The Current

Apology for treatment of Inuit with tuberculosis must be followed with action: Inuit leader

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized Friday for the mistreatment of Inuit during the tuberculosis epidemics of the 1940s, 50s and 60s. But while Indigenous leaders welcome the apology, some say action is needed to tackle the tuberculosis problem, which still blights northern communities today.

Natan Obed reacts to federal apology for mistreatment of Inuit with TB in 1900s

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks on as Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, speaks during a press conference in Iqaluit on Friday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

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An apology for past wrongs is no substitute for action to fight the continuing tuberculosis problem in Canada's North, says the president of the national organization representing Inuit across the country.

Natan Obed, head of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, described Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's apology on Friday for the mistreatment of Inuit during the tuberculosis epidemics of the 1940s, 50s and 60s as "sincere."

"But the action that comes after the apology is truly the indication that … we have come to another place," he told The Current's guest host Laura Lynch.

During the 20th century, Canada sent medical ships north to provide health care to Inuit communities.

People who tested positive for tuberculosis were sent south for treatment, but many Inuit never returned, and families were not informed that their loved ones had died.

An Inuit elder is comforted as Trudeau delivers an official apology to Inuit for the federal government's management of tuberculosis in the Arctic from the 1940s to the 1960s. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"I was emotional about what [the apology] meant, especially to the Inuit who were taken south for treatment," said Obed, following Trudeau's speech in Iqaluit on Friday.

"A lot of people lived with this their whole lives and haven't had a chance to have anyone recognize the violation of their human rights and also the fact that it was wrong." 

Infection rate 290 times higher in the North

Tuberculosis remains a serious health problem in Canada's North, where the rate of infection from the disease is 290 times higher than in the rest of the country.

The federal government and Inuit leaders have committed to eliminating TB by 2030.

But meeting that goal requires tackling a number of other issues dogging northern communities, Obed said.

He cited poverty, overcrowded housing, food insecurity and access to culturally appropriate medical care as some of the factors compounding the tuberculosis problem.

"All of these things will ... be the next steps in this new, positive path with the federal government," he said.

To learn more about the apology and tuberculosis in the North, Lynch spoke to:

  • Eva Aariak, a former premier of Nunavut, a special advisor to the Qikiqtani Truth Commission, and a negotiator for the Qikiqtani Inuit Association.​
  • Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.

Click 'listen' near the top of the page to hear the full conversation.

With files from CBC News. Produced by Imogen Birchard and Samira Mohyeddin.