On June 24, 1972, three boys decided to leave their residential school in Canada’s Northwest Territories and walk from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk (“Tuk”), in a bid to avoid punishment for stealing a pack of cigarettes from their dorm supervisor. Without a highway connecting Inuvik to Tuk, the boys had no idea they were undertaking an impossible journey of 90 miles over boggy tundra. At Granta, Nadim Roberts tells the story of Dennis, Jack, and Bernard — just one example of the horrific toll residential schools have exacted on Inuits, the Inuit community, and their traditional ways of life.
From the pond, the boys walked in the direction of the highest hill, where they could see power lines unspooling to the north-east. The 69,000-volt transmission lines had been strung the previous month. ‘These lines go all the way to Tuk,’ Dennis told his friends. He and Bernard were from Tuktoyaktuk, on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. If they followed the power lines, they’d be home in a few hours, Dennis said. School would be over soon anyway, and if they left now, they could avoid getting in trouble.
Residential schools had existed in Canada since 1831, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that a significant number of them operated in the north. These government-sponsored religious schools were established to assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture by ripping them away from their families and communities. When Western European colonization and evangelization finally arrived in the Arctic, what had been a relatively unscathed Inuit culture began to change rapidly. Bernard’s biological parents had been part of the first generation of Inuit that passed through these schools. It was in such an institution that they first met and fell in love.
Before 1955, fewer than 15 per cent of school-aged Inuit were enrolled in residential schools. Most children still lived on the land with their families, learning traditional skills and knowledge. Rather than teaching students how to hunt, skin game, and build igloos and kayaks, residential schools taught a curriculum used for white children in Alberta.
By 1964, more than 75 per cent of Inuit children attended residential schools. Their values, language and customs were supplanted overnight by a culture that saw itself as benevolent and superior, and saw the Inuit as primitive beings in need of sophistication. The young Inuit who went through the residential school system experienced an assault on their traditional identities that had shattering consequences: they are often referred to as the ‘lost generation’.