Inuit skills to survive out on the land on their own, and did not have the proper warm clothing.
My dad would return to the residential school every year, until he was 12 years old.
When my Dad was about 13 years old, while he was working at the co-op store in Naujaat, Father Johannes Rivoire sexually abused my dad. This and his school experience would haunt my dad for the rest of his life.
My dad’s parents were deeply religious. However, my dad was eventually turned off by the concept of God, thinking how could the men of God be so evil? He also later resented the church for their role in colonizing the North and assimilating Inuit into mainstream society. He resented the fact that they discredited and destroyed their spiritual values. Because of this, and for many other reasons, I have never been, nor will I ever be a Christian.
Many of the details about my dad’s experiences, he didn’t tell me personally — I had to research them from his documented testimonies. However, he did tell me of a disturbing incident in 1979, when he had been at the bishop’s residence in Churchill, Manitoba. The bishop was showing him around the residence. When the bishop opened one of the doors, my dad had caught a glimpse of Lucien Parent, raping a little white boy, and the bishop quickly closed the door.
My dad learned much later that Parent had killed himself in Hull, Quebec, on Sept. 3, 1979.
My mom had encouraged my dad to go public with all that had happened. But being the first to do so was incredibly hard for him. He was tormented inside because he knew it was the right thing to do, yet he felt he did not have the courage nor the strength. He felt he was going to die of shame if he said anything publicly.
Then he got lost out on the land for five days by himself. This was only supposed to be a day trip, so he didn’t have a tent. He had to use his sled and a tarp as shelter. He thought he might die out there, so he thought about his life and about the residential school. He finally made up his mind that if he survived, he would go public with what had happened to him.
A week after my dad was found, he appeared before the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in Rankin Inlet, on Nov. 19, 1992. My dad was the first Inuk to speak publicly about what happened at Turquetil Hall in Chesterfield Inlet. He and his fellow survivors, Piita Irniq and Jack Anawak, organized a reunion in Chesterfield Inlet for the survivors in 1993.
Not everyone supported him in the beginning. Many of his fellow Inuit did not believe him, or were in denial, that the church would do these horrific things, men and women of God of all people! Many Inuit were angry at my dad in the beginning. Then he started getting calls from people all over the North who did understand, and who knew exactly what he was talking about — and they supported him. They worked together on many different issues.
My dad went on to have a very successful career with the Government of the Northwest Territories, including as a regional director and later, while Nunavut was getting created, as the interim deputy minister of Human Resources for the new Government of Nunavut in 1999. He was integral in incorporating the Inuit way of doing things in the new government.
But that education he received at the residential school to achieve his career aspirations came at a high price. My dad had neglected his heritage for a very long time. It was not until he met my mother Johanne that his appreciation for the land and our culture blossomed. My Mom, who is French-Canadian, had been very interested in Inuit since she was young. With her thirst for knowledge, and actually practicing the Inuit way of life, it encouraged my dad to relearn his cultural heritage and become proud to be an Inuk.
But not all was roses and rainbows for my mom and dad. The trauma of what happened to him, whether he was conscious of it or not, had a profound effect on him and their relationship. My mom also had her own childhood trauma to contend with. She had been sexually abused by two of her uncles (both who had been sexually abused by the Catholic clergy, by the way), from when she was about three years old until she was 16. So, she had her own trauma that she was consciously unaware of for a long time. These childhood traumas for both my parents skewed what a normal sexual relationship should look like. Neither had a good understanding of consent, because neither had the physical ability to prevent their abuses when they were children. They both had a lot of anger issues too, because nobody had protected them from getting sexually abused as children.
One of my first memories, when I was very little, was of my Dad beating up my Mom in the bathtub. Another time, I remember them throwing things around the house, them yelling at each other. They fought a lot when I was growing up, perhaps because of that I was a very quiet, shy and fearful child. I remember as a little girl, crying with terror during those epic fights, hiding under my bed. I am a very light sleeper now because I would always be alert for their fights when I was a child. To this day, I don’t like conflict of any kind, I still get anxious when I see or hear people arguing.
My dad had struggled with alcoholism his entire life. He tried to drown out the memories of the atrocities he endured at the residential school. When I was little, I used to get scared when my dad would drink.
My mom finally had enough of his physical, emotional, and sexual abuse towards her, and divorced my dad in 1997. My dad had abused my mom right up until she divorced him. I didn’t know that, he kept it behind closed doors as I got older.
Despite all that, my dad was a very loving and caring father to my brother and I. He used to aqaq me, which was to sing endearments to me. It went something like this: “Utarralara, nagligilaaga, piulijualara!” Which roughly translates to, “My little child, I love you so, you are so beautiful to me!” I miss hearing him say that to me.
Although he tried to help so many other survivors of the residential school, he could not help himself. He tried talking to psychologists as far back as the seventies about what happened to him. No one took it seriously. They said, “Pray.” What does prayer have to do with anything? “Ask for forgiveness,” they said. “Forgiveness for what? The way I am? For what was done to me?”
It became clear to my dad that no one in the professional field knew what it was like to be in an institutionalised situation and to have dealt with physical, sexual, psychological and spiritual abuse of that magnitude. No one had the language, they did not know about post-traumatic stress disorder.
Sadly, the long-term effects of his alcoholism killed my dad in the end. He died in his bed alone in December of 2012. He was just 55 years old. My brother Jesse found him on Dec. 16; he had decomposed quite a bit. This has severely traumatized my brother. I am so sorry you had to find him like that Jesse. It was not your fault; it was the church’s reckless behaviour that drove him to drink.
If my dad, Marius Tungilik, were alive today, he would be here addressing you himself, because he had fought for this moment since 1992. Quite frankly, I might not have been here right now, because I tried to take my own life several times over the years. I am alive today because I needed to tell this story.
Pope Francis, to achieve reconciliation with our people, we need these things from you and the Vatican:
- First, we need the Vatican to abide by the rule of law, so identify and turn in to law enforcement, all persons responsible for any abuse, and anyone who aided and abetted any abuser in escaping justice. This includes Johannes Rivoire. You must compel him to go to Canada to face justice.
- Secondly, we need you to apologize for the role of your church as a whole, for intentionally contributing to the cultural genocide of the Indigenous people, through running 60 per cent of the residential and day schools in Canada.
- Thirdly, we need the Vatican to officially repeal the Doctrine of Discovery and apologize for it.
- Finally, we need you to open up the Vatican archives and release all documents pertaining to Indigenous people to the public.
Qujannamiik, gracias, thank you for listening to my dad’s story. Taima.