Over a dozen Inuit elders are making a historic healing journey to Hamilton this weekend to revisit the former sanatorium site where they were held in isolation and endured psychological abuse in the 1950s and ’60s.
Naomi Tatty helped organize the trip for her 80-year-old mother, Ida Atagoyuk, and 14 other elders from Nunavut to Hamilton, where they will arrive on Sunday. Tatty works for SeeChange Initiative, which helps marginalized communities address their own health crises.
“They’ve long awaited this,” Tatty said of the elders. “Their emotions are building up. I think they’re a bit nervous.”
To SeeChange’s knowledge, this is the first time Inuit will return to the sanatorium where they received treatment for tuberculosis, said founder and executive director Rachel Kiddell-Monroe who’s based in Montreal. She’s spoken to elders throughout healing workshops and hopes the trip helps them continue to heal.
“There’s a lot of that feeling of shame that they were the ones who did something wrong — that it was their fault and they shouldn’t talk about what happened,” Kiddell-Monroe said. “Now they’re ready to talk.”
Inuit families torn apart
The sanatorium once stood near the edge of the escarpment overlooking the city on Sanatorium Road, near Scenic Drive. It’s since been demolished to make way for redevelopment, but a giant Cross of Lorraine that once glowed brightly still stands.
About 1,200 Inuit were shipped to Hamilton’s sanatorium for tuberculosis treatment, as part of a Canada-wide colonial policy that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has since apologized for. Their families weren’t told where they’d gone, or if and when they’d died.
Atagoyuk was sent to a sanatorium in Moose Factory, Ont., near James Bay, but her tragic experience shares similarities with those who were forced to stay in Hamilton, said Tatty.
Atagoyuk was 21 when she underwent a health check on a government ship. She tested positive for tuberculosis and was told she’d be sent to Southern Canada for treatment, Tatty said.
Atagoyuk wasn’t allowed to leave her bed, but made friends with the other patients.
“They tried to make some good of the times, but it was very hard and tough,” Tatty said. “They only had each other.”
When Atagoyuk was finally released, she reunited with her daughter and returned to Nunavut, but the damage had been done.
“My sister was afraid of my mother because she thought she was a monster,” Tatty said. “She wasn’t used to being around Inuit. She had lost her language and they couldn’t communicate with each other. They were both traumatized.”
Public reception to be held at art gallery
Tatty said her mother was in the front row for Trudeau’s apology in 2019. It included the launch of the Nanilavut initiative, a database that will help Inuit find the graves of family members who didn’t survive, and funding to help them visit those graves.
However, there is no federal funding available for trips like the one to Hamilton, said Kiddell-Monroe. It was instead supported by SeeChange and Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated, the legal representative of the Inuit of Nunavut.
The group will visit the former sanatorium site and cemetery where Inuit who died of tuberculosis were buried, and take part in healing circles and workshops with trauma counsellors. They also hope to connect with any doctors or nurses who worked at the sanatorium, or their family members.
“And it’s not for recrimination,” said Kiddell-Monroe. “It’s not to be angry. It’s just to be able to see them, and to share the experience, and to kind of complete the circle.”
They’ll also view historic photos of patients from McMaster University’s archives and the Art Gallery of Hamilton’s collection of Inuit art made by sanatorium patients.
A public event will be held at the Art Gallery of Hamilton on Tuesday from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. ET, including a reception and film screening.