Stephen Lewis calls on Ottawa to step up as Nunavut grapples with TB 'crisis'

The Government of Nunavut is not getting the support it needs from the federal government to address the territory’s ongoing tuberculosis “crisis,” says activist Stephen Lewis.

Founder of AIDS-Free World wrapped up trip to Nunavut to meet with people affected by disease

Stephen Lewis, seen in this file photo, spoke in Iqaluit this weekend about the federal government's handling of the TB 'crisis' in Nunavut. (Codie McLachlan/The Canadian Press)

The Government of Nunavut is not getting the support it needs from the federal government to address the territory's ongoing tuberculosis "crisis," says activist and health advocate Stephen Lewis. 

Lewis, the co-director of the AIDS-Free World organization, was in the territory for a fact-finding mission this past week with the Nunavut health department and Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.

He visited Iqaluit and Igloolik, meeting with people who have been affected by the disease and others working for a solution.

"There is a TB crisis in Nunavut at this very moment," Lewis said in a media release.

"There are 14 out of 25 disparate communities wrestling with active and latent cases, many of them children. The numbers are small, but they loom very large in a population of roughly 35,000."

The tuberculosis rate in Nunavut is 26 times the national average. In February, Canada's auditor general highlighted gaps in Nunavut's health care system, particularly language barriers with Inuit patients.  

Lewis said he had five points to make about the issue.

  • The rate of tuberculosis in the territory is unacceptably high.

  • There is a shortage of nursing staff who speak Inuktitut and specialize in treating TB.

  • The lasting effects of colonialism are continuing and making the problem worse.

  • Food insecurity and a lack of housing negatively affects health.

  • The effects of the C.D. Howe medical ship, which took Inuit patients south for TB treatment in the 1950s and '60s, is still being felt.

"I have no issues with the Government of Nunavut or the [territorial] department of health," Lewis said. "It seems to me that they're making an admirable effort to deal with TB and all the underlying social elements.

Ileen Kooneeliusie, from Qikiqtarjuaq, Nunavut, was 15 when she died in January from tuberculosis. (Geela Kooneeliusie and Matthew Kilabuk)

"My issue is with the federal government. I didn't know that would be the case when I came to Nunavut, I certainly know that now."

He is calling on Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott to fund a program to eradicate TB in Nunavut, train Inuktitut-speaking nurses and deal with the underlying social issues. 

He's also calling on Ottawa to issue an apology to Inuit and provide the resources to help family members travel to the graves of loved ones who died in the south while being treated for TB.

"The time has come for all the rhetoric about reconciliation and partnership to be given credence," Lewis said.