It’s a short drive from the main townsite in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, to the town’s picturesque graveyard, down gravel roads, past the Arctic research station, and across the bridge over the river. The cemetery’s wooden crosses are lined over a low, rocky hill, with views of the river and the barrenlands that stretch northward across Victoria Island.
Tara Niptanatiak grew up in Cambridge Bay and according to her family, it’s where she wants to be now, in death.
Instead Niptanatiak is buried 2,000 kilometres to the south, far from her home and history, in a municipal graveyard on the outskirts of southeast Calgary and under a plastic sign with the wrong name — “Tara Niptangtuk.”
Her family is still trying to figure out how she ended up there, and how to bring her home.
And while this might sound like an episode from Canada’s shameful history with residential schools or tuberculosis sanatoriums, it’s not.
Tara Niptanatiak died in February. She was 35.
The name “Niptangtuk” is either an alias or an error, and it’s not clear which.
But to Niptanatiak’s family those few wrong letters in her surname have been devastating. The misspelling kept them from learning of her tragic death until many weeks after the fact, and it kept them from having any say in how or where she was laid to rest. It means the family is now dealing with a distant bureaucracy to fix the mistake and, maybe, find some answers.
“I feel like a lot of things have happened that shouldn’t have. And I don’t quite know who should be responsible for all of this, but it certainly should not be us,” said Rolonda Niptanatiak, Tara’s younger sister, from her home in Bengough, Sask.
“I haven’t gotten any straightforward answers.”
Speaking to CBC News about her sister, Rolonda pauses at times to collect herself. The grief is still raw and the frustration is heavy.
“I quite honestly don’t even know how I’m dealing with it. It’s just a lot of sleepless nights and crying in the car on the way home from work.”
The family’s focus right now is on bringing Tara’s body to Cambridge Bay for a proper funeral and burial. They’ve raised more than $7,000 for the exhumation.
Tara’s aunt, Caroline Robinson, visited Calgary’s Prairie Sky cemetery last month and recognized it’s not where Tara should be.
“There’s no family around. And it’s so far out of the city. It was kind of hard for us to get to when we went there,” Robinson recalled, from her home in Cambridge Bay.
“It just doesn’t seem real with her being there and already buried.”
It’s not clear how Tara Niptanatiak became Tara “Niptangtuk,” nor is it clear exactly how she died, or why her body was found where it was.
What is known is that she had struggled with addiction for much of her life, and according to Rolonda, things became worse for Tara when she moved to Calgary.
The two sisters grew up in Cambridge Bay, mostly in foster homes, although Tara did occasionally leave foster care to live with her mother. When she was 19, Tara left for Yellowknife and then from there to Calgary a couple of years ago.
To Robinson, Tara was more like a daughter than a niece. She was a caring and loving person, Robinson says, and anybody who met her “instantly” loved her.
“She just had that personality,” Robinson says.
Last month, at home in Cambridge Bay, Robinson started having dreams about Tara. She realized she hadn’t heard from her niece since February. She started asking other family members if they’d heard from Tara recently and nobody had, though Rolonda says that wasn’t unusual.
Robinson decided to look for her niece. She was about to head east for a vacation last month and made a stop in Calgary.
She couldn’t find any trace of Tara. She filed a missing persons report with the police, and made a poster to hang up around the city.
The police called Robinson as she was going to Shoppers Drug Mart to print some posters. They met her in the parking lot and told her Tara was dead. The body had been found in a garbage dumpster on Feb. 25.
“I didn’t believe them at first. I kinda started laughing because I thought they were joking,” Robinson recalls.
“They told me she was dead and she was found in a garbage can.”
The officers told Robinson to call the medical examiner and the public trustee. She began with the medical examiner.
“When I spelled her last name for them, the medical examiner said, ‘Oh, that’s how you spell it. That’s supposed to be an ‘a.’ I said, ‘What are you doing? What’s going on?’ He told me they misspelled her name and that a detective would be calling me. And then they hung up.”
Rolonda recalls getting a call from Robinson at work.
“Thankfully, nobody was at my place of work at the time because I was just screaming on the phone and didn’t want to believe what had happened.”
The Calgary Police Service told CBC News in an emailed statement that investigators “are still searching for answers” about Tara’s death and that police “are aware of the hardship that the family is dealing with at this time.”
The email describes how Tara’s body was found in the residential waste container in the city’s Ramsay neighbourhood, without identification. An autopsy was then delayed a few days “due to the state of the body.”
Police did not state the cause of death, but said it is not considered suspicious.
“However, the circumstances surrounding how she ended up in the container remain under investigation,” the email states.
The email also explains that fingerprints obtained during the autopsy helped identify Tara — sort of.
“The national database came back with a hit for a name that was not in the Calgary Police Service records. Neither the national database, nor the Calgary database showed any links to next of kin,” the email states.
A few days after the autopsy, in early March, Tara was buried without ceremony at Prairie Sky cemetery.
Her family later learned about a vigil that had been organized to honour Tara, by a resident in the area who also didn’t know her name.
Police say the misspelling was discovered after Tara was reported missing.
“In general, people who do not have government-issued identification on them when interacting with police are asked to provide the spelling of their name and that is how it is entered into the system when other documentation isn’t available to clarify,” the email reads.
According to the RCMP, that initial name provided by “a contributing law enforcement agency” then becomes the primary name on file in its repository of criminal records.
Meantime, a spokesperson for Alberta’s solicitor general told CBC News in an email that the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner could not speak about individual cases because of privacy laws. The spokesperson also said contacting a deceased person’s next of kin typically happens “within hours.”
In a “small number” of cases, though, it can take longer.
“Unfortunately, at times it is not always possible to locate family members in a timely manner, particularly if the deceased has no ID, there is family estrangement, names have changed, or family live in other jurisdictions in Canada or internationally,” the email states.
When a body remains unidentified, or next of kin cannot be found, a local funeral home is found to arrange the burial.
Unidentified bodies are never cremated, the email states, “in case new information surfaces as to who they may have been and who next of kin might be.”
To Robinson, the whole thing feels like an insult to her niece’s dignity and worth. She believes a careless error was made and that the family is now being made to jump through hoops to correct it, and to bring Tara’s body home to Cambridge Bay for a proper burial.
She does not believe that Tara once gave the false name of “Niptangtuk” to police, though it’s been implied to her.
“Tara may have been, you know, had addictions and problems with that. But, you know, she was not a liar,” Robinson says.
“Somebody screwed up and didn’t take the time or the empathy or even did their job properly … It just angers me so bad because she deserves more dignity and more respect.”
Rolonda also feels like she’s not getting any straight answers, and that officials are “just covering up their tracks at this point.”
She says it’s been particularly frustrating dealing with the medical examiner’s office.
“I had called last week to ask if it was their office who had messed up Tara’s last name. And the lady I had spoken to was very confused as to why I wanted to know that,” Rolonda said.
Dealing with government officials is “retraumatizing” the family, she says.
Still, they’re determined. Rolonda says bringing Tara back to Cambridge Bay for a funeral and a celebration of her life is the most important thing right now.
“I know that when I had spoken to Tara a while ago, that’s where she wanted to be. She was always very open about it,” Rolonda said.
“And because Tara doesn’t have a voice right now, that’s been my number one priority.”
Lead photo: The graveyard in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. (Jane George/CBC)