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We carry our songs

L to R: Karla Serkoak, Meeka Serkoak (holding her cousin’s baby boy Gustin Illungiayok), David Serkoak and Amanda Kilabuk in Arviat, Nunavut, for the federal government’s official apology to Ahiarmiut. ITK

David Serkoak tells a story about the day the police officer arrived in 1950. David’s father, Miki, was drum dancing and his mother, Qahuq, was singing a pihiqwhen the officer entered the tent and broke Miki’s drum. Over the course of a decade between 1950 and 1960, the community of 62 Inuit were uprooted from their homes and relocated as many as four times. Last month, Serkoak interrupted the same song, sung by elder Mary Anowtalik, to ask his daughter Karla to take the drum. It was the emotional culmination of more than 70 years of struggle.

In her January 22 apology to the living 21 Ahiarmiut who were relocated, along with their families who now number approximately 200, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett offered an apology on behalf of the Government of Canada for the forced relocations undertaken without explanation, without consultation and without consent. “I humbly and sincerely offer these words to all Ahiarmiut past and present. We are sorry. We are sorry. We are sorry. Mamiapugut. Mamiapugut. Mamiapugut.”

The apology was poignant and was met with raw emotion by those in attendance. I often talk about Inuit being largely a coastal and marine people. But there are also Inuit who live inland. Ahiarmiut were inland people, living in what is now the southwest corner of Nunavut — close to the present-day borders of the Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. “They never experienced salt water before. High tide. Low tide. Never seen a seal or tasted one before,” Serkoak says.

Many families eventually settled in what is now Arviat, where they were known as Ahiarmiut, or “people from another place”. Children were taunted for being different. The word Ahiarmiut was used as a slur. Through it all, the families worked to maintain their culture — their songs and rich drumming traditions.

“Like so many of the darkest chapters in Canada’s history, the story of the Ahiarmiut relocations is not only one of tragedy, but also of resilience. Despite unimaginable hardship, the Ahiarmiut have survived and thrived, ensuring that the past has not been forgotten and that Ahiarmiut culture remains vibrant,” Bennett said in the closing words of her address.

Apologies mean a great deal. It means moving the conversation towards action. The acknowledgement of this historic injustice can ideally start the process of closure and regrowth. This is the first step of reconciliation. I now look forward to seeing this symbolic gesture evolve into tangible remedies that address the ongoing challenges that are linked to this and other human rights abuses against Inuit.

I meet many people in my work who dedicate their lives and their hearts to creating a better future for those they fight for. David Serkoak stands out to me as an incredible leader who has persevered with resiliency, compassion, and strength. I thank him for his work on behalf of the Ahiarmiut community, which also is a significant contribution to Inuit self-determination in Canada.

Natan Obed
President, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami

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