‘Experimental Eskimos’ get one step closer to reconciliation

The three men known as the “Experimental Eskimos” got one step closer to closing their decades-long battle for recognition and reconciliation with Canada.

Mark Blackburn
APTN National News
The three men known as the “Experimental Eskimos” got one step closer to closing their decade-long battle for recognition and reconciliation with Canada.

Peter Ittinuar and Zebedee Nungak, two-thirds of the group, met with senior officials from the office of federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to talk about their experience of being unknowing partners in the government experiment.

Ittinuar was in Ottawa for the meeting while poor weather in Nunavik forced Nungak to participate by phone.

The men, along with Eric Tagoona in Baker Lake, Nunavut, were part of what the government called the ‘Eskimo Experiment’ during the 1960’s. Canada wanted to find out whether Inuit students in the arctic were as smart as children in the south and if they could be educated in a similar fashion.

At age 12, they were chosen to take part in the experiment because of their test scores. They were taken from their home without their parent’s consent and housed for years with middle-class families in Ottawa.

“My mother was away at a (tuberculosis) sanatorium,” said Ittinuar. “My dad found out from a priest who had found out from a teacher who had found out from a government official and there were no consent forms signed … it was planned ahead but there was no consent. They did what they wanted to do.”

While in Ottawa, the boys excelled in academics and extra-curricular activities.

But they fell well behind their peers in the Arctic in terms of hunting and fishing.

“Whatever I gained from the experience chipped away at my core identity of being an Eskimo man,” Nungak told APTN “The one thing that I did learn was to speak and write and express myself in English well – well enough for natural English speakers to understand what I’m trying to get across.

“But that knowledge is absolutely useless when I’m at the floe edge hunting seals or walrus and I’ve caught one and now I have to butcher it – my knowledge of English is absolutely useless then – when I’m in my Eskimo element.”

“It was also an extreme struggle to regain our language and culture,” said Ittinuar. “And all the things that were truncated like hunting skills. Quite frankly there was also extreme reverse racism by our own people – and that one really, really, really hurt and I didn’t understand it for a long time.”

Later in life, all three men played a profound role in the fight for justice and recognition of Inuit in Nunavut (then Northwest Territories) and Northern Quebec, now known as Nunavik.

For more click here: Experimental Eskimos

Ittinuar said he was at first, a little surprised when the meeting started.

“They essentially did not know who we were,” Ittinuar said. “They didn’t know Zeb was an under-aged negotiator of the JBNQIA (James Bay Northern Quebec Inuit Agreement) agreement, nor that I was twice an MP (Member of Parliament) and the Elder Trudeau was my boss. Or that Bill Wilson, Wilson-Raybould’s father, and I had been principal speakers at Harry “The Dog” Daniels’ stag party back in the day.

“They were essentially going to google search the film and my book and Zebedee’s commentaries and so on.”

“It didn’t bother me,” said Nungak. “I didn’t know who they were.”

The 35-minute meeting allowed Ittinuar and Nungak explain what had gone down with the Eskimo experiment – and how this attempt at social engineering affected their lives.

“I think 70-30 it was fairly positive,” said Ittinuar. “They listened hard and we discussed things like the statute of limitations argument that had been put forward to us before and those sorts of things.

The three men only found out that they were part of an experiment in 1997. It would be another 11 years before they filed a lawsuit against Canada. They are seeking $350,000 each as payment for completing the government’s experiment – and for the loss of their culture.

When the lawsuit was filed in 2008, Justice Canada lawyers under the Stephen Harper regime consistently threatened to claim that their lawsuit had passed the statute of limitations – a threat that their lawyer Steven Cooper took seriously.

They decided to lay low and wait for a more friendly administration.

They got that – and more.

“Thank goodness for Justice Sinclair and the work he and his group did,” said Ittinuar.

In 2014, Murray Sinclair, chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued a report that included 94 Calls to Action. Two of them directly spoke to the Ittinuar, Nungak and Tagoona.

Number 26: We call upon the federal, provincial and territorial government to review and amend their respective statutes of limitations to ensure that they conform to the principle that government and other entities cannot rely on limitation defences to defend legal actions of historical abuse brought by Aboriginal people.

And another;

Number 29. We call upon the parties and, in particular, the federal government to work collaboratively with plaintiffs not included in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement to have disputed legal issues determined expeditiously on an agreed set of facts.

“They took copious notes, (at the meeting)” said Ittinuar. “They told us they couldn’t say anything at that point but that they’d be doing their homework and we’d have a follow-up. No dates were set but the phrase in a few weeks was mentioned.

“We’re hoping that if there’s a follow up all three of can be there.”

Nungak said they weren’t expecting any miracles.

“It’s up to them. They are the government. It’s in their hands. We at least met with them which is a real accomplishment considering what has gone on over the years,” he said.

“We made our case. We made our case with clarity and dignity and now it’s up to the government. We will wait for how they will respond and that is it.”

The Minister’s office was contacted for a comment but APTN had not received one as of this posting.

There are four other claims against the government from Inuk students who say they were involved in a similar experiment later in the 1960’s.

[email protected]

Online Producer / Ottawa

Before moving to become the APTN News social media producer, Mark was the executive producer for the news in eastern Canada. Before starting with APTN in 2009, Mark worked at CBC Radio and Television in Newfoundland and Labrador and Ottawa.