Inuit sue federal government over medical experiments that included skin grafts

Five Inuit have filed a lawsuit against the federal government over medical experiments, including skin grafts, they say were performed on them in the 1960s and '70s.

Inuit were 'forcibly used as human guinea pigs' in 'outrageous and questionable' experiments, says law firm

Five Inuit have filed a lawsuit in Nunavut against the federal government over medical experiments they say were performed on them. (David Gunn/CBC)

Five Inuit have filed a lawsuit against the federal government over medical experiments they say were performed on them in the 1960s and '70s in Nunavut. 

A statement of claim filed in Iqaluit on June 7 says the experiments included skin grafts being taken from them and grafted onto the bodies of other Inuit as well as being made to stand outside in the cold while improperly dressed.

The plaintiffs also allege they were prodded with sharp instruments to assess their reaction to pain. 

The claim says the experiments were performed in Igloolik between 1967 and 1973 and involved three Canadian universities working with an international scientific program.

Edmonton lawyer Steven Cooper with Cooper Regel says he's aware of at least 30 people who were affected, primarily in Igloolik. He says experiments were also possibly performed on Inuit in Hall Beach.

Three Inuit show scars from skin graft procedures they say were done decades ago by researchers. The photos were taken recently, but the people wish to remain anonymous. (Submitted by Steven Cooper)

"All of this happened with the knowledge, and it would appear, support of the Canadian government directly or indirectly," says a news release from Cooper Regel.

"The government of Canada did not protect its citizens but rather made them available as subjects of the outrageous and questionable experiments," it adds.

The statement of claim alleges the plaintiffs suffered irreparable psychological harm, along with other severe impairments and disabilities, including mistrust of people in positions of power, humiliation and betrayal, and avoidance of medical practitioners. 

None of the claims made in the lawsuit have been tested in court.

The plaintiffs are seeking general and punitive damages totalling $1,100,000, plus special and aggravated damages. 

International Biological Program

The International Biological Program was a large-scale multi-year project aimed at co-ordinating research among scientists worldwide. It looked at everything from pest control to pollution and how people adapted to their environments.

The experiments in Igloolik are outlined in the 2005 book Beyond the Hippocratic Oath: A Memoir on the Rise of Modern Medical Ethics by Dr. John B. Dossetor, a celebrated Canadian physician who was inducted into the Order of Canada in 1994.

In his book, Dossetor writes that his research in Igloolik received "community consent," which he claims was granted by elders via a non-Inuk translator. Although he ultimately concludes in the book that his team did not do enough to secure meaningful consent.

Dossetor declined an interview request for an article on Inuit concerns over the experiments.

The news release from Cooper Regel says Inuit were "forcibly included as human guinea pigs" in the research program and that it took place "during a time of transition from a very tranquil and traditional way of life to one mandated by the government of Canada."

"Every element of an Inuk's life was made subject to decisions made usually by bureaucrats and politicians in faraway places," it reads, highlighting the Indian residential school and hospital systems. "The Inuit were compelled to follow government directions."

Former Nunavut premier among plaintiffs

Paul Quassa says he never gave his consent to be experimented on. (Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC)

Former Nunavut premier Paul Quassa, who is one of the plaintiffs, told CBC News earlier this year, he, his uncle and cousin were among those who had skin grafts performed on them.

He also said after returning from hunting one February while wearing caribou clothing, researchers made him stand outside for 20 minutes before letting him inside.

Quassa said he never gave his consent to be experimented on and has never received an apology.

With files from Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC