Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivers an official apology to Inuit for the federal government’s management of tuberculosis in the Arctic from the 1940s to the 1960s during an event in Iqaluit, Nunavut. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick Children taken from their parents. “Temporary” separation of families, with little regard for their reunification. People forcefully relocated to government facilities for months and years on end, with no word to their relatives, even when they died.
Such callous injustices echo the U.S. border crisis. But these things happened here, in Canada, not so very long ago. Canada’s response to the tuberculosis epidemic in the Arctic, from the 1940s to the ’60s, ran roughshod over people’s basic human rights.
The Inuit were hardly treated like people at all, identified by numbers worn on leather tags, rather than by name.
The Prime Minister travelled to Iqaluit March 8 to formally apologize, acknowledging the federal response was colonial and misguided. Poor ventilation and overcrowding, caused by pernicious housing shortages, fuelled the epidemic, which infected one-third of Canada’s Inuit population.
The road to hell is famously paved with good intentions. Just as government officials plucked Indigenous children from their communities for a “proper” residential education, no doubt well-meaning people believed they were helping when they shipped the infected south for treatment.
Story continues below
The consequences to communities were devastating.
“For a long time, people believed if you got on the ship in the harbour, you might never come home,” Trudeau said with emotion, acknowledging such fears were not unfounded. Many died. Only some were buried in marked graves, he said, and only sometimes were families notified.
The federal TB response compounded colonial injustices suffered by the same generations — including forced relocation of Inuit, and punishing children for speaking their language — giving new meaning to the term “white plague.”
To help families find closure, the government announced the Nanilavut initiative, Inuktitut for “let us find them.”
It will open a database of some 9,000 files, including hospital records and transport documents, to aid Inuit survivors seeking their relatives’ gravesites. Many records, compiled during nearly a decade, remain incomplete.
The prime minister pledged as-yet unspecified funds to help with the cost of travel to burial sites, plaques and grave markers. He also promised investments in the social determinants of health — housing, poverty, and food insecurity — with the ambitious goal of eradicating TB by 2030. Infection rates among Inuit are a shocking 300 times higher than among non-Indigenous Canadians.
The apology was emotional and long-awaited.
After a few follow-up questions on topic, some reporters leapfrogged past the historic apology to ask Trudeau about SNC Lavalin. The digression prompted Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Natan Obed to remind the media of their role in reconciliation.
“I recognize there are other stories that matter as well, but I do hope in the future there can be more respect given to the place and time and the people who deserve to have their story told.”
Reporters can be cynical about the timing of political announcements, particularly amidst controversy. When things get hot under the collar, politicians work hard to change the channel.But this was not a conveniently timed announcement about infrastructure funding, or some ginned-up migrant threat, designed to distract reporters from their efforts to hold officials accountable. This apology was long overdue, and deserved a respectful hearing before moving on to other news.Obed, who is U.S.-educated and not fluent in an Inuit language, has often been called on to defend his connection to Inuit culture. And yet, his dislocation reflects a colonial legacy shared by many Inuit, marking an important perspective on reconciliation.“There have always been ‘more important’ stories than the stories […]
(Visited 3 times, 3 visits today)