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Reclaiming Indigenous History and Culture: Pray, Share, Cry, Laugh

Reclaiming Indigenous History and Culture: Pray, Share, Cry, Laugh


Published on February 21, 2024

Originally published by SeeChange Initiative (9 February 2024)

By Rachel Kiddell-Monroe, CEO of SeeChange

Don Burnstick is a 61-year-old Cree comedian and motivational speaker, with long black hair and fingers that are covered with rings. He knows how to captivate the crowd of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit who have gathered in Iqaluit, Nunavut for the Sixth National Gathering on Unmarked Burials. Skirting and even stepping on the edge of good taste, he asks people to stand up, be proud, act, and remember who they are. He tells the audience that four things saved him: praying to the creator, sharing shame and pain, crying  - “because to love you have to cry”,  and laughing -” because that is the best medicine.” His words resonated with everyone. “The more you heal yourself, the more powerful you become,” Burnstick tells an exhilarated and emotional crowd. 

His talk about resilience, faith, and self-worth reflected most of the discussions at the three-day event in February 2024, hosted by the Independent Special Interlocutor for Missing Children and Unmarked Graves and Burial Sites associated with Indian Residential Schools, that my colleague and I had the honor of attending. It was the last in a series of annual events that brought together survivors of residential schools in Canada. Elders shared their heart-wrenching stories and pushed for the continuation of the painful work of finding the graves of loved ones who were taken away by the government to residential schools or tuberculosis sanatoriums and never returned. 

The Sixth National Gathering on Unmarked Burials in Iqaluit, Nunavut was co-hosted by SeeChange’s intercultural health lead Naomi Tatty and Sylvie Cloutier

From the 1870s until the mid-1990s, 139 residential schools operated across Canada, including 13 schools that operated at various times in Nunavut. More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were placed in residential schools across the country, often against their parents’ will.

Many children at the schools died of smallpox, measles, influenza and tuberculosis and in many cases a cause of death was never identified. Some were buried in unmarked graves in school cemeteries while others were listed as missing. In some instances, parents never found out what happened to them and where their children were buried.

Healing from intergenerational trauma needs to happen in the community

An Inuk Elder in a brightly colored amauti, the traditional Inuit parka, told the audience how she was sent to a TB sanatorium when she was six years old, on her own, without understanding what was happening.  “I had no one to talk to as I did not speak English. For over a year, I never spoke.”  After that, she was sent straight to a residential school. When she finally went home, after being without contact with her family for over five years, she could not speak Inuktitut anymore and found out that her older sister had been sent to another TB sanatorium, as had some of her brothers and cousins. The family was shattered. “We came home physically but we could not really ever come home because we left something behind in those places in the south. And until we find it we can’t ever be back home truly. Some parents still don’t know what happened to their loved ones or where they are buried. There are thousands of missing children,” she told a tearful audience. 

Survivors recount harrowing stories about their time at residential schools

Another Elder explained how she was sent to a residential school and her parents had no news of her until she finally came home three years later. She described how this made her parents and grandparents “hurt in the head and they turned to alcohol to drown the pain.” She explained that intergenerational pain had passed from her grandparents to her parents and then to her and that she is now passing it on to her grandchildren. 

“We need help as grandparents. Healing needs to come from other Elders and youth, not from non-Inuit counselors as they cannot understand what Inuit feel intergenerationally and culturally,” she said. “Elders need to speak to each other and need Inuit Elder counselors to speak to. Western strategies of psychosocial care do not help us.”

Nunavut’s unique experience with colonialism 

The establishment of residential schools in Nunavut is more recent, and Canadian colonialism took a new approach compared to the rest of the country.

“It began only one or two generations ago. Elders in the room were born on the land and the stories of the traditional life are still alive,” says Kimberley Murray, the Independent Special Interlocutor for Unmarked Burials.

The second volume of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission reports details how in the 1950s Canada created a system of hospitals and day schools for Nunavut. The hospitals and schools had strict discipline and their main concern was to convert people to Christianity, not to heal or educate them. Some children were taken far away from their families to residential schools, leading to the severe intergenerational impacts we see today.

From left to right: Nathan Obed (ITK), Nunavut Premier P.J. Akeeagok, Aluki Kotierk (NTI), unknown participant, Levi Barnabas (QIA)

Aluki Kotierk, president of the Inuit organization Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated (NTI), spoke in calm outrage about sexual violence as a tool of colonization of the Inuit in Nunavut. She described how a 1994 report into the Sir Joseph Bernier residential school in the Northwest Territories documented 78 allegations of sexual abuse. 40 were substantiated, and the RCMP investigations are still not completed. In More than 110 years since the creation of the first Inuit Catholic schools, only one priest has been held criminally responsible for the sexual abuse of Inuit. Rather than punish them, sexual abusers in Nunavut were moved out of the territory. This created an environment in which pedophilia was condoned and flourished.

“We see the results in our society in every metric of mental health. The hurt inflicted by these monsters showed up in our broken-down communities. Silence only protects the abusers,” said Kotierk. “It is time for truth. It is time for justice. It is time for healing.”

“We are coming out of an intense period of two to three hundred years where Inuit were seen as subhuman. There is still unfinished business,” said Nathan Obed, the President of Inuit Tapariit Katanami (ITK), the National Representational Organization Protecting and Advancing the Rights and Interests of Inuit in Canada.

While the Northern experience is unique, the similarities with First Nations and Métis are clear to see. Children were forcefully taken from their parents without informed consent; they were subjected to an alien language and setting; institutions were underfunded and understaffed; there was harsh discipline, abuse, and disease; many died and were buried in unmarked graves.

Reclaiming Inuit art and culture

As the Elders opened the event smudging with sage and leaving sweetgrass, tobacco, and cedar on the memorial to the lost children, Levi Barnabas, vice-president of Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA), remarked that in the 1950s Inuit would have been arrested for doing ceremonies with their sacred medicines. Today Inuit are reclaiming their rites, rites that had been used by their ancestors for thousands of years, long before the first Europeans landed on the shores of Turtle Island.

Nathan Obed told the audience that the focus needs to be not only on reconciliation but also on reinvigorating traditions that government and church officials had tried to stamp out. 

Shelton, an Inuk from Arviat, performs an Inuit drum dance

A young Inuk from Arviat, named Shelton by his mother in memory of her classmate at residential school, began a slow Inuit drum dance for 150 people sitting in silence in the center of the high-ceilinged conference room. A young Inuk woman called Leanna sang as he circled the space. He played steady beats on the driftwood frame of the caribou hide drum, as he performed dances to imitate the raven, the polar bear, and the caribou. When people lived on the land, the men used to perform these dances in winter snow houses or summer tents while the women sang. 

Inukshuk Drummers from the Inukshuk High School in Iqaluit

A swell of choral music and a slow drumbeat filled the great hall, as a group of young Inuit and non-Inuit women entered the room in traditional amauti, some with traditional tattoos on their faces and chests. Singing modern takes on traditional songs, they used throat-singing and drum dancing to ground their Inuktitut songs in the land and their ancestors. The Inukshuk Drummers from the Inukshuk High School in Iqaluit brought traditional Inuit culture into the modern world, demonstrating through the arts that the ability of the Inuit to adapt and interweave modern culture with traditional ways lies at the heart of their resilience.

Reclaiming culture is happening in many ways. Levi Barnabas told the audience how his name had been picked out of the bible by government officials in 1964 when they were unable (and unwilling to learn how) to pronounce their Inuit names. Before this renaming, Inuit were simply known by numbers on government records: E-numbers for eastern Inuit, W-numbers for those from the west. Today, Inuit are reclaiming their original names, the names their parents had given to them at birth, names laden with ancestral history, culture, and memory. 

Indigenous people say they cannot rely on the rule of law in Canada

If the history, pain, and survival stories are not shared and heard, they risk being lost.

Nathan Obed says that the discovery of unmarked graves at the former residential school in Kamloops in 2021 has led to increased empathy by the Canadian public and government authorities. The next step is what he calls finding “the path to reparation” for the harm caused by the legacy of abuse.

Obed believes that Indigenous peoples cannot rely on the rule of law in Canada. “If Inuit have learned anything from the experiences of our missing women, from being put into human zoos in North America, from residential schools, from forced relocation, from anthropologists coming and taking human remains from our land, it is that rule-based order is for some -  but not for us. It is up to us to figure out how to change that. We need to be clear and steadfast.“

The adoption of the UN Declaration of Indigenous rights in Canada was called a “new day in Canada” by prime minister Justin Trudeau. Obed noted that this only becomes true if we create the necessary structures to make the legislation a reality. 

There is a clause in the Canadian adoption of the legislation which allows recourse and remedy against any institution that violates or does not uphold the rights set out in the law. Aluki Kotierk is squarely addressing that provision. On behalf of NTI she has requested an inquiry into Canada’s inadequate response to the horrific abuse against Nunavut Inuit. She demands that the inquiry :

  1. Reveal the truth about sexual abusers in positions of power and the role sexual violence played in the colonization of Inuit in Nunavut
  2. Examine the extent to which these cases were dealt with by Canadian institutions and whether faith played a role in decisions not to deal with those cases. 
  3. Recommendations to protect Inuit from abusers who remain in power

Whether in residential schools, hospitals or TB sanatoriums, all  speakers agreed that there has been a complete lack of respect for First Nations, Inuit and Métis, in life and in death. They are clear that Canada has an obligation, both a moral and a legal one, to repair the damage done and ensure recourse and remedy for any violations of Indigenous human rights.

Don Burnstick’s words about healing and resilience still resonating with me, I talked to an Inuit counselor about the tuberculosis crisis in Nunavut and the mental health emergency Inuit youth are facing and discussed what SeeChange could do to be a good ally and support the community. She shared some ideas and advised us to keep listening and be present and humble. 

Her parting words were telling. “Most of all, Rachel, don’t give up”. 


Global Health & Humanitarianism, Global Health Foresighting, Planetary Health



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SeeChange | Project, Research




Rachel Kiddell-Monroe, Community Fellow, SeeChange Initiative Active

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