North·Q & A

National Inuit leader calls for apology from federal gov't over lost TB patients

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Natan Obed is calling for an official apology and help from the federal government so families whose loved ones died while in the south for tuberculosis treatment in the 1940s and 1950s can visit their graves and find closure.

'There wasn't the same appreciation for Inuit life as there was for non-indigenous life,' says Natan Obed

'This is just one of many stories that Inuit have that show what little respect the Canadian government at that time gave towards Inuit life,' says ITK president Natan Obed. (Mitchel Wiles/CBC)

This week CBC Nunavut has been following the story of an Iqaluit mother searching for her daughter's grave in Quebec.

Therese Ukaliannuk travelled to Quebec's Eastern Townships last weekend in hopes of finding the grave of her daughter Marieyvonne Alaka.

Marieyvonne was sent to residential school when she was four years old. She injured her head on the playground and contracted tuberculosis and tuberculosis meningitis while being treated. She died in 1967 in Austin, Que. She was eight years old.

For 50 years, her family did not know where she died. They had help learning what happened from a working group called Nanilavut: Let's Find Them. 

The CBC's Jane Sponagle spoke with Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Natan Obed about what resources are available for Inuit families searching for loved ones lost when they were taken south for medical treatment.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length.

What do you think about the fact that this story seems to come as a surprise to many Canadians?

Because of the colonial relationship between Inuit and the Crown, because of Canada's historic attitude towards Indigenous people, specifically about Inuit, there wasn't the same appreciation for Inuit life as there was for non-indigenous life in Canada.

At the time when this was happening, it was the very same time that Inuit children were being taken away to residential school and the very same time when Inuit were being used as human flagpoles and being moved across the Arctic for sovereignty purposes. So this is just one of many stories that Inuit have that show what little respect the Canadian government at that time gave towards Inuit life.

It is good to see the sympathy but the fact that it is still surprising just shows how little Canadians understood or cared about the things that were happening to Inuit that were fundamental to their lives during this huge time of transition after World War Two — the period of time between when we lived on the land and were coerced into settlements.

Do you think an official apology will be coming from this government?

In the first meeting that I had with [Indigenous and Northern Affairs] Minister Carolyn Bennett in November, this was one of the items that I brought to her attention as a priority for Inuit. We have worked through a lot of the details in order to come to a place where we have very specific actions that we want the Government of Canada to take.

It is my hope, in this new Inuit-to-Crown relationship where there is a conciliatory approach and an approach that is wanting to be respectful and just to Inuit, that this is one of the easy things to do for this government, to acknowledge what has happened and allow for this healing and closure to happen.

So hearing the story of Therese Ukaliannuk is heartwarming to me as much as it is heartbreaking.

Therese Ukaliannuk holds the only photo she has of her daughter, Marieyvonne Alaka. Marieyvonne pokes her head out of her mother's amauti. Marieyvonne died in 1967 at the age of eight, after being sent from residential school in Chesterfield Inlet to a series of cities in the south for medical treatment. Ukaliannuk has been searching for her daughter's grave since then. (Jane Sponagle/CBC)

Therese and Martha [Maliki] were able to travel to Quebec because someone donated the airfare and there was a private sponsor who donated the accommodations and other travel expenses. That's pretty unique then, for someone to be able to travel and make this kind of trip.

Yes, and it shouldn't be the case, if you think about the details of tuberculosis treatment, and the fact that the Government of Canada was responsible for the delivery of health care at the time, and that it was acceptable for the Government of Canada to just not notify families about their loved ones being deceased then not doing anything to ensure that the bodies of the deceased were buried appropriately and marked appropriately.

That this was an acceptable way of treating Inuit should be an impetus for government to ensure now, in this day and age, that there are resources available for people to bring closure and to go and visit the place where their loved ones that they've been looking for for over 60 years or 50 years are buried, that they can finally go there and pay their last respects.

What resources are available for families who are searching for loved ones? What can they do?

We've been working on this issue across Canada under the umbrella of a project called Nanilavut. Nanilavut is a partnership between Inuit regions and jurisdictions that had data or records around Inuit patients from Inuit Nunangat and also the Government of Canada.

[The] database is housed at Indigenous and Northern Affairs and through the Nanilavut working group and the representatives from each region, they are able to co-ordinate requests for specific information about individuals who went through TB treatment.

That said, the capacity at each one of our regional organizations and the ability for our regional organizations to work with INAC in a very specific way is still different in each region.

We have worked closely to the federal government, and Indigenous and Northern Affairs is the lead on this file, but we are not where we want to be when it comes to resources for family members or communities to either pay last respects or honour the lives of those who never came home.

We have lobbied both at ITK and with regional Inuit associations for funds for a number of different things. We would want at first an apology from the Government of Canada and closure. And closure was to come in a few different forms.

The first would be the roll out of this database so that anyone looking for lost loved ones has established connections that they can be helped through that process to get this information.

Then if people have found lost loved ones in the south, then for family members to go and visit those grave sites and pay last respects. In addition to that, that we could have funds for memorials for proper burials so people will have headstones or acknowledgement that they are buried within a certain cemetery.

The final piece would be commemoration in the home communities of those lost loved ones so that the family feels they can have closure and that they can mourn for the person in a more definitive way and to have plaques or commemorative structures that would show the lasting respect they have for those who never did come home.

We talked about this with the Government of Canada. We are still lobbying this new government to do the right thing, the honourable thing for Inuit and for all those people who have been affected, for their entire lives in many cases, for some level of closure about their lost loved ones and how to heal and reconcile and grieve and also honour those lives that were lost.