Lillian Elias (whose Inuvialuktun name is Panigavluk) is a teacher, language activist and a residential school Survivor (born 1943 in the Mackenzie Delta, NT). Influenced by her time at residential school, where administrators attempted to forcefully strip her of her language and culture, Elias has spent much of her life promoting and preserving her first language, Inuvialuktun (see Inuvialuit).
Lillian Elias: A Residential School Survivor's Story. Illustration by Andrew Qappik, RCA.
Lillian Elias was born in the Mackenzie Delta, Northwest Territories in 1943 to George and Martha Harry. She was one of 12 children. At home, the family spoke Inuvialuktun, the language of Inuvialuit people in the western Canadian Arctic (see Arctic Indigenous Peoples in Canada). Elias's family lived off the land and followed the seasonal migration of animals in order to hunt more effectively. In the summer, they spent time on Kendall Island, where Elias has fond memories of playing on the beach while the men in her family went whale hunting.
Lillian Elias: A Residential School Survivor's Story
In the early 1950s, Lillian Elias says her family was forced to send one of their children to residential school in order to continue receiving their family allowance payments. They chose to send Lillian.
She recalls being about eight or nine-years-old when she was brought to Immaculate Conception, the Roman Catholic residential school in Aklavik, Northwest Territories. Before she was sent away, her grandmother told her to make sure she didn’t forget her language. Elias later found out that her parents chose to send her, out of all her siblings, because they considered her to be the bravest.
Life wasn’t easy at residential school. Lillian remembers that students were forbidden from wearing their own traditional clothing (see Arctic Indigenous Peoples in Canada), forced instead to wear matching uniforms and, in the colder winter months, matching parkas. This clothing did not keep children as warm as the outfits made of caribou skin ( see Caribou Hunt) that many of them would have worn at home.
In-class learning was minimal. Children were often used for physical labour (see Child Labour), like carrying wood from barges into the basement of the school. Once the wood was stored, the children would have to carry up large pieces to feed the wood-burning stove that kept the school heated. Elias recalls many of the children getting scratched up from the rough edges of the wood.
According to Elias, staff were always looking to make examples out of children who did not follow the rules. If students were caught speaking their language, or if they refused to eat the rotten food that they were often served, they were punished in front of their classmates. To avoid being beaten, Elias used hand gestures and signals to communicate until she was able to speak English.
Sometimes, punishments were carried out in private. Many children who attended residential school were sexually abused (see Sexual Abuse of Children). There is evidence that this kind of abuse was perpetuated not only by staff but also by some students.
The nuns and priests at Elias’s school were known to discourage children from wanting to visit home. They repeatedly made negative statements about living a traditional Inuit way of life to try to make the children resent their families and cultures. Elias was able to return home each summer, unlike some children who had to stay at school year-round because they lived in more remote regions.
During one visit home, Elias asked her parents if she could stay instead of returning to school. Not knowing the extent of the abuse that Elias and her fellow classmates endured at the school, and with few options for her to continue her education, Elias’s parents encouraged her to return. They wanted to ensure that she learned how to read and write.
Over the years, Lillian Elias noticed the divide growing between the youth institutionalized at residential school and the Elders in her community. Because of their time at school, the students were losing connection to their language and culture and were unable to communicate with their Elders upon their return home.
Recalling her grandmother’s words about holding onto her language, Elias says she decided she would fight to keep her language, no matter what happened at school. At one point, Elias says a nun caught her practising her language and punished her. Despite this, she continued to speak her language whenever she could.
After five years at Immaculate Conception, Elias returned home to her community.
Lillian Elias eventually began working as a translator. At first, she translated for her grandparents during doctors’ appointments or when they had to deal with government agencies that only offered services in English. She soon began translating for more people in her community, which allowed her to maintain her knowledge of Inuvialuktun despite her experiences at residential school.
Elias went on to become a schoolteacher. She made sure to include Inuvialuktun lessons as part of her curriculum. The relatively short time she had with students wasn’t enough for them to become completely fluent in the language, but it did create a foundation of knowledge they could build on.
“I don’t like to say that my language is dying. I always like to say that it is sleeping, but it is going to come back.” — Lillian Elias, as told to Reneltta Arluk on Dene A Journey, 2014
Many of her students’ parents were residential school Survivors like herself, and Elias knew that they may be struggling to talk or connect with their children. She tried to help her students reconnect with their culture in as many ways as possible, as
many would not have had the opportunity to do so at home.
The strongest way to reconnect with culture, according to Elias, is to return to the land. In addition to teaching Inuvialuktun in her classroom, Lillian took students to her camp in the summer. She brought the children to her family’s camp, where she
had spent time when she was growing up in the Mackenzie Delta. There, Lillian and the youth lived off the land and spent time learning about the history of the area, its vegetation and how plants were traditionally used as medicines (see Indigenous Peoples’ Medicine in Canada).
Elias built strong connections with her students through her care and support. Her lessons instilled in them the importance of self-respect and culture. Because of the relationships she built as a teacher, many of Elias’s former students continued to
visit with her long after leaving school.
In 2012, Elias was a recipient of the Minister’s Cultural Circle Award, in honour of her commitment to celebrating and preserving culture and language, and, that same year, the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.
In 2018, Elias was awarded the Order of the Northwest Territories in recognition of her lifelong work promoting and preserving Inuvialuktun, and for being a strong advocate for language revitalization.
Elias’s dedication to language revitalization remains as strong as ever. In an interview for the Legacy of Hope Foundation’s We Were So Far Away, Elias said “I always say that your culture, your language, your tradition — if you have those three
you feel good about yourself.”
Minister’s Cultural Circle Award (2012)
Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012)
Order of the Northwest Territories (2018)