North·In Depth

Families raise safety concerns over language barrier for Inuit elders at Ottawa care home

The language barrier between Inuit elders and staff at the senior living home where they're living is raising some major safety concerns, and some families are calling on the Nunavut government to send the elders back North.

'The elders speak their language and they're not being understood at all,' says Kootoo Toonoo

Kootoo Toonoo's mother with her granddaughter, Liveena Toonoo. (Submitted by Liveena Toonoo)

Some Nunavut elders, like Kootoo Toonoo's mother Simiga Oshoweetok, missed some of their opportunity to pass on their knowledge to youth in their home communities.

Before she died, Oshoweetok was one of several elders who have been moved down South for elder care where they leave their home, family and culture behind, sometimes for the rest of their lives. She moved 2,091 kilometres away from Kinngait, Nunavut, to live at Embassy West Senior Living in Ottawa, a facility that cares for elders with more complex needs, specifically with dementia. 

However, the language barrier between Inuit elders and the Embassy West Senior Living staff has been raising some major safety concerns, and some families are calling on the Nunavut government to send the elders back to Nunavut.

There's been a growing number of elders sent to residential care facilities in the South, like Embassy West in Ottawa over the years. The Nunavut government confirmed in an email there are now 41 elders from the territory in the Ottawa care home.

Kootoo Toonoo says her mother was sent down South to a care home, leaving her home, family and culture behind. (CBC)

Kootoo Toonoo stayed with her mom for a month before she died, and the language barrier is the first thing she noticed.

"The elders speak their language and they're not being understood at all, it was extremely disheartening to witness," said Kootoo. "It was heartbreaking."

Kootoo found papers that elders used to translate specified requests, like asking for water or needing to use the washroom. But soon after living with her mother, she found medication that her mother was supposed to take, but had tried to dispose of.

Former Nunavut politician Manitok Thompson, who lives in Ottawa, has been an advocate for unilingual Inuit elders. (CBC)

"My mother told me because she didn't know what kind of medication it was, and the nurses couldn't answer her because they didn't understand what she was asking, she started spitting [the medication] out into a tissue and hiding them on the side of her bed," Kootoo said. 

Kootoo said she also noticed how other elders got to play activities, while Inuit were left on their own with no one to coordinate Inuktitut programming.

"It made me wonder why there was nothing and I realized that they don't have Inuit workers to give them programs," Kootoo said. 

The government of Nunavut says Tungasuvvingat Inuit, a non-profit group that offers community supports to Inuit in Ottawa, has made programs available to elders at Embassy West. But those programs were suspended March 11 due to Ontario Ministry of Health and the Retirement Homes Regulatory Authority permits.

Amanda Kilabuk, Tungasuvvingat Inuit's executive director, confirmed that COVID-19 put a halt to monthly visits and activities that her group had organized for elders at Embassy West. 

But she said that her organization did not have any formal contracts with the Government of Nunavut or with Embassy West. Rather, they stepped in to fill a need, using funding they had already obtained from the federal government. 

"We went in and used our our own program dollars funded through the government of Canada to provide programming and bringing country food and programming for the elders," Kilabuk said. 

Comparable to residential schools: advocate

Former Nunavut politician Manitok Thompson, who lives in Ottawa, has been an advocate for unilingual Inuit elders, ever since she was caught by surprise in 2017 when she saw an Inuk elder at Embassy West. She's been visiting elders when she can ever since. 

Former MP and Nunavut politician Peter Ittinuar says his mother has been at Embassy West since 2016. He's happy she gets medical attention, but says it's time to look at providing similar services in the North. (CBC)

To her, putting Inuit elders down South is like the residential school times.

"We are repeating the same thing … where people were sent out, where they didn't have anymore connections with family, their language was not being spoken to them, the whole atmosphere was totally different, the food was different," Thompson said.

She wrote to the languages commissioner in Nunavut to investigate the language barrier but was told the office could not do anything because the facility is in Ontario. Thompson says there should be no excuse to make Inuktitut available 24/7.

"It's the voiceless elders dying in a place they wouldn't wanna die," Thompson said.

Lizzie Ittinuar, 93, has minimal English speaking skills, but she said she looks after some Inuit when she can. (CBC)

Need for in-territory care

Former MP and Nunavut politician Peter Ittinuar's mother has been at the facility since 2016. He says he's happy his mother gets the medical attention required but says it's time to look at sending elders back to Nunavut and provide services like dementia and other care in-territory.

"There's enough money, there's enough resources to get a study done and see if you can implement it," Ittinuar said, adding he thinks the government needs to take a serious look at making interpreters available all the time.

His 93-year-old mother Lizzie Ittinuar has minimal English speaking skills, but she looks after some Inuit when she can.

"There is this particular elder that moved in about the same time I did who uses a wheelchair, he cannot walk," she said in Inuktitut.

"He would sometimes wheel himself out of his room and as soon as the nurses saw him come out they said 'go back to your room, you can't be here,' so I speak out for him when I can."

Many Inuit elders like Lizzie are homesick and want to see their family.

Lizzie said she keeps herself busy by sewing and doing crafts on her own, but she said if the facility took her outing, it would make her less homesick.

"I haven't come out of this room for a long time. I would gladly be out and about if someone could just take me out," she said.

Inuit elders living at Ottawa seniors' facility struggle with lack of Inuktitut-speaking staff

1 year ago
Duration 7:55
The language barrier between Inuit elders and the Embassy West Senior Living staff is raising some major safety concerns, and some families want the elders sent back to Nunavut.

Call for a review of facility

Lizzie says it's time for government officials to visit the facility. Her son agrees.

"Perhaps it's time for a review between the government of Nunavut and Embassy West to see how things are going and I think it would behoove the government of Nunavut to take a good good look at the situation," said Peter.

Embassy West declined an interview with CBC News. 

For now, Lizzie wants hers and other elder's voices heard, but said that even a visit home for the elders would be a gift.

"If I can get a physical examination and I could go home, I have an adoptive daughter, I have grandchildren and I have kids that I want to see," she said. "I want to go home to them if it's possible."

Corrections

  • This story has been updated to reflect that Simiga's last name was Oshoweetok, not Toonoo. It's also been updated to add more details on Tungasuvvingat Inuit's programming role at Embassy West.
    Sep 27, 2021 9:21 AM CT

With files from Teresa Qiatsuk

now