Inuit, Ottawa launch task force to fight tuberculosis in the North

The federal government and Inuit have launched a task force to examine the tuberculosis crisis across Inuit Nunangat. Among Inuit, the rate of the lung disease in 2015 was more than 270 times higher than the rate among Canadian-born non-Indigenous people.

Lung disease spread throughout the body of Ileen Kooneeliusie, 15, who died in January

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami Natan Obed talk as they overlook Iqaluit. Ottawa and Inuit have launched a new task force into tuberculosis in the North following the January death of a 15-year-old Nunavut girl from the disease. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The Canadian government and Inuit have launched a task force aimed at tackling the tuberculosis crisis across Inuit Nunangat.

Among Inuit, the tuberculosis rate in 2015 was more than 270 times higher than the rate among Canadian-born non-Indigenous people.

"We're in a historic moment today because the federal government and leadership within the federal government has not ever pledged to work with us towards the path of TB elimination," Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) president Natan Obed told reporters on Parliament Hill on Thursday.

"This is a monumental step forward."

Inuit Nunangat is the Inuktitut term for the Inuit homeland in Canada. Its four regions are:

  • Nunatsiavut (northern Labrador).
  • Nunavik (northern Quebec).
  • The Inuvialuit region in the N.W.T.
  • All of Nunavut.

The task force will aim to develop strategies to ensure both Inuit and Ottawa are on the same page in the fight against tuberculosis, a bacterial lung disease that's spread through tiny droplets released into the air while coughing and sneezing.

"We've identified a number of priorities and one of them has been the elimination of tuberculosis in Inuit Nunangat," said Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott about the ongoing work through the Inuit-to-Crown partnership announced in December 2016.

The task force was announced during a three-day conference on tuberculosis in Ottawa that was attended by Philpott. ITK hosted the talks, which brought together government, Health Canada officials, TB experts, and provincial and territorial health-care providers.

"They're all here talking about what would a TB-elimination framework look like," Obed told CBC News.

"The government of Canada has worked with Inuit leadership over the last three to six months to talk about what can be done. And it goes from the TB control programs that exist right now in Inuit regions, which aren't meant to eliminate TB, into an elimination strategy which imagines we actually get rid of tuberculosis in Inuit Nunangat."

Ileen Kooneeliusie's story resonating in Ottawa

Helping drive this recent push on the national stage to tackle tuberculosis in Inuit communities is the story of Ileen Kooneeliusie.

The 15-year-old girl from Qikiqtarjuaq, Nunavut, died in January after a rare form of tuberculosis spread throughout her body.

At the Public Policy Forum in Ottawa in September — in her first public speech in her new role — Philpott dedicated her speech to Kooneeliusie.

"Ileen's story is the story of nursing shortages, language barriers, medical evacuations, weather delays, delayed diagnoses and an epidemic that has persisted among the Inuit of Canada for more than one century," Philpott said at the time.

She echoed those sentiments Thursday on Parliament Hill.

"When you hear the stories of a 15-year-girl who died in this city in 2017 from tuberculosis, it awakens you to the very serious injustices that still exist," Philpott told reporters.

"So hearing of an individual's story, and there are countless stories like that, are how we realize that this is absolutely unacceptable to continue."

Geela Kooneeliusie, left, and her daughter Ileen Kooneeliusie, who died from tuberculosis in January. (submitted by Geela Kooneeliusie and Matthew Kilabuk)

Obed says since Kooneeliusie's story was made public, there has been a different tone in Ottawa.

"Her story has resonated. In the conversations that I have with ministers and other senior government officials, there's a shock and outrage. And there isn't an acceptance that this is OK in this country," Obed told CBC News.

"When we hear about a young woman who dies of tuberculosis in Canada, that then changes the conversation. It's tragic in many ways, for me, that people have to die in order for issues to be brought to the national conversation."


Nick Murray is a CBC reporter, based in Iqaluit since 2015. A graduate from St. Thomas University's journalism program, he's also covered four Olympic Games as a senior writer with CBC Sports. You can follow Nick on Twitter at @NickMurray91.