An Apology and a Promise: Inuit and Tuberculosis

Today, Friday, the 8th of March 2019, is a bittersweet day for Nunavut, triumph and tragedy interwoven. Triumph, because after years of pressure from Inuit communities and leadership, the Government of Canada, in the person of the Prime Minister, is finally releasing the names of the hundreds, perhaps thousands of Inuit, afflicted with tuberculosis, who were torn from their families and taken to sanitoriums in Southern Canada in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. 

Tragedy, because everyone at the ceremony and watching remotely were reminded of the countless numbers who never returned, of children who didn’t know what happened to their parents, of relatives who disappeared, of language lost, of culture lost, and of the legion of unmarked graves that have become a haunting legacy of horror. All of Canada was also reminded, yet again, of the Residential Schools, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, the Sixties Scoop, and now, the much less well-known, but equally destructive, historical episodes of what was done to Inuit in Nunavut as they struggled with TB.

Prime Minister Trudeau deserves credit for issuing a heartfelt apology at a press conference in Nunavut. It was moving and eloquent; the crowded room of Inuit was deeply appreciative. He rightly described the history of colonialism and racism that suffused the response to tuberculosis. He did not mince words when excoriating the Government of Canada for its role in shattering families and leaving a legacy of trauma.

However, Mr. Trudeau’s vision of the future was surprisingly limited given the force of the apology. He announced the availability of a database to make possible the finding of the graves of Inuit who had died and disappeared. That database has been in preparation for years, largely driven by the advocacy of the leading Inuit organizations, and should have been released well before now. It’s not a major announcement: it’s merely an affirmation of what everyone expected. 

The Prime Minister went on to describe a new partnership on the ‘shared journey of reconciliation.’ To that end he promised $27 million over five years to fight TB in the four Inuit regions. But that sum was announced a year ago, and it remains woefully insufficient to wipe out this dreadful infectious disease by 2030. He announced $640 million for housing, but that, too, merely repeats, while somewhat increasing, an old pledge. Beyond those specifics, there was nothing to address poverty, nothing to address food insecurity, nothing to address prohibitive prices in the North, nothing to address health care delivery beyond TB, nothing to address education, all of which the Prime Minister acknowledged, directly or indirectly, as profound problems to be overcome.

I travelled to Nunavut in September of 2017 for AIDS-Free World because of our related work on TB. The reason for the trip was to assess the grave situation of tuberculosis … at the time, 14 of the 25 Inuit communities had outbreaks of TB, with particular severity for children. But something happened during the visit for which I was totally unprepared. In Iqaluit and Igloolik, the two communities I visited, the voices of the “Elders” shaped and dominated every encounter. With heartbreak and visceral emotion, the Elders, one after the other, described the agony of dismembered families and communities and of never knowing where their loved ones were buried. It was entirely overwhelming. It induced both rage and despair to recognize what we had done to yet another Indigenous culture. At a press conference at the end of the visit, I vigorously supported the call for an apology and for the data to assist in the search for the graves.

The penitence exhibited today is a good beginning. But the Prime Minister will have a long, long way to go.

He starts with two significant deficits. The first is as I’ve indicated. For whatever reason, there’s a terribly myopic view of the resources needed to bring true transformation to Nunavut and the other Inuit regions. There remains an unconscionable continued disparity between North and South. The resources as indicated do not reflect the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Second, the unexpected change of cabinet ministers is inevitably disturbing and disruptive. A new relationship around TB will now have to be forged with the new minister, Seamus O'Regan. Justin Trudeau is incredibly fortunate to be able to rely on the two leading, principled Inuit organizations: Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, headed by Natan Obed, and Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., headed by Aluki Kotierk. He’s even more fortunate to have at hand ITK’s impressive Inuit Tuberculosis Elimination Strategy Framework, which is the overarching document to guide how money is spent in all Inuit regions. The elimination of TB will ultimately stand or fall on that document. 

Today was undoubtedly a start, especially in its recognition that Inuit organizations would frame and drive the process of reform. But it was a truncated start. The apology, as it was being delivered, brought tears to the eyes of Justin Trudeau, but the promises that should have followed the tears were curiously, and strikingly, insufficient. 

Now that the apology has been made and the crowds have dispersed, will the Government of Canada truly deliver? One can only hope that the years upon years of indifference, oppression, and betrayal have finally been consigned to the archives of Inuit history.