Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is apologizing on Friday in Iqaluit for the federal government’s treatment of Inuit with tuberculosis in the mid-20th century, an appearance postponed the day before because of bad weather.
The apology was expected to be delivered on Thursday in the Nunavut capital, but the weather diverted Trudeau’s flight and the ceremony was cancelled.
Friday’s event started at 9:30 a.m. ET at the Frobisher Inn.
As the ceremony got underway, Aluki Kotierk, president of Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated, said it will be an emotional day, and counsellors were being made available in Iqaluit.
“There’s no doubt we are being heard,” she said.
Inuit artist Robert Kuptana also spoke prior to Trudeau.
“He has looked me in the eye and said, ‘I’m sorry.’ Each one of us has got to accept it.”
Representatives from the four Inuit regions of Canada, which stretch across the Arctic to Labrador, have been in Iqaluit for much of the week for the apology.
Inuit were separated from their family members and taken to Southern Canada for tuberculosis treatment from the 1940s through the ’60s.
Many patients lived in sanatoriums for years, and their families often weren’t told about their whereabouts or conditions, even when they died.
What about other Indigenous groups?
Trudeau was expected to apologize specifically to Inuit.
Marie Speakman, who’s from Deline, N.W.T., says it feels like a “slap in the face” that Trudeau is only apologizing to Inuit, who she calls her “brothers and sisters.”
“The Dene people and the Inuit people have all gone through so much and so many types of trauma and abuse from residential school, to day school, to the Indian hospitals where they sent people with TB,” she said.
“So I think an apology should not be one certain group. You know we were all affected.”
Speakman said her grandfather went to Edmonton in 1962 for tuberculosis treatment when she was five years old, and he died there. She still thinks about the cultural shock he must have endured, without speaking English, and having no one to advocate for him.
“He’s buried there somewhere but we don’t know where,”
Her mother died last year at age 88, and Speakman said she still talked about her father. “It’s like a missing person.”
Speakman thinks people in the Northwest Territories should also get an apology from Canada so they too can have closure for the intergenerational harm. She has asked Liberal MP Michael McLeod if that will be forthcoming.
Apology ‘overdue,’ but appreciated
Duane Smith, chair of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, is part of the Inuit delegation in Iqaluit, and believes Trudeau’s efforts to get to the Nunavut capital “demonstrates his commitment to reconciliation and building a better relationship with Indigenous peoples.”
A large number of Inuvialuit in the N.W.T. were affected by the tuberculosis crisis. While he said the apology is “a bit overdue,” it’s appreciated.
“It means a lot to us and other Inuit across Inuit Nunangat.”
Former patients and immediate family members of people who died in Southern Canada will be among those hearing the prime minister deliver the apology.
Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, was at the Frobisher Inn on Thursday night, after the apology was cancelled for the day. He said it will help families start to heal.
“You feel in the room a lot of letting go, a lot of letting go a lot of pain that had no place to go.”
I want people to help us heal.– Kelly Fraser , Nunavut singer
A representative with Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. estimates there are between 700 and 800 people who never returned home, and whose gravesites remain unknown.
It’s believed Trudeau’s apology will also mark the launch of the Nanilavut initiative — a database that will make records available to Inuit to facilitate finding family members’ gravesites.
Tuberculosis, an airborne disease, can be cured with treatment. The Public Health Agency of Canada says there were 1,796 active cases diagnosed in Canada in 2017. The rate of TB infection is much 290 times higher in Canada’s North than it is in the rest of the country.
Kelly Fraser, a Juno-nominated singer from Nunavut, says she hopes the government will provide more adequate housing in the territory, since tuberculosis spreads easily in the territory’s many poorly ventilated, overcrowded homes. She’d also like to see doctors in every community.
“I want people to help us heal. There’s no other way to help us heal, we need each other,” Frasher said.
“I very much want to stress that non-Inuit, non-Indigenous, there’s a responsibility, you have to help us heal and to understand we need that healing with you.”
This story originally appeared on CBC