Inuit leaders and representatives from the four regions of Inuit Nunangat gathered in Iqaluit, NU on the morning of March 8, 2019 to hear an historic announcement from the Canadian Government. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a formal apology and recognition of the federal government’s mistreatment of Inuit across the Canadian Arctic who were evacuated from their communities in the North during the mid-twentieth century for tuberculosis treatment in southern sanitariums.
Remarks by President of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI) Aluki Kotierk and Inuvialuk artist Robert Kuptana began the emotional ceremony, prior to the ceremonial lighting of the qulliq (oil lamp) by Elisapi Davidee-Aningmiuq.
“We have to know our history, we have to face the hard truths that are part of our past,” Trudeau began. “It was colonial. It was misguided. We know now what we did was wrong. We know now we have to make it right.”
“This morning’s apology is a promise to never forget the harm that was done to Inuit and to your families, a promise on behalf of all Canadians to build a brighter future, and to build it together,” he concluded.
Patients frequently arrived in southern communities with little supplies, warning, consent or preparation, reflecting the rate at which they were forcibly removed from their homes. The average stay in a southern sanatorium was two-and-a-half years, and many patients were unable to return to their homes in Arctic with family members unaware of their whereabouts for years. To this day, many relatives are unable to ascertain where their family members were laid to rest. As part of the apology, the Prime Minister announced the official launch of the Nanilavut project, meaning Let’s Find Them, to support families in both locating the remains of as well as discovering what happened to their loved ones who were taken South for treatment and never returned.
The Hamilton Health Sciences’ Chedoke campus, formerly the Mountain Sanatorium, in Hamilton, ON was one of the largest centres where patients from Mittimatilik (Pond Inlet), Panniqtuuq (Pangnirtung), Iglulik, Iqaluit and many other communities in the Eastern Arctic, were taken for treatment. Between 1953 and 1963, the sanitarium housed over 1,200 Inuit patients. During the height the epidemic, the number Inuit in the sanatorium was often larger than the sizes of their respective northern communities. Similar institutions operated in Edmonton, AB and Montreal, QC as well.
From the late 1940s to the 1970s, soapstone from northern Ontario was sent to Hamilton for patients to carve. “As a form of occupational therapy, and at their request, male patients would carve, while women would sew, embroider and make dolls in their beds,” writer Caitlin Sutherland noted in the Winter 2017 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly, while reviewing the selection of sculptural works produced and presented in the exhibition Carving Home (2017-2018).
These works by Moses Meeko (1920-1975), Henry Evaluardjuk (1923-2007) and Josie Nukulie (1931-1980), among many others, relayed memories of home as well as life in the North, and were gifted to the Art Gallery of Hamilton in 2016. Taken together, they provide an invaluable record of their experiences captured in stone, and continue to be a testament to the Inuit who lived through this tragic chapter of Canadian history while recognizing many who died.
“I think it’s good that the PM & Federal Government is acknowledging this tragic time and its handling of a third world illness to our fellow Inuit,” says Hopedale-based seamstress and Home Care Nurse Sophie Pamak. “It would be wonderful to see a similar one for the experiences here in Nunatsiavut. I think its is unfortunate and unfair that some of the survivors and or family had to return to their communities today and miss this important event.”
Tuberculosis remains an epidemic across the North to this day, with rates close to 300 times those of non-Indigenous populations. The Canadian Government has pledged to eradicate the disease in North by 2030 by committing 27.5 million over five years to support the Inuit-specific approach to tuberculosis elimination in addition to 240 million over the next ten yeara to support poverty reduction as well as increased housing, both of contribute to the spread of infections.
“Each one of these cases should never have happened, and it is heart breaking. I do hope this apology from the Prime Minister helps with the healing process,” said Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) President Natan Obed. “Inuit self-determination is here, and we can beat these things as Inuit and as Canadians.”