A quarter century after the last student left Sir Joseph Bernier Federal Day School in the tiny community of Chesterfield Inlet, 1,300 km east of Yellowknife, the institution is finally surrendering its terrifying secrets. The government of the Northwest Territories last week released an independent report that found serious incidents of physical and sexual abuse of Inuit students had occurred at the school, and at an adjacent residence, operated by the Catholic Church, between 1952 and 1969. At the same time, the RCMP announced that it had completed a 21-month criminal investigation into 236 allegations of abuse. But
police decided not to lay charges, citing a variety of reasons. They included the fact that some former students were unable to identify offenders with any certainty; two of the alleged perpetrators had died; and those still living are now elderly. In some cases, police added, the statute of limitations had also expired. Although the passage of time has clearly made punishing alleged offenders more difficult, it has not erased the pain of the victims. Marius Tungilik, a spokesman for the survivors of Chesterfield Inlet, recalled in an interview that he was both physically and sexually abused by Catholic Oblate brothers at the school he attended between 1963 and 1969. “What we went through just wasn’t normal,” said Tungilik. “There are certainly a lot of people down south who went through many of the same
things I went through—and it’s probably the most terrifying part of my life.”
The Chesterfield Inlet report was only the latest in a series of revelations about abuse of children—many of them aboriginals—at church and government-run institutions across the country. The silence was first broken in Newfoundland, where between 1989 and 1992 eight Christian Brothers were convicted of physically and sexually abusing boys at the Mount Cashel Orphanage. Other cases since then have included assaults against children at the Kingsclear Training School in New Brunswick. And last week, RCMP in British Columbia told native leaders that a continuing investigation into abuse at 14 native residential schools run by the Catholic, Anglican and United churches has turned up 90 suspects. No charges have yet been laid in that investigation, which is expected to last another two years. “Sexual and physical abuse can affect a victim for a lifetime,” Staff Sgt. Doug Henderson told 150 chiefs at a meeting of the B.C. First Nations Summit last week. ‘We’re here to facilitate the healing process.”
In the Northwest Territories, that process began in 1993, when former students gathered for a reunion in Chesterfield Inlet. Jack Anawak, now the Liberal member of Parliament for the Arctic riding of Nunatsiaq, says he was sexually abused at the school, which he attended from 1959 until 1964, between the ages of 9 and 14. Anawak said the abusers had “convinced people we shouldn’t tell anyone—and for us it was shameful to acknowledge.” It was only at the reunion, sharing memories of abuse, that “finally we understood it was not our fault.”
The allegations prompted investigations by both the territorial government and the RCMP. In response to their findings, the government said last week that it will negotiate with the Catholic Church and with Ottawa— which contracted the church to run the school—to ensure that counselling and other support services are available to survivors. Anawak said he was “overwhelmingly disappointed” that no charges will be laid. But Tungilik said the RCMP investigation and the report were “a good start,” which provided public acknowledgment of the abuse. Survivors still need support, he said, noting that many are spread throughout remote northern communities where counselling services are scarce. “There are a great many tools you need to deal with a past that is so traumatic,” Tungilik said. “But the first thing is to break the silence.”
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