Obed scolds southern press at historic national TB apology

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Moments after Inuit from across Inuit Nunangat heard Prime Minister Justin Trudeau deliver a national apology in Iqaluit March 8 for the violation of their human rights during the tuberculosis epidemic in the mid-1900s, southern press demonstrated the very people they’d come to report on did not matter much in relation to the SNC-Lavalin scandal.

“I think this is something the media should reflect on. There will always be more important stories than the stories of human rights abuses to Inuit.” said Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Natan Obed in his typically restrained, soft-spoken fashion, as he faced a half-dozen television cameras.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau cedes the microphone to Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Natan Obed after southern press used an historic apology, for human rights abuses against Inuit during the tuberculosis epidemic that ravaged the North between the 1940s and 1960s, to grill him about the SNC-Lavalin scandal. Obed suggested the press should, in future, consider showing respect for the place and time, and the people who deserve having their story told.
Michele Letourneau/NNSL photo

Trudeau, who calmly answered southern press question about the issues plaguing his cabinet, stepped aside for Obed. Meanwhile, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. president Aluki Kotierk had stood stoically next to Minister of Indigenous Services Seamus O’Regan and Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett as question after question surfaced about anything but colonialist agendas and the mistreatment of Inuit.

“Every time there is something that happens, such as an apology today, there are other stories in the world. But the fact media passed right by the people whose human rights abuses were not told before the media for decades to other stories of the day is still a reflection on the work that need to happen on reconciliation,” said Obed.

“Inuit matter. This story matters. It is a Canadian story. 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 having their story told.”

Earlier that morning, Trudeau listed – in front of a full house at the Frobisher Inn’s banquet rooms, including representatives from across Inuit Nunangat and press – the abuses visited upon Inuit by the federal government, including identifying Inuit by numbers instead of names, Inuit punished for using their language, and Inuit forced into settlements where disease ran rampant.

This occurred, said Trudeau, even as southern kids were praised for learning their ABCs and while the government was creating universal health care in the south.

“And 70 years ago, while tuberculosis was raging across Canada, the government responded decisively in the south by opening new clinics and training doctors and nurses,” said Trudeau.

“But in the North, the government’s approach to TB wasn’t to show compassion or care, but to separate families and ignore people’s rights.”

As Trudeau detailed the egregious effects of government policy – Inuit screened without consent, Inuit sent for months or years to the south without a word to their families, anonymous burials, the absences and silence – Inuit in the room quietly wept.

Trudeau also listed the aftereffects: culture and language eroded, broken families, lives shattered beyond repair.

“Those wrongs will never fade – Canada must carry that guilt and shame,” said Trudeau.

“I can’t begin to imagine what it would be like to lose someone you love, and to go on never knowing what happened.”

Obed, for his part, initiated a moment of silence for those lost, and never returned. Kotierk, who emceed the event, had the crowd celebrate those who did return, and celebrate the strength, pride and resilience of Inuit. In both cases, love was the key word, love for the lost and the living.

The Nanilavut Initiative, which has been in the works for a decade and was officially announced with the apology, is intended as a small measure of reparation. Nanilavut (let’s find them) includes a data base, travel funding for families who have learned where their loved ones are buried, and funding for grave markers and plaques.

The initiative will also include community-led events and memorials, as well as public education campaigns.

“To keep moving forward with reconciliation, as a country we must all take ownership of our history,” said Trudeau.

Trudeau concluded his speech by saying that morning’s apology was also a promise.

“It’s a promise to never forget the harm that was done to Inuit, and to your families. A promise, on behalf of all Canadian, to build a brighter future. And to build it together.”

Trudeau acknowledged Nanilavut and even mobile TB clinics were not enough, and that poverty, food insecurity and inadequate housing need to be addressed. Later, though, when questioned about federal funding to deal with Nunavut’s housing crisis, he was short on answers.

As it stands, Nunavut is working with $240 million over ten years to deal with a housing crisis that requires more than $1 billion – and that’s to address current needs, not future needs.

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Michele LeTourneau first arrived at NNSL's headquarters in Yellowknife in1998, with a BA honours in Theatre. For four years she documented the arts across the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. Following a very short stint as a communications officer with the Government of the Northwest Territories, Michele spent a decade at a community-based environmental monitoring board in the mining industry, where she worked with Inuit, Chipewyan, Tlicho, Yellowknives Dene and Metis elders to help develop traditional knowledge and Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit contributions for monitoring and management plans. She rejoined NNSL and moved to Iqaluit in May 2014 to write for Nunavut News. Michele has received a dozen awards for her work with NNSL.

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