Dene Nation seeks formal apology for TB treatment in 'Indian hospitals'

The Dene Nation is seeking a formal apology for the way its members were treated in medical institutions. The move comes as a class action lawsuit seeking redress for ‘Indian hospitals’ heads toward certification.

Dene in the Northwest Territories part of $1.1 billion-lawsuit against hospitals

A teacher with students during the 1960s at the Charles Camsell Indian Hospital in Edmonton, Alta. Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya wants a formal apology from Ottawa for the abuses suffered there by Dene. (Alberta Provincial Archives)

The Dene Nation is seeking a formal apology for the way its members were treated in medical institutions.

"A lot of our members, since 1945 to 1980, were sent down to the Charles Camsell Hospital," said Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya, referring to the former hospital in Edmonton. "A lot of our people that were sent down to the Charles Camsell Hospital suffered a lot of abuses."

Yakeleya wants an apology similar to the one Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered to Inuit in Iqaluit last March.

Yakeleya raised the issue with Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal in Yellowknife earlier this week. That followed a conversation with Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Caroline Bennett last March, in which Yakeleya said she was receptive to the idea. 

"This issue is long overdue," Yakeleya said. "The time is right now."

Few untouched

The Dene experience looms large in a major pending lawsuit.

The former Charles Camsell Hospital is named among 28 other segregated "Indian hospitals" in a proposed $1.1 billion lawsuit against the federal government. That lawsuit is expected to receive its official class action certification next week. 

Edmonton lawyer Steve Cooper, who launched part of the lawsuit, said Camsell cases make up about 25 per cent of the hundreds of people the class aims to represent. 

This issue is long overdue. The time is now.- Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya 

"The majority of N.W.T. residents, and even a family member of mine, would have been in regular attendance at the Camsell Hospital," he said. "When they were suffering from TB initially, but thereafter, any sort of situation where they needed better medical care than could be offered in the N.W.T." 

Yakeleya says many people who went south for treatment were abused at the Charles Camsell Indian Hospital, including his father. (Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

Cooper, whose dad was a teacher, grew up in the territories, and recalls his mother being sent to Edmonton for treatment, possibly more than once. 

He's now heard hundreds of stories and says the experience of patients at Charles Camsell were "horrendous, uniformly." 

He tells stories of children being put in body-casts as a form of discipline, of people being denied treatment for the illnesses they were sent out for, and of former patients who died and were never returned home, their families never informed of what happened to them. 

Cooper says the case is similar to the residential school lawsuits, and that he hopes it will similarly be the start of a healing process. 

A personal quest

For Yakeleya, the issue is personal. He had family members who went to Charles Camsell and never returned. 

His father also went. Yakeleya can remember the day he returned home, took off his T-shirt, and showed him the scars on his back from the treatment he'd received. 

"I got scared actually. Two big scars on his back there, two big lines, about a foot and a half, two feet. It was surgical. It was for TB."

Yakeleya says work is just beginning to address those who were buried in or near the hospital, and whose families were not informed. 

"There are people still alive in our Dene communities who  know that their loved ones are buried somewhere in around Edmonton," he said. "In their mind, sitting in their small communities, they still think their loved ones are gonna come back." 

Yakeleya says he's learned that some may be buried on First Nations reserves near Edmonton, and says research is just beginning to locate and identify graves. 

"We have some major healing to do to help the people who lost their loved one," he said. "It's painful but it has to get done."