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Tuberculosis treatment in south takes Inuit from their families

The Story


Tuberculosis wasn't just a medical tragedy for Canada's Inuit. Often it was a family tragedy too. TB struck hard in the north in the 1950s and 60s and thousands went south for treatment. Some were never seen again. Adults died of the disease and were buried without their family's knowledge, while young children were sent from one hospital to the next without records. Now, as this CBC report shows, those lost relatives are slowly being found. 

Medium: Television
Program: Midday
Broadcast Date: Jan. 30, 1989
Guests: Sitooki Jowami, Martha Michaels, Richard Nooksoyuk, Peter Patikloolook
Host: Peter Downie
Reporter: Raj Ahluwalia
Duration: 8:00

Did You know?


• Tuberculosis was unknown among Canada's aboriginal people before the arrival of European explorers and traders. Because aboriginal people had no resistance to the disease, and medical services were virtually nonexistent, the Inuit were especially hit hard by TB.
• At least one-third of Inuit were infected with TB in the 1950s.
• In 1956 one in seven Inuit was in a sanatorium in southern Canada -- about 1,600 in total.
• Over 300 of that number were in the Mountain Sanatorium in Hamilton, Ont., making it the largest year-round community of Inuit in the country.
• The average length of stay in the sanatorium for Inuit was two and a half years -- much longer than the average for non-Inuit. Some stayed much longer than that.
• In 1950 the coast guard ship C.D. Howe made its first voyage to the Arctic. It was specially designed to cruise through ice and was outfitted with a small hospital including an operating room, a sick bay, a dental office, X-ray machine and darkroom. The ship made annual summer trips to Inuit settlements across the eastern Arctic, taking X-ray surveys and removing TB patients who were sick enough to require treatment in a southern hospital.
• Pat Sandiford Grygier's 1994 book A Long Way From Home: The Tuberculosis Epidemic among the Inuit describes the procedure by which Inuit were surveyed in the 1950s. Everyone filed aboard the ship for testing. Then doctors decided who would go south for treatment. "The evacuees were sent down to the Inuit quarters... and the rest were sent ashore." Evacuees could not go ashore to collect belongings, say goodbye, or make arrangements for their families.
• By 1961 rules had changed on the ship so that patients were allowed ashore to say goodbye and make arrangements.
• Once they were well, Inuit patients could not immediately go home; they had to wait until plane or sea transport was available. Often that involved taking the train to Moose Factory, Ont., or a plane to Churchill, Man., and staying in a military or Indian hospital until transport home could be found.
• When a TB patient died in the south, the hospital notified the Indian Health Service, which notified the Department of Northern Affairs. Northern Affairs then contacted someone in the patient's community -- a missionary or RCMP officer -- who was charged with telling the family that their loved one had died. Often, however, the message never got through.
• These patients were buried in paupers' graves in a southern cemetery at the expense of Northern Affairs.
• The C.D. Howe stopped its medical patrol around 1969. By then there were more land-based medical care centres supplemented by air survey teams. Regular commercial flights also made it easier to remove patients for medical care in the south.
• In 1989 the government of the Northwest Territories set up the Medical Patient Search Project to help people find lost family members who went south for TB treatment. By April 1991, the project had received 80 requests for help and had located information and records for 71. The project was then shut down, but the NWT Department of Health continued to conduct searches on behalf of family members.


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Tuberculosis: Old Disease, Continuing Threat more