Listening to Survivors

By Chiara Fish

* I wrote this post in July… better late than never…

Several weeks ago I was talking with one of my colleagues about residential schools. Her father was in Winnipeg for the Truth and Reconciliation’s National Event. I didn’t know if or when the TRC would visit Iqaluit, but a few days later I found out the commissioners were in town. That evening I went to the meeting after work.

There were fewer than 40 people present, including the 3 commissioners. Most of those present were Inuit and had a story to share. I was there to listen, learn, and bear witness.

Everyone told different stories – some are still very very angry. One lady said she was NOT proud to be Canadian, that she was a victim of genocide and that she will not forgive the fact that she was kidnapped, taken without permission. Her parents did not permit her to be taken. She spoke in English, the language that was taught to her in residential school so that she could communicate what happened to her in a way that we could all understand…

Others spoke in Innuktitut. They talked about the abuse, the beatings. They described being lured into bedrooms with candy. They talked about not learning to read and write. They talked about losing their culture and language. One lady said she does not know who she is – her identity was stolen. Others said that it was only in the last few years that they realized it wasn’t their fault, that they are valid.

They talked about what it was like to return home: the impact on parents of having children taken away – losing the ability to parent… having children for only a few short weeks or months every year and not being able to parent during that time because it was just too precious.

They talked about losing childhood.

As I sat listening to these horrific stories I felt deeply ashamed of our history and our country.

Some children never came back. Some are still missing. We don’t know where they were buried or what happened to them. There is always an empty chair at TRC events to represent those who never returned, those who have not yet been found.

I am so impressed with the strength and resilience of the people who shared their stories. It takes incredible courage to talk about what happened, and this community has strong people to heal and rebuild.

Some talked about the future – what youth today are lacking. One commissioner quoted an elder from another community, saying that we must not move into the future looking backwards… but that history is essential to understand where we are today. Today’s youth must understand the history to understand the present and why they and their community are where they are, to understand the problems and challenges they face.

As a Jew I have grown up listening to Holocaust survivors’ stories. In kindergarten my teacher was a survivor, and ever since I can remember I have had the privilege of listening to survivors’ stories. Survivors are our links to our history. All Canadians need to hear residential school survivors’ stories. It is the only way we will learn about our history and understand the present.

As I sat at the back of the room with tears rolling down my cheeks I felt a hand on my back. The lady standing there asked me if I wanted to talk, and told me that she was a facilitator. I said no thank you, I just wanted to listen. In the ultimate irony, this residential school survivor was comforting me.

(For more information about Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission: www.trc.ca)

Band-aids on gaping wounds?

chiaraBy Chiara Fish

Iqaluit (meaning “place of many fish”) – now including this one – is large, well-equipped and very friendly. I am working at Maliiganik Tukisiiniakvik, the legal aid clinic that serves the Baffin region of Nunavut.

I love working here. There is a strong sense of community and people are very welcoming and friendly. It is shockingly beautiful. The apartment in which I am living overlooks Frobisher Bay and everyday I can see the ice melting, the tide coming in and out and the mountains becoming browner as the snow melts. Soon the first ship (an icebreaker) should arrive.

One of the many advantages of working at legal aid in the North is that they throw their student interns directly into the fray. Right now I am focusing on criminal law and later I will work on family law as well. Nunavut unfortunately has the second highest crime rate in Canada, so there is lots of work to do, especially considering the shortage of lawyers. In addition to research, I interview clients before trials and in my third week I began running my own bail hearings. Everyday is different and exciting and full of learning.

Our staff includes one Inuit lawyer and several courtworkers, but most of the lawyers in Iqaluit are white. It is amazing to see how the Inuit courtworkers can interact with the clients as compared to the rest of us. Not only is there a language barrier, but people who are truly part of this community know one another and relate to each other in a way that an outsider cannot. Clearly there is a need for more Inuit lawyers. I do not understand how it is possible that the Akitisraq law school program has been put on hold for lack of funding (Akitsiraq).

I am shocked by the absence of treatment centers in Iqaluit. People are held in custody at Baffin Correctional Center, which is currently at about twice capacity. This must constitute some sort of rights violation, in addition to violating fire and other safety regulations. Yet the system is seemingly unable to address the underlying problems that lead to offences and recidivism.

Given the extremely high rate of alcoholism in Nunavut, it seems absurd that there is no treatment center in the territory. If people want treatment, they must go south – separated from their families, culture, language and support systems. Many of the sentences include a condition that the individual not possess or consume alcohol or other intoxicating substances. In the absence of treatment, it seems absurd to put an alcoholic or drug user on such a condition – they are basically being set up to breach the condition, which can result in jail time and can go on their criminal record.

Sometimes I think it would be more productive to be a social worker, psychologist or psychiatrist working up here because then at least one could address the underlying and long-term issues that people face. As one of my colleagues said, often it feels as though we as lawyers are just putting band-aids on gaping wounds. I find it especially difficult to see youth already trapped in the criminal justice system who are angry, unable to express themselves and unable to get the treatment they need. It seems as though we as a society are really failing…

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