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If Dene want an apology for tuberculosis treatment, they might have to ask for it

After Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s apology to Inuit last week, Sonny MacDonald wants the government to acknowledge the mistreatment and disappearance of hundreds of Dene and Métis of the Northwest Territories at TB hospitals.

Federal government apology 'result [of] years of advocacy by Inuit,' says Minister Carolyn Bennett's office

Sonny MacDonald at home in Hay River, N.W.T. MacDonald wants an apology for how the federal government treated Dene with tuberculosis. (Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

Sonny MacDonald remembers hearing boys his age cry themselves to sleep at the Charles Camsell Indian Hospital in Edmonton the 1940s.

He was one of them.

MacDonald, who is now almost 80, was sent south from Fort Chipewyan, Alta., for tuberculosis treatment when he was eight. He lived in a small, windowless hospital room without any visitors for almost three years.

"There were lots of others who went to that hospital and never returned. I was one of the fortunate ones," he said.

The scar on MacDonald’s back from where doctors removed part of his diseased lung while he was an eight-year-old patient at Charles Camsell Indian Hospital. (Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

After Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's apology to Inuit last week, MacDonald wants the federal government to acknowledge the mistreatment and disappearance of hundreds of Dene and Métis of the Northwest Territories at TB hospitals.

"Sorry is not going to bring our friends and family back, but it is a gesture of good will. And closure," said MacDonald, who lives in Hay River, N.W.T., and is a member of the Salt River First Nation.

Not only was MacDonald isolated from family, community and his Indigenous roots, the retired forestry worker said he was subjected to unnecessary and unauthorized medical experiments, one that made it temporarily impossible for him to walk. He said part of his diseased lung was removed, as part of the tuberculosis treatment.

From the 1940s through the 1960s, Inuit were separated from their family members and taken to southern Canada for tuberculosis treatment.

On Friday in Iqaluit, Trudeau noted that the federal policy on tuberculosis in the mid-20th century was "colonial" and "purposeful." He said Canada carries the shame of what it did to Inuit.

'The Dene want an apology'

Assembly of First Nations (AFN) regional chief, and Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya believes his people won't get an apology over the government's treatment of tuberculosis patients unless they ask. He said the AFN plans to do that, but did not give an exact date.

"We want to pursue an apology from the federal government for the treatment of our own people at the TB hospitals. The Dene want an apology. They surely suffered," Yakeleya said.

The office for Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett said in an email that there are "many wrongs" in Canada's past that must still be addressed, but that last week's apology "was about Inuit."

"We will always work with other Indigenous partners to address the misguided, colonial policies of past governments."

Bennett's office also said that Trudeau's apology "was the result [of] years of advocacy by Inuit."

Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the territory's land claim organization, first raised the issue with the federal government in 2007. It estimates that about 1,450 Inuit never returned home, and their gravesites remain unknown.

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