Montreal

Nunavik Inuit who lost relatives that went south for TB treatment moved by PM's apology

Some Inuit in Quebec say they feel a sense of closure, after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized in Iqaluit for the federal policy on tuberculosis in the mid-20th century that led to so many families being ripped apart.

'It was not an easy chapter,' says health worker Maggie Putulik, who lost 2 great-aunts to the epidemic

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Iqaluit on Friday was greeted by an Inuk elder prior to delivering an official apology to Inuit for the federal government's management of tuberculosis in the Arctic from the 1940s to the 1960s. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Some Inuit in Quebec say they feel a sense of closure, after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized in Iqaluit for the federal policy on tuberculosis in the mid-20th century that led to so many families being ripped apart.

Inuit with the infectious lung disease were forced onto medical ships and transported south to be treated, far from their families and in unfamiliar settings. Many died in southern Canada. Some disappeared without a trace.

Maggie Putulik, the director of Ullivik, an Inuit health centre in Dorval, lost two of her mother's aunts to the epidemic. 

"Watching the apology was very touching and moving," Putulik said. 

She said the fact that Trudeau went to Nunavut, making the apology on Inuit territory with local residents present was also appreciated.

She watched the entire apology with her husband. Both were touched and emotional, she said.

"I felt joy and relief and a true sense of having been acknowledged," she said. "It was not an easy chapter."

At least one third of Inuit in Canada's north were infected with tuberculosis in the 1950s. By 1956, a seventh of the entire Inuit population was being treated in southern Canada.

The average length of stay was two-and-a-half years, and some patients stayed much longer, according to the Canadian Public Health Association.

Many Inuit were never told what happened to their loved ones after they departed on ships for the south.

Inuit have long been lobbying for the creation of a database to help them find out what happened to those relatives.

As part of his apology, the prime minister also announced the launch of the Nanilavut initiative. (Nanilavut is the Inuktitut word for "Let's find them.")

Maggie Annahatak's story

Maggie Putulik, the director of Ullivik, an Inuit health centre in Dorval, said she is named after one of her great-aunts who died in Ontario from TB-related complications. (Submitted by Maggie Putulik)

Putulik was named after her great-aunt, Maggie Annahatak.

"Maggie was sent sent away as a little girl, at the tender age of eight years old, with suspected back injury — but we later found out she had tuberculosis," Putulik said.

She was sent to Hamilton, Ont., where she stayed until she was a teenager. After returning briefly to the north, Maggie had to return to Ontario again due to her frail health.

"Maggie became a nurse's aide, and she actually worked at the Hamilton hospital and worked with the Inuit TB patients," Putulik said.

She died at 29, while undergoing surgery for a skin graft that was related to an old injury from tuberculosis, Putulik said.

Annahatak is buried in Maxwell, Ont., but the family never found out what happened to her sister, Putulik's great-aunt Victoria.

Putulik said this took an immense toll on her family, but the government database is a positive step forward.

"Not having seen them in the end, you know, not having that closure.... Let's find them," she said.

'A long time coming'

"It's a long time coming," said Andy Pirti, the treasurer of Makivik, the corporation that administers affairs in Nunavik, Quebec's Inuit territory.

"There were tears," said Pirti, who flew to Iqaluit for the ceremony. "The hardship and unresolved issues that [those present] carried came out during that ceremony."

Pirti's own sister was sent south for treatment when she was a child. By the time she returned to Nunavik, she had lost her language and had to relearn it, he said.

"We have the same rights as everyone," Pirti said. "Due to … some barriers in the culture or language, and also lack of facilities for treatments to treat tuberculosis, there was hardship and lack of communication."

Inuit await medical examination aboard the CGS C.D. Howe at Coral Harbour, N.W.T. (now Nunavut) in July 1951. The ship came to help, offering medical treatment for Canada's Inuit. But those diagnosed with tuberculosis were kept on board and brought to sanatoriums in southern Canada, where many were forced to stay for a year or two. Hundreds also died away from their home communities. (Wilfrid Doucette/National Film Board of Canada/Library and Archives Canada)

Pirti said were this to happen today, there would have to be community consultation before people were sent south for treatment.

"Like Trudeau said, it was a colonial approach to resolve the issue that was happening at the time."

With files from Catou MacKinnon and CBC Montreal Daybreak

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