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'Experimental Eskimos' Tells Story Of Attempt To Assimilate Inuit Kids In 1960s
by Nelson Wyatt - The Canadian Press

MONTREAL - When federal bureaucrats plucked three smart young Inuit boys from their families in the 1960s and sent them to high school in the south, they probably had little idea that they would help transform Canada.

But Peter Ittinuar, Zebedee Nungak and Eric Tagoona did just that, making their mark in federal politics, gaining aboriginal rights and negotiating landmark land claims treaties such as the James Bay agreement and the creation of Nunavut.

Their education came with a steep price — the loss of their language and culture as they were steeped in white culture living with families in Ottawa, resulting in alienation from their families and friends back home.

They were told down south that whites were superior to Inuit. Then they also faced insults when they returned home and lacked the traditional skills common in the community.

"If you're 13 years old and you go home and you're being ridiculed for being a white man, it's difficult to deal with," Ittinuar said.

"You develop, either consciously or subconsciously, resentments and things like that and you become angry even though you're trying to develop yourself. I think some of that anger manifested itself in us going down the wrong path once in a while."

Their story is documented in "The Experimental Eskimos," which has won numerous film festival awards and which will have its world television broadcast premiere Wednesday on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN).

Ittinuar said it was tough to revisit the more difficult times when making the film — "These are things you want to forget and you don't want to remind people of them" — but he said it was cathartic in the end.

"It was a relief," he said.

"Now if the government would pay us for being experimentees, that would put a cap on it."

The three men are involved in a lawsuit seeking damages and an apology but there has been no progress.

Ittinuar, Nungak and Tagoona were the first children to take part in an experiment that director Barry Greenwald says eventually included 50 Inuit children.

It was an era in which the Inuit had only recently been given the right to vote and had started moving into communities instead of living off the land.

While tuberculosis and starvation became issues for federal authorities, so were northern development and education.

"All of a sudden, they had these residents of the Arctic wastelands whose kids were growing up as little savages and they had to be turned into English-speaking citizens of Canada," Ittinuar said.

A plan was devised to groom the next generation of leaders by taking bright youngsters and immersing them in the public schools — and culture — of the south, cut off from their families.

Greenwald says the government likely assumed it was grooming interpreters or intermediaries that would smooth the way for them. He muses that breeding activists was not part of the plan.

"(The students) empowered themselves and became a thorn in the side of the very government that brought them south," Greenwald said of the initial trio.

"It was not the intention for these gentlemen to be leaders in any significant way.

"It was just to kind of do Ottawa's bidding."

But the three men followed very different career paths.

Ittinuar, who came from Rankin Inlet, became the first Inuit MP as a member of the NDP and was later ostracized when he switched to the Liberals.

Nungak, of Saputiligait, Que., became president of Makivik, the Inuit-owned economic and political organization while Tagoona, of Baker Lake, led the first Inuit political lobbying association.

But the living in a kind of limbo between the cultures took its toll on the men, and they grappled with a variety of personal problems that took their lives off the rails for a time.

The film, which grew from a meeting between Ittinuar and his friend producer Peter Raymont, is a deeply human look at the three men and their influence in changing the way Canada deals with the Inuit.

"It could have destroyed them yet it empowered them to achieve great things for their people," Greenwald said of the social-engineering experiment.

Ittinuar, who works as a land-claims negotiator for the Ontario government, said he wasn't surprised he was taken away from his parents without consent because that was the way things were done then.

Everybody was expected to live with the cultural consequences of the experiment because the bureaucrats "thought on the balance of it, our future as young white men looked far better than as an Eskimo hunter," he said with a chuckle.

The notion of multiculturalism wasn't a factor back then.

"The consequences were quite different," he said with a laugh. "We grew up and worked for the other side for a while."

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