Inuit evac­u­a­tion to Sana­to­rium re­mem­bered

The Hamilton Spectator - - LOCAL - JEFF MAHONEY The Hamilton Spectator

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, wol­sakand­

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.

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