8 hours ago
There it was, after half a lifetime of searching and wondering, an
anonymous plot in a weedy Winnipeg graveyard. No cross marking it. No name
on the small plaque half-covered by grass. Just a number — 45.
Raymond Ningeocheak looked at his brother and wept.
The siblings had finally found their mother's grave - nearly 30 years
after she left her Arctic home for a southern hospital, sick with the
tuberculosis that eventually killed her.
"It was a very powerful moment," he recalled through a translator. "The
feeling of remembering the love of a mother was instant.
"We remembered her love and how she raised us and we were more at peace."
Ningeocheak is one of the lucky ones.
Decades after tuberculosis put thousands of Inuit in hospitals from
Edmonton to Quebec City, many families are still wondering what happened
to their loved ones who died while away from home.
Their plight is chronicled in the movie "The Necessities of Life"currently
playing in theatres across the country.
No one knows how many Inuit lie in unmarked, untended and unvisited
graves, although the total is probably in the hundreds. No one even knows
where all the graves are.
Last fall, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. http://www.tunngavik.com/ , the
organization that manages the Nunavut land claim, approached the federal
government with a request to finally help locate those lost remains.
The work has just begun.
"The research is still very much at a preliminary stage," said Christopher
Duschenes of the Inuit Relations Secretariat in the federal Department of
Indian and Northern Affairs.
"It's a very difficult and sad part of our history."
Tuberculosis probably first came to the North with the 19th-century
whalers, said University of British Columbia sociology professor Frank
Tester. But conditions after the Second World War touched off an epidemic.
In those days, Inuit were moving off the land into communities, driven by
factors such as the collapse of the fur trade. They packed into shacks
cobbled together from Cold War radar station construction scraps or spent
the entire winter in one igloo. Contemporary accounts compared the
conditions to those in African slums.
"Water dripping through roofs, dirt floors, no sanitation - the streets in
the spring became floating sewers," said Tester.
The federal government eventually responded with housing that wasn't much
better. The so-called 512s - named for their square footage - were poorly
insulated, one-room boxes with no bathroom or kitchen. They housed entire
It was a playground for disease and TB took hold.
Doctors visiting the North on a patrol ship found the illness rampant.
Treatment back then required extended hospitalization.
Records show that between 1953 and 1961 a total of 5,240 Inuit, from
toddlers to elders, were sent south, sometimes plucked right out of
hunting camps on the land. The entire Eastern Arctic Inuit population at
the time was only about 11,500, Tester says.
For a while, Canada's largest Inuit community was a sanatorium in Hamilton.
The disease hit Inuit particularly hard. The mortality rate for
southerners in 1953 was 9.9 per 100,000 patients. For Inuit, it was 298.1.
In 1952 alone, 108 Inuit died far from home, in an alien world surrounded
by strangers who spoke an incomprehensible tongue.
Treatment could last for years at a time when the North had no telephones
and mail took months.
Still, families tried to stay in touch.
"I think of you a lot," wrote one man to his wife in a letter obtained and
translated by Tester.
"Last year, just before you went away, I nearly went out of my mind, but
now I'm able to cope better. I get lonely for you very much."
Those who died were buried in the city to which they had been taken.
Families were rarely told where and sometimes not even informed of the
That void has haunted nearly every Inuit family ever since.
"Until you see the body or until you perform a funeral or see the grave,
you're constantly wondering and asking the question whether or not they
have really passed on," said Ningeocheak, now a vice-president for Nunavut
Tunngavik, which is working with Ottawa on the graves project.
Some, like Ningeocheak, have traced their loved ones themselves. But many
more have not, and in 2005 a group approached the land claim organization
"Some families have specifically requested to ship up the remains of their
loved ones," said Joe Kunuk, who's working on the project. "Some families
have said they'd prefer for the remains to remain where they are and look
at getting a monument of some sort to indicate where the graves are."
One such monument has already been set up in Hamilton. But there remains
the mammoth task of flipping through archives and records, some from
institutions that don't even exist anymore.
"It's a slow process," said Kunuk. "We're just trying to pinpoint the
exact locations so we can get the correct numbers, so that families can
decide what to do.
"Some families, it's been so long they've basically just given up."
The work is difficult but important, said Duschenes.
"It's an issue that's gaining more prominence. It's certainly in the same
spirit as the apology for residential schools - the need for rethinking
the relationship with the Inuit."
Ningeocheak thinks back to his mother's anonymous grave. Hers wasn't the
only one with only a numbered plaque.
"A lot of those other graves in that area, there's a lot of vegetation and
a lot of growth. It's covering the graves.
"You can't even see them."
Copyright © 2009 The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.
Raymond Ningeocheak Vice Present Finance 867 645-5405