Stephen Lewis: Open the Books on a Canadian Tragedy


Excerpt from Co-Director Stephen Lewis’ speech to the  
Manitoba Social Science Teachers’ Association PD Day
Winnipeg, Manitoba, 9:00 AM, October 20, 2017

Winnipeg, Manitoba— How much longer will the Inuit of Nunavut have to wait before the federal government provides the names of those who were taken to sanatoria in the South during the great TB scare of the 1950s and ’60s, never to return. When will their relatives, still alive, learn what happened to their children and parents and grandparents? When will they be told where they were buried? When can they visit the gravesites?

What kind of perverse bureaucratic omniscience stifles the information? We all know, certainly the citizens of Nunavut know, certainly the main Inuit organizations know, that the federal government has a database of between 4,500 and 5,000 names. The list has been compiled over the years. It’s extant. It’s in some office somewhere waiting to be revealed. It was the Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. that forced the government’s hand as far back as 2010 to start the process of gathering the information. How long does it take? Is there no shame?

What is the delay? Does no one in the precincts of Ottawa understand that many of the Inuit elders, desperate for the information, are in the last stages of life? Must they depart the planet, never knowing what happened to their family members? I can’t erase from my mind how the elders wept as they told their stories of grief and incomprehension ... how frantic they were to know what had happened, and to seek closure by laying flowers or artifacts on one of the graves in Quebec City or Toronto or Edmonton or Hamilton.

No one is asking for anything unreasonable. Just make the database available, accompanied by a full apology.

If some civil servant in Ottawa, a non-Indigenous person, had experienced the agony of unfathomable family separation fifty years ago, do you think they wouldn’t by now know what had happened?

The Prime Minister of Canada takes the podium of the United Nations General Assembly and tells the world how steeped in remorse he is about the treatment of Indigenous Canadians, and yet he can’t produce a list of names that will bring solace and comfort to so many Inuit citizens? What would the Member States—whose votes he wants for the Security Council—say if they learned of the vast gulf between apology and performance, between rhetoric and action, between cynicism and decency?

I happily concede that the Prime Minister has taken an important step forward by appointing Dr. Jane Philpott as Minister of Indigenous Services. But outside of her ministry, there’s this gnawing sore of indifference and silence. It causes dismay and anguish. It even prevents some of the Inuit of Nunavut from coming forward to have tuberculosis treated because their recollections of TB are so fraught with pain.

Enough. Publish the database, share the information, and provide an apology. The Inuit organizations will undoubtedly take it from there.


Stephen Lewis co-directs AIDS-Free World, an international advocacy organization that works to tackle the root . He is the former UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa and former Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations.