Charles Camsell hospital holds on to secret of Elulik's death

Louisa Baril last saw her father as he was about to board a plane for the Charles Camsell Indian Hospital in Edmonton. A half century later she’s still haunted by his final words.

'How does somebody die like that and not be sent home? And we can't find his grave?'

Louisa Kabloonak Baril is searching for her father's grave with her daughter Cathy Aitaok (right). (Provided)

​Louisa Kabloonak Baril last saw her father as he was about to board a plane for the Charles Camsell Indian Hospital in Edmonton. A half century later she's still haunted by his final words.

"I want to come back and see you, but I don't know," Baril remembers her father saying. "Some people died in the hospital."
Joseph Elulik boarded a plane for the Charles Camsell Indian Hospital in 1960, never to return. (Provided)

Baril never heard from her father Joseph Elulik again.

All these years later Baril, 72, still has no answers to important questions she's lived with since she was 17. How did her father die? Where was he buried?

Edmonton was a world way from Cambridge Bay, Nunavut and nearby Perry River where Baril grew up.

Her mom died when she was nine so rather than learning to sew, Baril learned from her father how to hunt.

And even though Elulik had lost all 10 toes to frostbite, he had no problem getting around, walking on his heels, even running and traveling by dog sled — always with a laugh or a smile.

Baril recalls how on one occasion when the community had run out of meat, hunters with rifles followed the tracks of two caribou. One hunter teased Elulik for running off in a different direction.

But when everyone returned, Baril remembers proudly, it was Elulik who had killed both caribou which he shared with the entire community.

X-ray tours

Then one day doctors touring northern indigenous communities to screen for tuberculosis turned up in Cambridge Bay with their portable X-ray machines.

Those who tested positive were sent south for treatment at sanatoria such as the Camsell, set up as an Indian Hospital between 1946 and 1967 largely for TB patients from Alberta, B.C, Saskatchewan, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories.

Baril says Elulik, who was in his mid-40s, was healthy, but doctors offered to treat his feet, likely with prosthetics. He waited until Baril, then 17 and pregnant, gave birth to his first grandson, before boarding a plane in May 1960.

Time dragged on without word. A year later a patient who had roomed with Baril's father returned to the community and told her about the last night Elulik was alive.

"He was calling me all night. Calling me and calling me," Baril says. "But finally he stopped breathing — he stopped calling me."

'We can't find his grave'

Over the past 15 years Baril and her daughter, Cathy Aitaok, have searched on and off for Elulik's grave, in the hopes of one day bringing his remains home. As the years pass the urgency grows.

"I'm scared my mom won't be able to see her dad again before she passes," says Aitaok, who believes finding him will help her two daughters know who they are.

"How does somebody die like that and not be sent home? And we can't find his grave?"

This past spring they finally caught a break.

Aitaok came across a blog written by Edmonton historian laureate Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail.

Ghosts of Camsell aims to open up the hospital's dark colonial past to help those living with the consequences to heal and move forward.

"Unfortunately the federal government took a lot of resources to help send people down for treatment around tuberculosis and other issues, but not always to get them back to their home communities," says Metcalfe-Chenail.

"I still feel like this was a colonial practice, an unfair practice that didn't allow people in the north to know what happened to their loved ones or to know where to go and pay their final respects."

Through their work together, Baril, Aitaok and Metcalfe-Chenail have ruled out Elulik being buried at the St. Albert Aboriginal Cemetery where 98 Anglican and Protestant patients were interred and recently identified. Elulik was baptized Catholic.

They are now trying to figure out where Catholic patients were buried. Searches of Edmonton's Beechmount and St. Albert Roman Catholic Cemeteries have not yet produced results.

Unmarked graves and fragmented records

Unmarked graves, communal burial sites and fragmented records are only some of what they're up against, says Metcalfe-Chenail, who has applied for more funding so she can continue her research.

Even the name Elulik could have also been spelled differently, Ilulik or Elolik, due to the anglicization of Inuit names.

Still, the family is not giving up hope.

They think someone out there — a former patient, nurse or staff member  will remember the man who "had a different walk than everyone, because he didn't have toes, but he was still able to hunt and travel by dog team.

"He had no toes so that's a characteristic people will recognize, the way he walked. He must be somewhere," Aitaok says.

"Somebody knows something," she says. "I think we're getting close."

andrea.huncar@cbc.ca

@andreahuncar