Discovery of 12 Inuvialuit gravesites in Edmonton brings closure for families marked by TB epidemic
'All I can think of is my mother, and how empty her arms must have felt'
A woman from Inuvik, N.W.T., says finding and marking the grave of her long lost brother, who died as a baby during the tuberculosis epidemic, feels like closure to her.
Peggy Day said Ricky Don Kayotuk would have been an older brother to her if he hadn't passed away at 10 months old at Charles Camsell Hospital in Edmonton, where he'd been sent after becoming sick.
His grave is one of 12 recently found in the Edmonton area by the Nanilavut Initiative, which searches for Inuit who were separated from their families and who died during the epidemic from the 1940s to the 1960s.
"All I can think of is my mother, and how empty her arms must have felt," said Day, talking about what little she knows of her brother's short life. Her mother, who has since died, told her he became sick when he was just nine months old, in 1961.
Day said he was sent from Reindeer Station, N.W.T., to Inuvik for treatment, and then eventually on to Charles Camsell Hospital. She said he died of pneumonia and her family never knew where he was buried.
Triggered by a separate investigation of unmarked graves at the hospital, Day's family contacted the Nanilavut Initiative last year in search of her brother's burial site. No unmarked graves were found at Charles Camsell, but this spring Day got the news from Beverly Lennie, who is leading the Nanilavut Initiative in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, that her brother had been found at a cemetery in St. Albert.
"She gave me his death certificate, and I was like 'no way, no way."
That moment brought up more emotion for Day than she expected, and she recalled telling her husband she hadn't expected to cry so much for a brother she never met. Day is among family members who are now in the Edmonton area to commemorate the 12 Inuvialuit beneficiaries the initiative says it has found so far.
The Nanilavut Initiative
The Nanilavut Initiative — a collaboration between the federal government, the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation (IRC) and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami — is working in five different regions in Canada to find Inuit who died during the tuberculosis epidemic.
Tuberculosis is a contagious and potentially deadly lung disease that is preventable and curable now — but in the past, reached epidemic proportions. It peaked among Inuit between the 1940s and 1960s, and the Government of Canada says one third of Inuit were infected with it in the 1950s.
Many of those Inuit were sent away from their home communities to medical facilities for treatment. Although some returned home, others did not. Their bodies were buried near the facilities, and their loved ones were never informed of their fate.
"These were our elders, our parents, our babies, the people that passed down our culture," said Clarissa Gordon, a Nanilavut health support worker with the IRC. "There was no communication between the hospital and back home ... they were just gone."
The effort to find them was born out of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's 2019 apology for the "colonial" and "purposeful" mistreatment of Inuit during the epidemic. Gordon said they have funding from the federal government to mark each found grave with a headstone, and to fly two family members to each site.
"We do the research and we find these missing Inuvialuit and we help their surviving family members get that closure."
Individual ceremonies for each loved one began last week. The IRC is hosting a public grave marking commemoration ceremony Thursday in Fort Edmonton Park at 1 p.m. The corporation is also planning a remembrance journey Friday morning that will travel to, and lay wreaths at, each of the five burial sites in the Edmonton area.
In a statement from the Nanilavut Initiative, Duane Smith, IRC's CEO and chair, said the corporation's goal is to give each Inuvialuit family closure and to pay respect to their lost loved ones.
"Too much time has passed without proper answers or commemoration," he said.
A place to go remember
One of the graves belongs to James Harry's brother, Philip.
The 50-year-old man from Sachs Harbour, N.W.T., said his sibling died somewhere in Edmonton at about two years old. His mother, unlike Day's, now has the chance to say goodbye to her lost son.
"She's a mother, she's probably been carrying it around her whole life that her son passed away," said Harry. "At least now we have a place where … we can go."
Harry said his mom and brother both travelled to Edmonton for the commemorative events.
"We're feeling it mostly for our mom because we didn't meet our brother. All we did was hear about him and then, you know, feelings come along with it when mom tells us."