Trudeau apologizes for government’s past mistreatment of Inuit with tuberculosis

The Prime Minister was in Iqaluit to deliver an apology to the Inuit on behalf of the federal government

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized on Friday for the way Inuit in northern Canada were treated for tuberculosis in the mid-20th century, calling it colonial and misguided.

Trudeau was in Iqaluit to deliver an apology to the Inuit on behalf of the federal government.

“Today, I am here to offer an official apology for the federal government’s management of tuberculosis in the Arctic from the 1940s to the 1960s,” he said. “Many of you know all too well how this policy played itself out.”

Trudeau is acknowledging that many people with TB died after being removed from their families and communities and were taken on gruelling journeys south on ships, trains and aircraft.

The prime minister made the visit to the capital of Nunavut a day later than planned after bad weather prevented his plane from landing on Thursday.

Trudeau also announced the opening of a database that Inuit families can soon use to find loved ones who died when they were transported south for treatment.

The database is part of a wider initiative called Nanilavut, which means “let’s find them” in Inuktitut.

The apology had been in the works for the better part of two years, since Trudeau signed an Inuit-Crown partnership agreement in 2017.

Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., a representative for Inuit in Nunavut, has said it wanted to help family members locate burial sites of those who died during tuberculosis treatment from the 1940s through the 1960s. Their bodies were buried in southern Canada instead of being returned to their relatives.

The mistreatment of Inuit during the TB outbreaks was a “massive human rights failure” from the government of Canada in the treatment of its own citizens, said Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK).

His organization acts as the national voice of the roughly 60,000 Inuit living in four sections of northern Canada.

The government took far too long to formally acknowledge wrongdoing, Obed said.

“It is a long time and I do wish the apology came sooner.”

Inuit who were infected with TB in the mid-20th century were taken into government care, separated from their families and transported aboard ships to sanatoriums in the south of Canada, where they were disconnected from their culture and language.

In many cases, those who died from the disease were buried without their families knowing what happened to them or where they were laid to rest.

James Eetoolook is a 72-year-old TB survivor among a family of survivors.

Over the years, he and seven of his relatives were stricken with TB, including his mother, sisters and brother, who was first diagnosed in the mid-1940s when one of the ships carrying doctors north reached his family’s trading post village.

Eetoolook was diagnosed as a 16-year-old and was sent for treatment in Edmonton, where he was in the hospital and bed-ridden for months.

The federal government took too long to diagnose the illness in the Inuit population and didn’t do enough to keep track of those who were taken south for treatment.

Now, as vice president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., Eetoolook worries that TB is returning to higher levels once again in an age when it simply should not be happening.

In October 2017, then federal health minister Jane Philpott announced the establishment of a task force to develop a plan to eliminate TB among the Inuit.

“The government has said it wants to eliminate TB by 2030,” Eetoolook said.

“Are they going to do it? Probably not.”

According to the most recent Public Health Agency of Canada report on the disease, the average annual rate of tuberculosis among Inuit in Canada a year ago was still more than 290 times higher than Canadian born non-Indigenous people.

The agency cited social housing and overcrowding as one of the main culprits.

More than half of all Nunavut residents live in often cramped social housing.

“Many experience food insecurity, with food prices in Nunavut that are twice those in southern Canada,” the March 2018 report stated.

As well, 60 per cent of Nunavut residents smoke.

But the report said progress has been made in tracing all cases of infectious TB, screening of school age children, faster diagnosis and earlier treatments.

As for the apology, and the database, Eetoolook said he believes it will bring closure to many Inuit.

“It will help the families that had loved ones that died,” he predicted.

“Some of the (burial grounds) will be hard to find.”

Families now have a chance to locate their loved ones, he said.

Obed lamented how the federal government has been criticized for apologizing too much for various past wrongs but said an apology to the Inuit is necessary as part of healing and reconciliation.

“From the Inuit perspective, apologizing for human rights abuses is never a bad thing,” he said.

“We as a country have to also accept responsibility for things that happened and know that apologies are necessary for classes of people whose human rights have been violated.”

The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

 

Just Posted

Voters in Saanich North and the Islands, here lining up outside Sidney’s Mary Winspear Centre on the first day of advanced voting, are among the provincial leaders in getting in their votes early, with some 20 per cent (10,174) of eligible voters have already cast their ballots. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)
It’s Election Day in B.C.: Here’s what you need to know to vote

B.C.’s snap election has already broken records for advance voter turnout, mail-in ballots

Shay Baker, 17, hasn’t been seen or heard from since Oct. 21 and is wanted on outstanding warrants. (Victoria Police Department)
Victoria police searching for high-risk missing youth

Shay Baker, 17, is wanted on outstanding warrants

Plastic Ocean by Oak Bay resident Gabriela Hirt is in the Federation of Canadian Artist’s “Crisis” exhibition on now in Vancouver. (Gabriela Hirt/cropped to fit)
Oak Bay artist wins juried show in Vancouver

Pair of Oak Bay artists part of ‘Crisis’ exhibition

The M’akola Housing Society is looking to build two new residences in Sooke to help provide affordable accommodation for local Indigenous people. The projects were granted nearly $1.1 million toward their construction through the Regional Housing Trust Fund. (Photo courtesy M’Akola Housing Society)
Regional Housing First Program strikes another chord in Greater Victoria

Affordable housing partnership grants will help house over 100 people on income assistance

Online reservation service, First Table, allows Victoria diners to have dinner at half-price if they’re willing to be flexible about when they go. (Black Press Media file photo)
New reservation service allows Victoria residents to dine out at half price

First Table gives Victoria diners 50 per cent off when they book tables during off-peak hours

B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry gives a daily briefing on COVID-19 cases at an almost empty B.C. Legislature press theatre in Victoria, B.C., on March 25, 2020. (Don Craig/B.C. government)
B.C. sees 223 new COVID-19 cases, now 2,009 active

Two new care home outbreaks in Surrey, Burnaby

Advance polls are open from Oct. 15 to 21 with election day on Oct. 24. (Black Press Media file photo)
BC Liberals Leader Andrew Wilkinson, BC Greens Sonia Furstenau, BC NDP John Horgan (The Canadian Press photos)
British Columbians vote in snap election called during COVID-19 pandemic

At dissolution, the NDP and Liberals were tied with 41 seats in the legislature, while the Greens held two seats

100 Mile Conservation officer Joel Kline gingerly holds an injured but very much alive bald eagle after extracting him from a motorist’s minivan. (Photo submitted)
B.C. driver thought he retrieved a dead bald eagle – until it came to life in his backseat

The driver believed the bird to be dead and not unconscious as it turned out to be

White Rock RCMP Staff Sgt. Kale Pauls has released a report on mental health and policing in the city. (File photos)
White Rock’s top cop wants to bill local health authority for lengthy mental-health calls

‘Suggestion’ included in nine-page review calling for ‘robust’ support for healthcare-led response

A Le Chateau retail store is shown in Montreal on Wednesday July 13, 2016. Le Chateau Inc. says it is seeking court protection from creditors under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act to allow it to liquidate its assets and wind down its operations.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Clothing retailer Le Chateau plans to close its doors, files for CCAA protection

Le Chateau said it intends to remain fully operational as it liquidates its 123 stores

Green party Leader Sonia Furstenau arrives to announce her party’s election platform in New Westminster, B.C., on October 14, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. Green party says it’s raised nearly $835,000 in 38 days

NDP Leader John Horgan is holding his final virtual campaign event

U.S. border officers at the Peace Arch crossing arrested two men on California warrants this week. (File photo)
Ottawa predicts system delays, backlogs unless court extends life of refugee pact

Canada and the United States recognize each other as safe places to seek protection

The possibility of the Canadian Premier League expanding to the Fraser Valley has been floated online. (Facebook photo)
Canadian Premier League possibly eyeing Fraser Valley expansion

Soccer league looking to add ninth team to the mix, B.C. markets potentially rumoured

Most Read