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An interview with former Commissioner of Nunavut Peter Irniq Featured

Arviat's Nanisiniq Project researchers visited with former Commissioner of Nunavut, Peter Irniq in Ottawa on May 14, 2011. In this photo (back, left-right) are: Peter Irniq, Amy Owingayak, Martha Otokala, Frank Tester, Curtis Konek. In the front is (from left-right) Patrick Pingushat and Jordan Konek. Arviat's Nanisiniq Project researchers visited with former Commissioner of Nunavut, Peter Irniq in Ottawa on May 14, 2011. In this photo (back, left-right) are: Peter Irniq, Amy Owingayak, Martha Otokala, Frank Tester, Curtis Konek. In the front is (from left-right) Patrick Pingushat and Jordan Konek. April Dutheil

On May 14, 2011 I interviewed Peter Irniq about Inuit living in the past and living the ”modern life” which is today, with new technology, and about the residential schools. Peter said a lot of things about Inuit who used to live out on the land, and what they thought when their kids were taken away from their parents, when they had no choice to let them go. Peter Irniq was one of those kids who was sent to the residential school in Chesterfield Inlet.

Inuit who were born on the land are stronger at living and surviving out on the land in the Arctic because Inuit had more survival skills in the past, compared to now. Inuit had more hunting skills. Inuit used to travel frequently following the animals, such as caribou. In the past even an Inuk man knew how to sew his own clothing, such as caribou skins, seal skins, and fix his clothing if it had a cut anywhere in the clothing.

Parents taught their children how to survive out on the land, little boys practiced how to make an igloo at the age of eight years old, so one day they will be living in an igloo on his own, and with his future wife and kids. And they teach their children the way he was taught by his father and pass it to their children. Inuit learn how to make an igloo at an early age.

In the past if an Inuk (boy/man) did not know how to make an igloo he would not find a wife. Igloos keep you warm and give you a place to stay during the winter, so if you wanted a wife back in the late 1920s to early 1950s or even later, you had know how to make a igloo In order to get a wife.

For a little Inuk girl she needs to know how to sew and scrape any animal skins, and little Inuk girls make small ”kamiks” (caribou or seal skin boots) for practice. Scraping animal skins makes it easier to sew and it gets warmer as you wear it. It was important to know how to sew being a woman because one day she will have to leave her parents and sew her own clothing and tent for her future husband and children. Then they’ll pass on their knowledge to their children.

When Inuit used to live out on the land, the parents were like teachers, they taught their children how to survive and how to sew clothing. That is how Inuit survived in the arctic, by teaching their children and passing knowledge on to their children for many years.

When a man goes out hunting to look for food, he travels far from home so he can feed his family. He always brings his sewing kit, ”panaa” (snow knife), tea, tea pot, rifle, bullets, a small Coleman stove, and caribou skins to sleep on. Historically, some of this was bought at the Hudson Bay Company. So he can survive out on the land by himself for many days.

Inuit were always prepared for anything. Inuit knew when the storm would hit them, so they stopped and camped until it cleared again. Inuit who were born on the land knew a lot about survival skills and their surroundings/areas.

Another thing Peter said was about being patient. Patience is one thing that Inuit had when they used to live out on the land. Being patient is the most important things to remember when you are out on the land. When you are going to the flow edge, you have to have patience because you never know if you will be stuck on the ice and float on to the ocean. If you are stuck on the ice and float, have patience because the ice always goes back to the flow edge. When your stuck in the ice, have a small piece of snow, not too big, just enough to get some water in your mouth, so you won’t be thirsty.

When Peter was explaining about caribou skin clothing he said that caribou skin clothing was the best clothing that you could ever wear out on the land in the Arctic because caribou skin clothing is warm, and lasts longer than the material that we use today, like goose clothing. Here is the example: ”if you drown on the lake or flow edge and you got out of the water and you are wet you take your caribou skin clothing off and start stepping on the caribou skin clothing to the snow, the snow will absorb the water and the caribou skin will be warm again, and you could wear it for the rest of the day…When you drown on the lake or flow edge, and you are using the goose clothing, like those camouflage clothes that we order from the catalog and down-filled clothing, if you get wet they start to get frozen right away, and you have to change your clothing right away. If you don’t change your clothing you will freeze to death.”

Peter Irniq was born and grew up in Naujaat/Repulse Bay, Peter was going to grow up like his parents. Peter was 11 years old in 1958 when the kablunaat, (”white people”) came to their homeland in Naujaat/ Repulse Bay. The kablunaat, (white people) came to his homeland by boat. The kablunaat (white people) said to Peter’s parents, ”I’m here to pick up Peter Irniq, he’s going to ‘Chesterfield Inlet for school (residential school).”

Peter went to school for the first time in Chesterfield Inlet. Peter knows a little bit of English that he learned from the Roman Catholic priest. These words he learn from the priest were ”seal, caribou, fish and box and what is your name.” When they got to Chesterfield Inlet they took their traditional clothing off and gave them kablunaat (white people) clothing. For most of them it was their first time wearing shoes, jeans, and short sleeved shirts. That is what they gave them to wear, and took their traditional clothing away.

Those children who went to Chesterfield Inlet for residential school were punished by grey nuns and by teachers. Inuit who went to residential school with Peter Irniq were not allowed to speak their own language (Inuktitut). If they spoke their own language their hands would be slapped with a yardstick. Peter and the other kids who went to school in Chesterfield Inlet were forced to speak English and were told to forget about their own language and were forced to learn European history and Saudi Arabian history, not Inuit history, their own traditional way of life.

In residential school in Chesterfield Inlet they were learning ABCs, arithmetic, social studies, science, a few pictures of the world, and a map of the world. And if they did not learn they would be punished by their teachers. Peter and other kids who went to residential school also had to wash the walls and floors. Peter was also not used to the food that they served in residential school, such as frozen cow beef. They served Arctic char, but Peter didn’t like it because they boiled the arctic char with their guts on and they had no choice to eat it. Inuit take the guts off arctic char and eat it raw or boiled. One food that Peter got used to was corned beef and corn flakes and he still eats this today. Inuit didn’t know about forestry in western Canada (British Columbia) and around the world until the kabulnaat (white people) came north to Inuit land.

Inuit are very adaptable people. Those Inuit who went to residential school adapted overnight. Inuit were punished a lot by the grey nuns. The grey nuns even told Peter that they don’t ever want to hear him speaking his own language in the class room because they are there to learn how to speak and write English and arithmetic. They told him to forget about his culture and his own language and Inuit spirituality. The grey nuns were so nice to the students before they were going back home to there homeland and they would tell the students that they had fun here in residential school to their parents. That is how they were mistreated in residential schools. I asked Peter a question about how he felt when he got back from the residential school in Chesterfield Inlet. He said it was so relaxing and exciting to go back to where he was raised as a child.

Inuit lifestyle changed when kablunaat (white people) opened the residential school in the north. That is when the Inuit way of life started to change. Inuit used to wear caribou skin clothing and seal skin clothing. Now Inuit use jackets, sweaters, t-shits, jeans, shoes and socks, pretty much everything we use today are now store-bought.

Inuit have changed the way they lived in a matter of years. From living in a igloos and tents to houses that have electricity. Inuit now have the opportunity to do anything. Inuit can go to college or university in a different province. Pretty much anywhere in the world now.

Even though Inuit don’t live on the land anymore, Inuit are still very adaptable to anything. Inuit still eat their traditional food, Inuit still go out hunting and most Inuit still speak their language. But Inuit are slowly losing their culture and traditional way of life. We have to act faster and talk to our Elders who were born on the land. There are not many Elders who were born on the land anymore, they are the keys to our future and to keeping our culture and tradition alive.


Arviat researcher Curtis Konek is one of the newest members of the Nanisiniq Arviat History Project. He's studying grade 11 and 12 at John Arnalukjuak High School and is fluent in both Inuktitut and English. In addition to his work with the Nanisiniq project, he's been a proud member of the Canadian Rangers for the last two years.

The Sivulinuut Elders Society, Inuit youth and the University of British Columbia are working on a two year project which involves researching, writing, and filming the history of Arviat, Nunavut and the Kivalliq region from the Inuit point of view.Read more of their research, writings and videos on the Nanisiniq Project web site at:

Follow Curtis at


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