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Inuit elders retrace steps to Hamilton sanatorium where they endured traumatic isolation as children | CBC News


Naudle Oshoweetok was 10 years old when he and his father left their home in Kinngait, Nunavut, and boarded the C.D. Howe Arctic Patrol ship.

“Me and my father left our family, my mother and brother and sister,” Oshoweetok said in an interview Monday. “I didn’t know where we were going.” 

They journeyed thousands of kilometres south for tuberculosis treatment, sailing to Quebec City and then taking a train to Hamilton. Oshoweetok said he was then separated from his father and sent to the Sanatorium on the Mountain for six months, with no way of contacting his family and confined to his bed. 

“We tried to pretend to sleep during the day,” he said. “Only one time they put us in a wheelchair to watch Bugs Bunny. That was our favourite show.” 

Sixty-five years later, Oshoweetok returned to the site, now a grassy field near the edge of the escarpment on Sanatorium Road, near Scenic Drive, as part of a historic, healing trip, and joined by 13 other survivors. The trip was organized by Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI), the legal representative of the Inuit of Nunavut, as well as the non-profit groups SeeChange Initiative and the Ilisaqsivik Society.

It is the first formal visit of Inuit tuberculosis survivors to a sanatorium in Canada, said Mayor Andrea Horwath at a reception at the Art Gallery of Hamilton Tuesday. 

Screen with historical photos
Inuit elders and Hamilton officials and residents gathered at the Art Gallery of Hamilton to acknowledge the hundreds of Inuit who were held at the sanatorium and the pain they endured. A slideshow of historical photos of Inuit arriving in Hamilton in the 1950s and ’60s was on display. (Samantha Beattie/CBC)

Horwath said the city will be adding the Inuktitut translation on the street signs for Sanatorium Drive and a plaque beside the Cross of Lorraine that remains at the site.

“I’m here sharing in the memory and pain that was wrought upon Inuit communities so many years ago,” Horwath said. “People were pulled from communities. We know the trauma this has caused, and the intergenerational trauma.”

Over 1,200 Inuit were shipped to Hamilton for tuberculosis treatment in the 1950s and ’60s as part of a Canada-wide colonial policy. 

Many Inuit lived there for years and their families were not told where they were, their condition or if and when they died. They were cut off from their culture and language, and in some cases psychologically abused. 

“I didn’t expect to be in tears when I got here,” said Oshoweetok, near where the sanatorium once stood. “I feel release. I cannot describe it. Now I feel like singing.” 

His grandson, Iola Oshoweetok, 19, accompanied him to Hamilton. He said Oshowetok hadn’t told him what he’d experienced as a child. 

“This is the first time actually hearing what happened,” Iola said. “So far it has been good and emotional … to know what happened so we can forward that message.” 

‘Everyone should know this story’

Eena Kullualik was two years old when she arrived at the sanatorium in 1956. She said she remembers “bits and pieces.” She said she knows she wasn’t allowed to touch the floor.

She stayed in bed there for two years before returning to her family in Pangnirtung, an Inuit hamlet in Nunavut. However, she no longer spoke Inuktitut and had to relearn it. She said her mother had trouble understanding her. 

“I always felt when I was growing up there was some piece inside me missing, but I couldn’t find it,” Kullualik. “I hope I find it here.” 

This history is not well known in Hamilton and public institutions like the art gallery are trying to change that, said CEO and president Shelley Falconer. 

Woman stands outside building with fence around it.
Eena Kullualik stands outside the Hamilton sanatorium’s former nurses’ quarters. She was there for tuberculosis treatment when she was two years old. (Dustin Patar/CBC)

“Everyone should know this story,” said Falconer. “It’s not just a Hamilton story. It’s a Canadian story. The isolation and removal is what’s heartbreaking.” 

The art gallery is in possession of over 100 pieces of art made by sanatorium patients, including sculptures and textiles such as dolls, she said. They acquired the art in 2016 from a private donor who purchased the items from Hamilton Health Sciences for about $300,000. 

The gallery will eventually showcase the art as a permanent exhibit, working with Inuit experts and survivors. 

“We’re still doing the research,” Falconer said. “We’re still trying to find the relatives of the artists.” 

Health-care providers in ‘difficult’ situation

The gallery has also received pieces from Hamilton residents whose relatives worked at the sanatorium, and believes many are still scattered in homes across the city, Falconer said. 

Ian McConnachie holds dear a heavy soapstone sculpture of two birds, now in his Ottawa home. He said it was made by a patient, Paul Osio, and gifted to his father, Dr. Thomas McConnachie, who worked at the sanatorium. 

McConnachie and his family lived on the sanatorium property in the 1950s until he was six years old, he said. It was his father’s first job after serving in the Second World War and contracting and surviving tuberculosis himself. 

statue of inuit man fishing and polar bear
Sculptures made by Inuit patients at Hamilton’s sanatorium were on display at the Art Gallery of Hamilton on Tuesday. (Samantha Beattie/CBC)

The work at the sanatorium was “both an interesting and somewhat difficult process” for health-care providers, McConnachie said. 

“I think there was also an awareness that there was so much that the care providers did not know and did not understand about the culture and of course language barriers,” he said. 

“How did they navigate that? How did they deal with those difficulties? Some better than others, I would suspect.” 

He said he one day hopes to learn what happened to the artist Osio, and if he ever returned home.


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