Apology to Inuit for the management of the tuberculosis epidemic from the 1940s-1960s
Ullaakuut. Good morning everyone. What a pleasure to be here today.
Let me begin by recognizing that we are in Inuit Nunangat, the Inuit homeland. I want to acknowledge ITK President Natan Obed, it’s great to see you again. Today, we’re fortunate to be joined by representatives from across Inuit Nunangat, NTI President Aluki Kotierk, thank you so much for everything, President of the Kivalliq Inuit Association, David Ningeongan, thank you for being here David, QIA President P.J. Akeeagok, and the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation Chair, Duane Smith.
I want to thank you all for being here, recognize everyone who is here, who has travelled a long way. As Aluki pointed out, the weather is boss, and we certainly knew that yesterday. But it was extraordinarily important for me, and I think for all Canadians, that we be here today, that we be here for this moment of recognition and indeed reconciliation as we recognize the past, and the mistakes of the past, and pledge to move forward together in much better ways.
I also want to recognize Andy Pirti - from the Makivik Corporation, and John Charles Lile, from the Kitikmeot Inuit Association. And my thanks goes out as well to Premier Savikataaq, and Mayor Redfern for welcoming me to Iqaluit, along with two ministers, Ministers Bennett and O’Regan who are here as well. We need also to acknowledge the elders, who are with us today. Thank you for being here, thank you for starting things off in the right way that reminds us of how important it is to listen to our elders, to respect our traditions, to remember the past, and build the future together.
My friends, we know where we are, and where we’re going. But to really know, we need to know first where we came from.
We have to know our history.
We have to face the hard truths that are part of our past.
Because for too long, the government’s relationship with Inuit was one of double standards, and of unfair, unequal treatment.
While Canada was busy adopting the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, many years ago, it was treating people throughout Inuit Nunangat as inferior, identifying Inuit with numbers instead of names.
While kids in the South were being praised for learning their ABCs, Inuit children were being punished for speaking their own language.
While the government was hard at work creating universal healthcare, it was forcing Inuit into settlements where disease and infection were rampant.
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. 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.
It was colonial and it was misguided. It wronged and harmed Inuit. I know that many of you present this morning were touched by this unjust policy, and too many of you are still grieving the loss of loved ones.
Today, I’m here to offer an official apology for the federal government’s management of tuberculosis in the Arctic from the 1940s to the 1960s.
Many of you know all too well how this policy played itself out.
Without their consent, Inuit were screened. Anyone thought to have TB was sent South to cities like Hamilton and Edmonton, for months or years of treatment in a sanatorium where almost no one spoke Inuktut.
For a long time, people believed that if you got on the ship in the harbour, you may well never come home.
Many people weren’t given any time to prepare or to say goodbye to their loved ones. Many children were pulled away from their parents, many elders were torn away from the homes and communities that were all they’d ever known.
It was a grueling journey of thousands of kilometres, on ships, on trains, and on planes – a trip that took days or even weeks. A trip that took lives along the way.
And the mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters left behind often weren’t told where their loved ones had gone, or for how long. When someone passed away during treatment, they were buried in the South. Only sometimes was it in a marked grave, and only sometimes were their family even told.
When people did make it home, they were often dropped back in their communities in the middle of winter – without warm clothing and without their family being alerted.
Those children that did return, often came back to a family they didn’t remember, a language they didn’t speak, and a land of which they had no memory.
These were years of isolation, confusion, and pain.
But the government’s management of TB wasn’t one bad policy - it was only a piece of the larger history of destructive colonialism.
History that the late poet Alootook Ipellie described, saying “I did not ask to be forced to learn an alien culture with an alien language.”
Inuit children sent to residential schools and federal hostels were forced to learn an alien language. They were neglected and abused.
But just like in Ipellie’s poem, “destiny acted itself out, deciding for me where I would come from and what I would be.” Only it wasn’t destiny deciding – it was the federal government.
It was the federal government that decided that families – your families – would be moved off the land. The federal government that decided Inuit would be exploited to assert Canadian sovereignty in the high arctic.
I know that people here today – and across Inuit Nunangat – live with the consequences of these policies, of these years when your communities and your rights were not respected.
Because all of this – the forced relocation, the residential schools, the TB policy – it happened at the same time, to the same people, within just a few decades. It happened during the same years when the government identified Inuit with numbers on disks, and when families had entire teams of qimmiit, sled dogs, killed by officials.
This was a shameful chapter in Canada’s history.
And you, in this room and across this land, know the results all too well:
Culture and language eroded.
Families would never again be whole.
Lives were shattered beyond repair.
These wrongs will never fade – Canada must carry that guilt and that shame.
Today, I am here to say sorry. To offer an official apology for the federal government’s management of the tuberculosis epidemic from the 40s to the 60s.
This policy wasn’t an accident – it was purposeful.
It was done even though the Government of Canada knew the toll on Inuit families.
It was done when the best interests of communities were not put first.
To the people who were sent South – we are sorry. We are sorry for forcing you from your families, for not showing you the respect and care you deserved. We are sorry for your pain.
To the people whose loved ones were taken away – we are sorry. We are sorry for breaking what is most precious – the love of a home.
To the people who still don’t know what happened to your children, your mothers, your fathers – we are sorry.
To the communities that are facing the consequences of this policy and others – we are sorry. We are sorry that because of our mistakes many Inuit don’t trust the health care system, so they can’t get help when they need it.
We are sorry for the colonial mindset that drove the federal government’s actions. The government has apologized to former residential school students and to Inuit who were forced to relocate. But the trauma, passed from generation to generation, remains and it runs deep.
We know now that what we did was wrong. We know now that we must work to make it right.
It shouldn’t have taken us so many years to tell you that. We are sorry that you have carried this burden for too long. We are sorry that because we waited, there are many loved ones who will never hear this apology.
Today, we take responsibility for the harm caused by the policies and actions of the federal government. The racism and discrimination that Inuit faced, was, and always will be, unacceptable.
But an apology alone is not enough. We must also promise to do better.
And although as a country we can’t change what’s already done, we can choose what we do next.
Today, we are choosing to create a better future. A future built on respect and partnership.
As Prime Minister, I have pledged to renew the relationship between the Government of Canada and Inuit. To work together to correct the paternalism and colonialism that was visited upon your communities. To continue on our shared journey of reconciliation.
The path ahead will be long, but every step we take, we will take together.
And without righting past wrongs, we cannot move forward.
Today, the federal government is officially launching the Nanilavut Initiative, a truly collaborative effort with Inuit partners, and providing funding to support its work.
In Inuktitut, Nanilavut means “let’s find them,” and that’s what this project is about – about finding and honouring Inuit who went missing during the TB epidemic, and bringing healing and closure to everyone who was left behind.
I can’t begin to imagine what it would be like to lose someone you love, and to go on never knowing what had happened.
Through the Initiative, people will have access to information about what happened to their family members, and we’re providing funding for the four regional land claim organizations to support travel for some families who have found where their loved ones are buried.
We’re also providing money to mark graves and create plaques. Nothing can bring back the voice of a parent or the embrace of a friend, but acknowledging where they were laid is a start in honouring their memory.
Because all too often, the wrongs done to Inuit have been forgotten or shrugged aside. We can’t let that happen again. That’s why we’re supporting community-led events and memorials, and public education campaigns.
To keep moving forward with reconciliation, as a country we must all take ownership of our history.
And just like we have to learn from the past, we also have to look ahead to a better future – a future without tuberculosis.
TB is preventable and curable. It doesn’t have to cost lives. But TB is still taking away children, elders, and leaders. The incidence rate for Inuit in Inuit Nunangat is more than 300 times that of Canada’s non-Indigenous population. That is unacceptable.
Last year, the Government of Canada and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami committed to eliminating TB across Inuit Nunangat by 2030, and reducing active TB cases by at least 50 percent in the next six years.
But beating this disease isn’t as simple as vaccines or screening – although that’s certainly part of the equation.
To end this crisis, we have to acknowledge that people live, every day, with the legacies of colonialism. If you remember being sent South, of course you’re wary of government treatment today.
We cannot repeat the mistakes of the past. We cannot impose solutions.
That’s why we’re taking a new approach, and following your lead.
Our government is investing in your plan, an Inuit-led plan, with more than $27 million over 5 years towards the elimination of TB in Inuit Nunangat. With this investment, we’re also supporting Nunavut, Nunatsiavut, Nunavik, and the Inuvialuit Settlement Region in developing their own action plans.
And just like our new approach is founded on working in partnership, it’s also based on seeing TB for what it truly is: a disease that cannot be cured by medicine alone.
We must address poverty, food insecurity, and inadequate housing.
Alongside our work to tackle TB directly, we’re investing in the basics, including more than $640 million for housing in Inuit Nunangat.
This housing strategy was designed by Inuit in partnership with the federal government, and will be delivered by Inuit. We are committed to finding community-owned, community-driven solutions, whether it’s in this investment, the Nanilavut Initiative, or any of the work that we do through the Inuit-Crown Partnership Committee.
Of course, I don’t have to tell anyone here that although we’re making progress, we still have a long road ahead.
There’s no question that communities face very real challenges.
But there’s also no doubt that Inuit are resilient.
Moving forward requires us to be willing to admit when we’re wrong. To be ready to do real work to make amends. That’s why I’m here today.
This morning’s apology is a promise to you.
It’s a promise to never forget the harm that was done to Inuit, and to your families.
A promise, on behalf of all Canadians, to build a brighter future. And to build it together.