'It gave me a sense of closure': Database on Inuit tuberculosis graves offers some answers

Mary Nashook found her grandfather's grave because of a chance look at a list of Inuit who never returned from tuberculosis treatment in the south. That opportunity will soon be open to more Inuit.

Records on roughly 4,500 Inuit who were taken south will soon be shared with families

Mary Nashook found her grandfather's grave because of a chance look at a list of Inuit who never returned from tuberculosis treatment in the south. That opportunity will soon be open to more Inuit. (CBC)

It was something of a fluke how Mary Nashook found her grandfather's grave.

She was heading to Quebec City to work as an English-Inuktitut interpreter at a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association meeting almost 20 years ago.

On the flight down, one of the delegates had a registry of Inuit who never came back from tuberculosis treatment, and who were buried in Quebec City. Nashook glanced at it, just in case.

There he was.

Patients arrive in Hamilton to be treated for tuberculosis. (Gerda Selway)
"When we went to the site, there were no tombstones. Just a plaque, because when Inuit died they were buried on top of each other," Nashook recalls.

"We held an Inuktitut service there and I was thinking of my dad. He often wondered where his father was. It gave me a sense of closure."

Soon, many Inuit may have a chance to have that same closure.

After nearly a decade of work, the federal government is set to announce a database of some 4,500 Inuit tuberculosis patients who were scooped from their homes from the 1940s to the 1960s. Many never returned.

"This has created a longstanding concern for Inuit about finding lost loved ones," said Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami President Natan Obed, whose organization is also asking for a formal apology from the federal government.

"In some cases, children were taken for care and didn't come home. So family members, especially parents, have always wondered what happened to their children and whether or not they actually may still be alive in southern Canada."

The C.D. Howe was equipped for medical service and transported hundreds of Inuit people to be treated for tuberculosis in southern Canada. (Johanna Rabinowitz Fonds/Archives of HHS and McMaster Faculty of Health Sciences)

'Let's Find Them'

The database has a million files, sourced from southern hospitals, federal government paperwork, Inuit oral history, and beyond, as part of the Nanilavut Initiative — Inuktitut for "Let's Find Them."

The federal government launched the initiative in 2010 at the request of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.

Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC )
The database itself has already helped some Inuit find loved ones.

But Obed said once it's launched it won't be a free-for-all, mainly because of the privacy issues around the access of personal medical files.

The plan is to have Inuit make requests through their respective Inuit land claim organizations, which will then prompt staff with the federal government to search the database.

"There are a lot of things to work out," Obed said, "but we imagine when this is rolled out in a systematic way in the very near future, that on day one Inuit will be able to understand how they access this information."

A persistent health crisis

Tuberculosis is still about 50 times more frequent among Inuit than among southerners.

Poverty and housing are the main reasons, but sociologists say one reason TB remains hard to handle among Inuit is their memory of how they were once treated.

Between 1953 and 1961, a total of 5,240 Inuit, from toddlers to elders, were sent south, sometimes plucked right out of hunting camps on the land. The entire Eastern Arctic Inuit population at the time was only about 11,500.

"They took the parents — mother and father — and the ships would pull away and the kids were left standing on the beach," one former bureaucrat told the 2010 Qikiqtani Truth Commission.

Another said: "If it was a mother with a baby in the hood, the radiologist would pick the baby up and give it to whoever was standing closest."

For a while, Canada's largest Inuit community was a sanatorium in Hamilton. The mortality rate for southerners with TB in 1953 was 9.9 per 100,000 patients; for Inuit, it was 298.1.

Imperfect data

'It will be their first chance to get answers,' Nashook says. (Submitted by Mary Nashook)
As plentiful as the database is, it's somewhat incomplete.

"Lots of that paperwork has been lost, either through fires, or moving from one building to another, or basic disregard," Obed said.

"At that time, people in health systems often didn't know how to write Inuit names down. So we might have variances from a patient."

Nonetheless, for many, it will be their first chance to get answers.

"I feel it's very important for Inuit to know where their relatives are buried," Nashook said.

"I hope they find their relatives. It's an important feeling to have that closure, and helps to move forward in life."


Nick Murray


Nick Murray is a CBC News reporter, based in Iqaluit since 2015. He specializes in investigative reporting and access to information legislation. A graduate from St. Thomas University's journalism program, he's also covered four Olympic Games as a senior writer with CBC Sports.

With files from The Canadian Press