The Experimental Eskimos

The Experimental Eskimos

The Experimental Eskimos (Director: Barry Greenwald): In the early 1960s, the Canadian government carried out an “experiment” by sending three Inuit boys who showed academic promise to be educated in the public schools of Ottawa. Separating these boys from their families for most of their teenage years had long-term negative effects, but the educational opportunity also helped them achieve great things for their people.

Peter Ittinuar and Eric Hanna Tagoona were childhood friends in Rankin Inlet when government officials arrived to administer IQ tests at their school. Zebedee Nungak was similarly tested in his community, Puvurnituq. Among their classmates, these three scored highly and suddenly they were whisked off to a new life in “the South.” Their foster families likely meant well, but forbidding them from speaking in Inuktitut and constantly trumpeting the superiority of the “white” way of doing things only lowered their self-esteem. In Eric’s case, he says he forgot almost all of his native language within the first year. When the trio returned north after high school, they were treated with suspicion. When they forgot Inuktitut words or skills from their youth, they were ridiculed. But they also knew how poorly the Inuit were treated in comparison with the rest of Canadians, leading each man to become politically active in the volatile climate of the early 1970s.

Perhaps the most visible was Ittinuar, who became the first Inuk MP, elected in 1979 as a member of the NDP. Later he would be involved in the creation of Nunavut, the largest self-governing aboriginal territory in the world. Nungak was deeply involved in negotiating the James Bay Agreement in which the provincial government of Quebec settled with the native communities in order to build a vast hydro-electric project. And Tagoona was a key Inuit leader who pressured the Liberal government to include native rights in the Constitution, which was repatriated in 1982. But as the years passed, each man also struggled with the effects of the experiment, and with the compromises made to achieve these political gains. All of them felt a bit like outsiders to the community they had worked so hard to represent, and the consequences included alcoholism, drug addiction and failed relationships. As the film ends, the three are pursuing a financial settlement from the Canadian government for what Zebedee Nungak refers to as “post-traumatic stress disorder.”

The film is structured around a reunion between the three friends in Rankin Inlet, and each man is given generous camera time to tell his own story, as well as to comment on the struggles of his friends. It’s clear that all three have been damaged by the experiment, but what’s also clear is that without it, each man may have remained in his community, perhaps only achieving his boyhood dream of becoming a good hunter. The paradox is implicit in the film, and yet I would have liked Greenwald to explore it a bit further. When all three are together, they seem eager to talk about the negative effects, to the exclusion of the way their exposure to “white” society directed their anger into political action. This type of reflection would have made their stories a bit more complex. As well, it would have been interesting to hear more from the “white” side, including the government’s own assessment of the success or failure of the experiment, and any recollections from some of their Ottawa classmates and friends.

Overall, though, the film offers a personal look at a pivotal time in the development of aboriginal political awareness in Canada, and in particular at three fascinating men who have each made invaluable contributions to Inuit and Canadian history.

The Experimental Eskimos is screening as part of the 2009 Docfest Stratford (Stratford, Ontario) on Saturday October 24 at 4:30pm at Stratford City Hall. It will then screen as part of the Regent Park Film Festival here in Toronto on Thursday November 5 at 7:30pm.


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