Marie Speakman was five years old when her grandfather hugged and kissed her for the last time.
After boarding a plane in Deline, 72-year-old Augustine Sewi was flown to Edmonton’s Charles Camsell Hospital for tuberculosis treatment in 1962.
He was one of many Dene and Inuit people torn from their families, communities and culture during the federal government’s forced relocation of TB patients in the 1950s and ’60s.
Speakman never saw him again.
Sewi died just days after arriving in Edmonton.
Speakman and her mother were never notified of his death. They spent years consumed by the unknown — painfully pondering his fate.
“We’ve always wondered and wondered. My mom was left with a missing person — no information,” said Speakman, who now lives in Yellowknife.
Nearly 60 years later, she’s still seeking answers.
In 2007, after decades of uncertainty, Speakman connected with an oblate priest who had spent years in the Sahtu region. Then retired and living in St. Albert, Alta., the priest brought Speakman to where her grandfather was buried — the Mount Pleasant Cemetery located west of Edmonton.
A monument commemorating those buried at the site — the Enoch and Indigenous people from the Northwest Territories — stood at the grounds.
But Sewi’s name was nowhere to be found. There was no headstone. No cross.
Now, more than a decade after her first visit, Speakman still doesn’t know where her grandfather is buried in the vast field.
“It’s like you’re going there feeling numb — lots of mixed feelings.You’re standing there and your grandpa is buried there. But where? Where are you able to place flowers? A monument? At least a cross?,” said Speakman.
Last year, she visited the site with her daughters.
“We’re looking to the air. We’re looking to the field with no cross, no headstone. We’re just looking at the grass — trees and grass and a steel fence. That’s all we’re looking at,” said Speakman, fighting back tears.
After countless phone calls and hours searching online, Speakman recently obtained her grandfather’s medical records from Charles Camsell Hospital, documents she shared with her sisters.
But the long-awaited findings left her with even more questions.
Speakman learned the results of Sewi’s autopsy were left as “pending,” and that officials had noted there was no family to relay the news of his death to, despite his many relatives anxiously awaiting word in Deline.
Speakman said she often thinks of what her grandfather experienced at the Edmonton hospital — alone in a strange place, unable to understand the English-speak doctors.
“God knows how he was treated,” she said.
Speakman wants the government to acknowledge its wrongdoing.
“The government has a responsibility,” she said, adding the federal government, GNWT and Government of Alberta all need to take accountability for the forced relocation of her grandfather and many others.
Charles Camsell Hospital is one of 29 government-operated “Indian Hospitals” named in a $1.1 billion class action lawsuit launched in January 2018 on behalf of former patients.
The lawsuit alleges patients faced rampant mistreatment, including physical and sexual abuse, while being isolated in overcrowded and dilapidated facilities across Canada.
Speakman, who is not a party to the lawsuit, notes her grandfather isn’t alive to tell his story.
Speakman hopes her quest for answers will help other families in the North doing the same.
She’d like to see a formal apology to the Dene people from the Canadian government.
In March, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized for the “colonial” mistreatment of Inuit who were sent to southern hospitals for tuberculosis during the 1950s and ’60s. The long-awaited gesture renewed calls for an apology to Dene people who suffered the same fate.
Speakman is calling for an apology to the Dene, but also some form of compensation.
Her visit to her grandfather’s gravesite are expensive, and she’s been bringing along relatives from communities that can’t afford to make the costly trip on their own.
Dene Nation chief pushing for federal apology
Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya says he’s pushing for both an apology and compensation from the federal government.
“We’re in a period of national reconciliation and the apology we are seeking is to correct the wrongs of the past,” Yakeleya told News/North. “The injustice at the time, the way Native people were treated, it’s almost criminal.”
Yakeleya said the federal government needs to look at an overall compensation package for relatives impacted by the forced relocation of Dene people to southern hospitals, so that family members can have the resources and support to not only find their loved ones, but to honour them with a proper ceremony.
“That’s why we’re asking the prime minister and the new ministers not to forget the patients at Charles Camsell Hospital,” said Yakeleya.
Ultimately, Yakeleya wants the government’s past wrongdoings to be confronted and explored in a national inquiry to bring peace to families and turn the page on a dark chapter in Canadian history.