Inuit evacuation to Sanatorium remembered
Soon, presumably, there will be condos or some such structure rising from the drab level ground, now fenced off with plastic orange mesh, where a few years ago the oldest of the Sanatorium buildings was flattened to dust.
This is hard by the faded Cross of Lorraine, edge of the west Mountain. The brow, the thinking went, made an ideal setting for convalescence, given the unobstructed wind, sun exposure and salubrious air that prevailed at that elevation.
Several sanatorium pavilions remain, but they’re empty shells, with their terraced balconies. Of the thousands who poured into this city in the hope of tuberculosis healing, none had such a dislocating or collectively poignant journey as the 1,200 Inuit medevac-ed here after the Second World War.
They were brought from places like Cape Dorset, Igloolik, Eureka, Kugluktuk (then Coppermine) and Clyde River, to a life that could hardly have been more unfamiliar.
“The place was a crossroads and cultural bazaar,” Shawn Selway writes in his new book, “Nobody Will Harm You Here: Mass Medical Evacuation From the Eastern Arctic, 1950-1965.”
“The Inuit encountered television and lipstick, and their caregivers encountered the Inuit.”
If there was possibly a bang of novelty for the Inuit, there was certainly also fear, confusion, sadness for home and ultimately yawning boredom. To fill the time, some took to soapstone sculpture.
In a wider context, the evacuation represented a break in the chain of Inuit language, custom and transmission of key skills. It also saved lives, though not all — the names of the 37 who died there are inscribed on the beautiful Inuit memorial in Woodland Cemetery where they lay.
“Education between generations was interrupted,” Shawn says. “Adult males were not teaching their sons how to hunt,” and mothers not teaching daughters how to make boots from caribou sinews that swell with humidity, making them waterproof.
“These techniques (tied into the intricate relationships of Inuit life) needed to be passed on,” says the millwright, consultant, historic machinery expert and writer.
In his book, published by Wolsak & Wynn of Hamilton, he covers all this — the web of community — and so much more. The subtle geopolitics of sovereignty over the Arctic at the time. The technological leaps that made the evacuation possible (ship-borne helicopters, portable X-ray unit, icebreakers).
He delves into issues of paternalism, colonial-indigenous dynamics and he plumbs the record to answer the larger questions — was the evacuation necessary? Should a hospital have been built in the North? Some allege it was analogous to residential school captivity. But the evacuation was intended, at root, to save lives, says Shawn, and one of few “indigenous connection stories that (despite missteps) didn’t cover us completely in shame.” (TB rates in the North were high.)
His lens is telescopic, taking us to the eastern Arctic aboard the supply ship C.D. Howe, as it hopscotches the North, taking on TB cases. He gives us sweeping overviews.
His lens is microscopic. He takes us into the microbe that is the agent of TB and into the small details of the lives of individual Inuit patients and nurses, doctors and administrators with whom they came into contact.
Mostly, the lens is human. The book is exhaustively researched, but through the narrative edifice of fact, record, testimony and politics that Shawn builds, there rises a gentle poetry of compassion, expressing a delicate dance of wariness and trust.
There are episodes that haunt: an Inuit who wanders away and dies of exposure. Stories of families separated, sometimes forever; children who, for lack of ID, couldn’t be reunited with their communities.
Shawn’s mother, Gerda, was a nurse, working with children there, and she planted the idea for the book. It’s a huge chapter in this city’s history. Does he ever do it justice.
For more, wolsakandwynn.ca
The place was a crossroads and cultural bazaar.”
Shawn Selway has written the book, “Nobody Here Will Harm You,” about the Inuit evacuation to the Mountain Sanatorium during its TB days, and all the Inuit who were brought here from the Arctic. He’s standing in front of the Bruce Building, one of the last pieces of the property standing.