Residential schools, the sixties adoption scoop, murdered and missing aboriginal women. It is only within the last decade most Canadians have become acutely aware of these atrocities and how they have impacted indigenous people.
A recent report from Stephen Lewis, Canada’s former ambassador to the United Nations, provides a look at another awful chapter in indigenous history. Lewis ranks it with the horror of residential schools, baby scoops and murdered women.
In the 1950s and 1960s, a ship called the C.D. Howe sailed the Arctic visiting remote communities. Inuit were brought on board to screen them for tuberculosis. Those people who were diagnosed with tuberculosis, including children, were not allowed to leave the ship but were taken south to Indian hospitals. Some were away for years. The impact of this forced separation on families was devastating.
Stephen Lewis says that during his visits with Inuit elders they described this experience vividly. Parents, grandparents and children were wrenched abruptly away from their families and taken south. Most didn’t understand what was happening to them. Lewis says many Inuit died while in health care facilities and family members were never informed and to this day have no idea where their loved ones are buried.
On October 28 I was given a personal look at this tragedy. Pitaloosie Saila one of Canada’s foremost Inuit artists was at the Winnipeg Art Gallery to open an exhibition of her work. Several of her art pieces describe her own experience of being sent south to a hospital as a child. Complicated health issues meant she spent years away from her family. Pitaloosie completely lost her native language of Inuktitut so when she arrived home she couldn’t communicate with anyone. She had forgotten her community’s cultural practices and was unfamiliar with their food. She was a stranger in her own family.
One of the pieces in the exhibit shows a smiling Pitaloosie hugging her sister. During the years Pitaloosie was hospitalized her sister died but no one was able to communicate with her to tell her. She only learned of her sister’s death when she returned home to Cape Dorset.
Last year the Winnipeg Art Gallery hosted an exhibition by Cape Dorset sculptor Oviloo Tunnille. Her show included a series of pieces detailing a similar experience she had in a Manitoba Indian hospital for TB patients.
In one sculpture she is sitting on a nurse’s knee and crying. She misses her family. In another she stands weeping holding a teddy bear behind her back and in one she is sitting up in bed with a scared look on her face.
Another sculpture depicts a doctor and government worker leading Oviloo away.
Stephen Lewis’s report addresses the current TB epidemic in Nunavut. This disease is a hundred percent curable. Lewis believes at least one of the reasons it has not been eradicated in the north is because the horror of the days of forced hospitalization and separation lives on in family’s memories. There is still a stigma attached to the disease. Lewis believes to overcome that legacy the federal government needs to issue an unequivocal apology to the Inuit and provide resources so they can find out what happened to family members who died and travel to their loved ones’ gravesites.
I learned about Stephen Lewis’ report and the current TB crisis in Nunavut from a member of the board of directors of The Canadian Paediatric Society. Perhaps as more national groups recognize and publicize the history of this disease in the north and its ramifications for communities, steps can be taken to bring about emotional healing for the wrongs of the past and provide hope for physical healing in the present.