09/11/2017 16:03 EDT | Updated 09/12/2017 10:48 EDT

Stephen Lewis Says TB Crisis In Nunavut Stems From Cultural Genocide

He wants the government to apologize and provide new funding.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail via Canadian Press
UN AIDS ambassador Stephen Lewis is photographed during a talk at the University of Toronto in Toronto on April 7, 2010.

One of the country's strongest international voices in the fight against AIDS says Canada owes the Inuit a full explanation of what happened to relatives removed from their homes to be treated for tuberculosis in the 1950s and '60s.

"It was something that continues to complicate the entire response to tuberculosis now,'' Stephen Lewis, co-director of AIDS-Free World and former United Nations special envoy on AIDS/HIV, said Monday.

"It's like another level of the residential school phenomenon.''

Lewis has been working internationally for years to fight the spread of AIDS/HIV and tuberculosis, which are strongly linked. But at a recent conference in Durban, South Africa, he learned tuberculosis continues to be a major problem back home.

"My colleagues said to me, 'Look, Stephen, you've been neglecting your own country.'

"They were right.''

Although tuberculosis is almost unheard of in the south, it is present in many northern reserves and in 17 out of 25 Nunavut communities. Infection rates are about 50 times higher among Inuit than in the general population, according to 2016 figures.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail via Canadian Press
Igloolik, Nunavut is shown on Nov. 23, 2013. Stephen Lewis recently travelled to Igloolik to learn about the area's tuberculosis crisis.

"I was startled to find the incidence in Nunavut is so much higher,'' Lewis said.

The problem is often blamed on poverty and overcrowded homes in Arctic communities. But sociologists have said one of the factors that make TB hard to handle is the memory of how Inuit were treated in the past.

Research suggests the disease took firm root among the Inuit after they were moved from hunting camps on the land into communities with government-provided, one-room houses with no bathrooms. Others lived in cramped shacks cobbled together from construction debris, which provided ideal conditions for the disease to spread.

TB tied to cultural genocide, Lewis says

Tuberculosis rates are "inextricably tied" to cultural genocide, Lewis wrote in a statement.

Hospital ships such as the C.D. Howe sent Inuit who tested positive for the disease to southern treatment centres.

Records show that between 1953 and 1961 a total of 5,240 Inuit were sent south. The entire population of the Eastern Arctic at the time was about 11,500.

Many lost their language and culture after years in the south.

Nurse Desrochers checks a girl's throat while other children wait in line, at the Frobish Bay Federal Hostel in Iqaluit, Nunavut, in a 1959 archive photo.

Many never returned at all or lost contact with their families — a lingering psychological scar in many communities, said Lewis, who met last week with Inuit in Iqaluit and Igloolik.

Elders talked about "the evacuation and the total disruption of families and the devastation of not knowing what happened. They were not able to talk about the story without weeping,'' he said.

"For many of them, they're still searching for a grave site. They still don't understand why they don't know what happened.''

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A formal apology is due, said Lewis. He also urged the federal government to grant a request from Inuit organizations to open its archives and let Inuit trace their lost family.

"We have the files. We have the names. They would be able to tell people, this is what happened to your relative, this is where they're buried.''

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott said the government is aware of past and present issues around TB. She said she's met with Inuit leaders on the subject as recently as last week.

Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press
Minister of Indigenous Services Jane Philpott responds to a question at a news conference in Ottawa on June 30, 2016.

"These are conversations that are taking place very actively,'' she said Monday. "We are determined to address this, both in the context of redress for historic injustices, but also with a very strong focus on people who are living now with tuberculosis.''

Philpott acknowledged that memories of their treatment in the past is affecting how Inuit see TB today. But releasing historic information isn't her department's responsibility, she said.

"My priority is recognizing present-day services and those are areas where there's a tremendous amount of work to be done,'' she said.

"There's no questions terrible injustices have taken place in the past.''

These are Canadian citizens. How dare we treat them this way.Stephen Lewis

Lewis said that even after years of travelling around the world to underdeveloped countries, last week's trip was an eye-opener.

"These are Canadian citizens,'' he said. "How dare we treat them this way.''

With a file from Emma Paling

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