Memories of an exodus
Land surveyor reflects on Baffin tuberculosis outbreak

by Jeff Colbourne
Northern News Services

NNSL (Mar 16/98) - Dr. Benoit Robitaille remembers the pain, drama and confusion brought on by the tuberculosis outbreak on Baffin Island in the 1950s.

A federal land surveyor at the time and now director of Laval University's geography department, he witnessed the mass exodus of Inuit from the Baffin to Montreal, Hamilton and Toronto.

"I was on the Eastern Arctic patrol ship a few times," said Robitaille over the phone from his office in Quebec City. "I've been a witness of the operation, medical examinations and then the taking out of patients to southern Canada."

Of the hundreds of Inuit who contracted TB in the 1950s and '60s and were shipped south for treatment, many died in hospital and were buried in unmarked graves. The fate of some continues to remain unknown.

Robitaille was particularly close to one Inuit family in Cape Dorset back in 1957.

He recalled hiring an Inuk with the name Itungmaq to drive his dog sled when there was work to be done.

"I got there in May. I travelled with him until July or late June until the breakup started. Then the ship came, the C.D. Howe, in mid-July," he said.

But that year, near the end of the summer Itungmaq was taken away on the C.D. Howe for TB treatment.

"This man seemed to be in good health. He had been working hard for me all spring. He was examined by the medical team and was taken out. It was a big drama for him. He had family, a wife and two or three children. He was very upset.

"The last time I saw him he was on board and was coming south. He was very much worried about who would take care of his family."

The C.D. Howe could not stay for long in each settlement, said Robitaille. It had to make round trips before the ice moved in.

"The time spent in each settlement by the medical team was rather short," he said. "The examinations had to be done quickly. Sometimes the patients and the people were examined on board the ship. They could not return on shore because there was no time."

In some settlements, ships would stay longer and had more time to carry medical matters out better, he added.

"Doctors who discovered tuberculosis could go back to shore and make arrangements with relatives to have someone take care of families left behind," he said.

Time to go

Not everyone, Robitaille remembers, was eager to go to the ship for medical treatment. Many fled their communities with their families to keep from being rounded up by the medical teams.

"There was a helicopter aboard the ship. Some Inuit were very reluctant to go and this was a problem. I remember very well along the eastern Baffin coast, Inuit who would not to go to the ship had to be coaxed," said Robitaille.

"Some would prefer not to be examined to avoid the risk of being taken out."

When families fled, the pilot of the helicopter was forced to go as far inland as 45 kilometres to convince people who were camping on the land to come to the ship.

Patient confusion

To keep track of everyone brought on board, Indian Affairs officials and welfare officers used a number system.

"There were doctors, dentists, but also welfare workers and interpreters. Welfare workers had to number the Inuit so when they came on board the ship they would check the list," he said.

Once placed on the ship, the Inuit were quite stoic. Sometimes Robitaille could see men upset about what lay ahead, weeping because they were leaving their families behind.

"On four round trips I came back twice. I remember very well there were Inuit patients at the front of the ship. We could see them from our cabins -- about 30 Inuit patients, more men than women and children," he said.

Informed of the lost victims of TB and Baffin families searching for remains of deceased family in the south, Robitaille was quite surprised.

"I thought they would be well taken care of, the system would follow through, their identity would be well known and they would be brought back," he said. "I never heard really of specific cases of people being lost in hospitals down south."