Residential Schools Podcast Episode 3: Inuit Experiences

In the late 1940s, a Special Joint Committee created by the Government of Canada found that Indian Residential Schools weren’t working. Residential schools across the country were ordered to be closed and their students to be transferred to provincial schools. But then, over a decade later, two new residential schools opened in Inuvik, Northwest Territories: Grollier Hall and Stringer Hall. In this episode, Dinjii Zhuh historian Dr. Crystal Gail Fraser, an assistant professor in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Native Studies, explains why the government ignored those recommendations, and what that meant for institutionalized students. Survivors Piita Irniq and Abraham Anghik Ruben give first-hand accounts of life in Northern residential schools. Hosted by Shaneen Robinson-Desjarlais, this is “Residential Schools:  Inuit Experiences.”

In the late 1940s, a Special Joint Committee created by the Government of Canada found that Indian Residential Schools weren’t working. Residential schools across the country were ordered to be closed and their students to be transferred to provincial schools. But then, over a decade later, two new residential schools opened in Inuvik, Northwest Territories: Grollier Hall and Stringer Hall. In this episode, Dinjii Zhuh historian Dr. Crystal Gail Fraser, an assistant professor in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Native Studies, explains why the government ignored those recommendations, and what that meant for institutionalized students. Survivors Piita Irniq and Abraham Anghik Ruben give first-hand accounts of life in Northern residential schools. Hosted by Shaneen Robinson-Desjarlais, this is “Residential Schools:  Inuit Experiences.”



Shaneen Robinson-Desjarlais: A warning to our listeners: this episode contains potentially triggering subject matter and includes testimony directly from residential school survivors.

Abraham Ruben: “That first night at the residential school I had nightmares. And in the nightmares, I saw this face of this Nun. I had nightmares all through the night, woke up in the morning and I had wet my bed… All the other kids had already gone out and gotten dressed. She came out and saw me still sleeping and realized I had wet my bed. She dragged me out and laid her first beating on me.”

SRD: Tansi, I’m your host Shaneen Robinson-Desjarlais, and this is Residential Schools a three-part series from Historica Canada on the history and legacy of residential schools. In this episode, we’re talking about Inuit experiences at residential schools.

The voice you heard at the top of the show is Abraham Anghik Ruben. Abraham was eight when he was taken to Grollier Hall, the Roman Catholic residence for students attending Sir Alexander Mackenzie Day School. It was 1959 and the residence had been operating less than a year. Despite this, Abraham remembers there were already several hundred institutionalized students when he arrived. In 2008 he told his story to the Legacy of Hope Foundation.

AR: ”You get into the line-ups, they’d get you in, cut the bulk of your hair off. After they put you through de-lousing or whatever they call it, you were in for showers, scrubbed down, into another line-up for your clothes. And most of the kids couldn’t speak English, this was their first day run.”

SRD: In all, more than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children attended residential schools. Of those, thousands died either at school or because of their experiences in the system.

Crystal Gail Fraser: “Indian Residential Schools operated in the North starting in 1867, and they ran all the way until the closure of Grollier Hall in 1996.”

SRD: That’s Dr. Crystal Gail Fraser. She’s a Dinjii Zhuh historian specializing in histories of gender, the North, colonialism and residential schooling.

CGF: “Shoorzri’ Crystal Gail Fraser vàazhii. Shiyughwan kat da’ Juliet Mary Bullock shahanh t’iinch’uu ts’at Bruce Fraser shityè t’iinch’uu. Guuyeets’i’ dechuu. Ts’at Marka Andre shitsuu t’iinch’uu ts’at Richard Bullock shitsii t’iinch’uu. Inuvik ts'at Dachan Choo Gęhnjik gwits’at Gwichya Gwich’in iłhii.”

That was a traditional Dinjii Zhuh introduction that I just gave. I'm Gwichyà Gwich'in, originally from Inuvik and my family's fish camp along the Mackenzie River, Dachan Choo Gęhnjik.”

SRD: Crystal says these institutions were mostly established by Christian churches. But by 1899, they began to receive federal funding. The amount they received was largely based on how many students attended the schools.

CGF: “One of the things about the North is that northern communities are often isolated. And really in the late 19th century, early 20th centuries, there wasn't a lot of government activity. And so, a lot of these schools operated with very little oversight from Indian Affairs.

And so, on the one hand, the schools had a little bit more flexibility to implement their own rules and regulations. But on the other hand, they were still guided by federal Indian policies that would have also regulated the other Indian Residential Schools in southern Canada.”

SRD: But by the 1950s, the government’s attitude toward Northern residential schools had changed.

CGF: “Particularly after the Second World War, Canadians were appalled that Canada had overtly neglected Indigenous peoples, particularly those in the North.”

SRD: So, the government built “modern” residential schools to address the public outcry. But the thing is, when Grollier Hall and Stringer Hall, its Anglican counterpart, opened in 1959, the negative effects of residential schools were already widely known.

A decade earlier, the federal government ordered residential schools be closed and that Indigenous students be integrated into provincial day schools wherever possible.

CGF: “The name ‘Indian Residential School’ pretty much had a negative connotation by the first quarter of the 20th century. By that time, it was fairly well known that the student death rate at these institutions were quite high, that Indigenous students were not thriving. And so, when these newer institutions opened in the North during the 1950s – the late 1950s – the federal government made a concerted effort not to call them ‘Indian Residential Schools.’”

SRD: Instead they called them Grollier Hall or Stringer Hall. But despite the differences in their names, Crystal says they were no different to residential schools across the country.

Before 1955, less than 15 percent of school-aged Inuit children in the Northwest Territories and what is now Nunavut attended residential school. By 1964, 75 percent of school-aged Inuit children were enrolled. Overcrowding was an issue. At one point, Stringer Hall, with a capacity for only 250, housed 300 students. And it was nothing like home.

Piita Irniq: “I lived much like my parents, a very traditional Inuit, Inuit lifestyle. Always dressed in caribou clothing in the wintertime and switched to store-bought clothing in the spring and summer time. I grew up as a seal hunter, as well as a carver and a trapper.”

SRD: That’s Piita Irniq, the former commissioner of Nunavut.

PI: ”We noticed a boat one summer day in August in 1958, the boat was coming up to our outpost camp. So as usual my mother started to boil tea outside, you know, with heather. She was making tea for the visitors that were coming into our outpost camp. But when the boat got there the priest came off, the Oblate priest came off the boat first and said to my father that he came to pick up Peter Irniq and that I was going to school in Chesterfield Inlet. So well, there was a bit of commotion at that point because my parents were not consulted about the fact that I was going to be going to school.”

SRD: Piita was brought to Turquetil Hall in Chesterfield Inlet on the Hudson Bay.

PI: “The year 1958, whether I knew anything about it at the time or not, was the beginning of the end of my own culture and my own language and of my own Inuit spirituality.”

SRD: The Residential Schools podcast is part of a larger awareness campaign created by Historica Canada and funded by the Government of Canada in the spirit of reconciliation outlined by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Along with the podcast series, Historica also offers a video series, an education guide and several new entries on The Canadian Encyclopedia about the history and legacy of residential schools. Visit thecanadianencyclopedia.ca for more information.

Many children had to travel thousands of kilometres to school by boat or plane. Because of the distance, most didn’t return home for 10 months. In some cases, students didn’t return to their families for years.

Abraham remembers being terrified and alone when he arrived at Grollier Hall.

AR: “I would say that the bulk of us were just scared shitless. No parents. No relatives. You weren’t allowed to talk amongst yourselves.”

CGF: When a child arrived at Grollier Hall, they were first segregated according to religion. And so Grollier Hall students were Roman Catholic.

SRD: That’s Dr. Crystal Gail Fraser again.

CGF: “They were next segregated according to gender. One may have been feeling lucky if she was able to remain with her sister. But then they were further separated by junior girls and senior girls.”

SRD: Students were then given uniforms, which were often southern clothing. For some, this was the first time they had ever worn non-traditional clothes. Piita still remembers his first day at Turquetil Hall.

PI: “They took all of our traditional clothing and for the first time I saw and wore shoes. For the first time I saw a pair of jeans. For the first time I saw a short-sleeved shirt, and that’s what we were wearing. We had overnight become white men and white women, little children.”

SRD: Forcing students to dress the same way was another method of assimilation. But as Crystal reminds us, in the harsh Arctic winters clothing could also mean the difference between life and death.

CGF: “So there was one young girl who attended Immaculate Conception Indian Residential School in Aklavik, and this would have been during the 1950s and she was eight or nine years old. And she shared a story with me that, you know, any eight or nine-year-old likes to maybe break the rules and misbehave and unfortunately, in this particular time, she was caught and she was punished. And essentially what happened is that the nuns threw her coat down into the outhouse. And that could be very dangerous considering the extremely cold winters in Aklavik, and she had to go the rest of the winter without a parka.”

SRD: During the day students were taught arithmetic and to speak and write in English. Physical labour, including cleaning and general maintenance of the dormitories were, for the most part, the students’ responsibilities. And the nuns and priests were brutal in their enforcement of language. Abraham remembers one nun in particular at Grollier Hall.

AR: “She wasn’t selected because she was good natured and friendly. They were looking for people who would do the job. Within a few months or a few weeks she could take a kid who spoke Dene or Gwich’in or Inuvialuit and they’d stop and start learning a whole new method. And myself and a couple of cousins were holdouts for several years. From the age of 7 through 10 I could basically do basic reading and writing but I’m also thinking both in English and in Inuvialuktun. I could think and talk in both languages.”

SRD: The strength it took for students like Abraham and Piita to resist the experiences they endured at residential school is something Crystal is particularly interested in exploring.

CGF: “My research has looked at three Dinjii Zhuh concepts of strength. And so the first one is T’aih, and that means ancestral strength. So these students, for example, would have maybe not called it T’aih but they would have had a deep connection to their ancestors, their families and their lands. They could have prayed to their ancestors, they could have, you know, secretly continued to talk their Indigenous languages, whether that was in their own head to themselves or to a friend.”

SRD: But after a while, Abraham says his determination to hang on to his language was eventually broken.

AR: “By the age of 10 I think that I must have gotten tired of the beating because that’s about the time when I stopped. I couldn’t carry a full conversation with my cousins. Mainly by that point my cousins were telling me to shut up. They’d get beaten up as well.”

SRD: Piita Irniq was also forbidden to speak his language at Turquetil Hall. Here’s what he told Legacy of Hope:

PI: “A Grey Nun teacher told me to open my hand and she took a yardstick and really hit me so hard that I can still feel the pain today, you know. And she said, ‘Don’t ever let me hear you speak that language again in this classroom. You are here to learn to speak and write English and add arithmetic. Forget about your culture, forget about your language and forget about your Inuit spirituality.’”

SRD: A note here that the following section details specific instances of abuse that may be triggering to some listeners. Complex feelings may emerge. Take breaks and reach out to someone you trust. If possible, seek support from someone knowledgeable about residential schools and their legacies. These may include counsellors, Indigenous knowledge keepers or other community health practitioners.

Once students became old enough, they were granted slightly more freedom and could sometimes sign themselves out of Grollier Hall. That gave them the opportunity to visit with friends and family in Inuvik, hold a part-time job or spend time on the land.

CGF: “One of the things that we often don't think of is that even though these children were given more flexibility and leeway, that they continue to be vulnerable and they did have to act with care. And so their personal safety really continued to be a concern.”

SRD: Crystal says that many students were taken advantage of by educational staff — particularly the girls.

CGF: “While these older children were on evening passes, education employees sometimes hosted parties in their homes. And they invited senior girls and senior boys over from Grollier Hall and encouraged them to drink liquor with them, to become intoxicated, to party and then they sexually assaulted them.”

SRD: Sexual abuse was a reality for many students at Grollier Hall. From 1959 through 1979, there was at least one sexual predator on staff at all times. Four supervisors were later convicted of sexually abusing students.

In 1998, Paul Leroux, an activities supervisor and guidance counsellor, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for abusing fourteen boys at the residential school between 1967 and 1979.

In 2013, he was found guilty of another eight counts of indecent assault and two counts of gross indecency. He was sentenced to three years in prison — not for crimes he committed at Grollier but for those at a different Residential School: Beauval in Saskatchewan.

Abuse went more or less unchecked at residential school and the consequences fell on the students. Here’s Piita.

PI: “My generation of Inuit went through quite a lot. We were sexually abused, we were physically abused, we were mentally abused. Over the course of many years, I got into drinking to hide the kind of shame that I was put through by the church members, particularly a Grey Nun at the residential school. This is the person that had authority: she had a cross, a crucifix of Jesus Christ in one hand, she represented God, she represented the Roman Catholic Church, so she had a lot of authority. What can you do? Who can you go and tell? Even if you were to complain about things that were happening to somebody in Chesterfield Inlet, no one would have believed us anyway.”

CGF: “The second concept of Dinjii Zhuh strength is Vit’aih, or personal strength. And that was also practiced by many students. But, you know, as we heard from Abraham and Piita's stories, it really took a remarkable amount of personal strength to live through these tragic experiences.”

But there were other students who used personal strength to act in other ways. And so, individuals might have run away. Particularly at Grollier Hall, there were many accounts of students stealing from the garden behind the residential school. Some of them snuck out and set rabbit snares and traps across the road in the bush to try and supplement their diets. And other personal acts such as secretly writing letters home to their family in their Indigenous languages.”

SRD: Even when some students did have a chance to return home in the summer, things were really different. Here’s Abraham again.

AR: “We would be like a bunch of prisoners set free. It was just enough time to get reacquainted. We knew, we had memories of being on the land, berry picking and hunting, caribou hunting, ptarmigan hunting, and fishing and sealing and all those things we had spent the whole year just thinking about. And finally get out, and it would be like sending off a bunch of kids on an adrenaline rush and they’ve only got two months to get back, to catch up. To find out who your parents were, you know, just to get back. And as soon as you get home you know time is running out. You’re wanting to soak in as much as you can because that’s all that you’re going to have for the rest of the year.

Before we went back to Inuvik my mother told me: be proud of where you come from. Be proud of your culture, your traditions, what we taught you. And whatever it takes, just keep fighting.”

SRD: But as the years went on, this blissful return became tainted. Some returned home only speaking English and were conditioned to teach their families to read and write.

Here’s Piita:

PI: “Our parents had a great deal of difficult time. They lost their children. They lost their child that they were bringing up to believe that he was going to grow like a true Inuk with abilities to hunt, ability to speak, ability to know the land, the environment that I walk on. But they missed out in that. They no longer know anything about me after I had been to a residential school.”

SRD: In 1975, due in part to poor conditions and the collective outcry from both parents and former students, Stringer Hall was closed. There was also pressure on the territorial government to open more day schools in the North so that children wouldn’t have to travel so far from home or could remain in their home communities altogether.

As more day schools opened, the need for residential schools lessened. In the summer of 1997, Grollier was turned over to Aurora College, and the era of Indian Residential Schools in Canada came to an end.

In the late 1990s, a former student from Grollier Hall came forward with allegations of abuse that happened to him at the residence.

CGF: “Which led to an investigation that interviewed over 400 former students from Grollier Hall. And this basically resulted in a class action lawsuit that helped to inform the process of how the Truth and Reconciliation Commission would come together and would compensate former students.”

SRD: This, Crystal says, is where the third Dinjii Zhuh concept of strength applies.

CGF: “The third Dinjii Zhuh concept of strength is Guut’àii, which means communal or collective strength.”

SRD: The class action lawsuits against Grollier Hall and some of its staff also helped inform the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement. In his 2008 apology on behalf of the federal government, then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper said that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper: “Will be a positive step in forging a new relationship between Aboriginal peoples and other Canadians, a relationship based on the knowledge of our shared history, a respect for each other and a desire to move forward with a renewed understanding that strong families, strong communities and vibrant cultures and traditions will contribute to a stronger Canada for all of us.”

SRD: It’s worth pointing out, the TRC was paid for by the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement. Some feel this placed the burden of reconciliation on the shoulders of Survivors. Crystal agrees that this burden is misplaced.

CGF: “The work of reconciliation, in my opinion, needs to be on the shoulders of settler Canadians, really of non-Indigenous people who live in this country. No one is asking for everyday people to apologize for their ancestors. But we need to find a good, productive way forward where Indigenous people are safe.”

SRD: More Indigenous children are placed in the child welfare system today than were in residential schools during peak operations. Suicide rates are much higher than the rest of Canada’s population. It’s one of the leading causes of death among Indigenous children and youth.

Abraham shares his memories of the high death rate at Grollier Hall.

AR: “In Grollier Hall, during the years of the operation and a few years afterwards, they found that there were upwards of up to sixty individuals who had died as a direct result of their attendance – either through murder, suicide, alcohol poisoning. That’s a pretty high percentage.”

CGF: “We need to find a place where Indigenous people are respected, which is still not the case given the ever-increasing numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and Two-Spirit individuals. And we also need to find a way that Indigenous peoples are honoured in Canada.”

SRD: Not only honoured, but never forgotten according to Piita.

PI: We don’t hold grudges against those people, but we want to make sure that these things never happen to young people again, little children, never again. Never!”

SRD: If you or someone you know are in need of immediate support, here are some resources:

National Indian Residential School Crisis Line, 1-866-925-4419

The Hope for Wellness Help Line at 1-855-242-3310 (phone services available in Cree, Ojibway, Inuktitut, French and English)

The Hope for Wellness Help Line also offers online support services at hopeforwellness.ca

Kids Help Phone, 1-800-668-6868

I’m Shaneen Robinson-Desjarlais.

The Residential Schools podcast was written and produced by Historica Canada. The series is made possible in part by funding from the Government of Canada.

Ekosani to Piita Irniq, Abraham Ruben and all of the Survivors who shared their stories.

Special thanks to our consultants: Crystal Gail Fraser and Norma Dunning.

Thanks to the Legacy of Hope Foundation for providing Survivor testimony, to the University of Regina’s Shattering the Silence and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Findings.

Fact-checking by Viviane Fairbank.

Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

Ekosani for listening.


Special thanks to Survivors Piita Irniq and Abraham Anghik Ruben. Survivor testimony for this episode was provided by the Legacy of Hope Foundation. Additional resources include University of Regina’s Shattering Silence and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future.

Thanks to our consultant, Inuk writer, researcher, and scholar Norma Dunning.