Apologies are fine, but Ottawa should address high rates of TB in north now
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did the right thing last week when he formally apologized for Canada’s treatment of Inuit people who were stricken with tuberculosis during the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.
During that epidemic, thousands of Inuit were cruelly taken from their families and shipped off to sanatoriums in the south because of a “colonial mindset,” he acknowledged.
Indeed, many were not even allowed to say goodbye. Their families never heard of them or from them — until their return, if they returned. Sadly, Inuit officials believe 900 were buried in unknown locales.
But despite Trudeau’s welcome words of regret, in this case an apology isn’t enough.
That’s because decades after that tragedy, Inuit people are still reeling from an active tuberculosis rate that is more than 290 times higher than that of Canadian-born non-Indigenous people.
That’s inexcusable, considering, as former Indigenous services minister Jane Philpott put it last year, eliminating tuberculosis “is not rocket science.”
Indeed, the government knows exactly what factors are contributing to the extremely high rate of the life-threatening bacterial lung infection among Canada’s Inuit population, and what has to be done to eliminate this scourge.
Now it must act.
First off, as Trudeau himself acknowledged, the Inuit understandably do not trust the health care system and so don’t always seek help when they need it.
What’s required, then, is culturally appropriate medical care and services that can be delivered within Inuit communities. The fact is, many of those who contract TB must still be flown out for treatment.
Another cause of the high infection rates is a lack of housing that makes it easier for the airborne bacteria to spread. The housing shortage in Nunavut is so severe, in fact, that it’s common for 20 people to share a three-bedroom home.
The territory says it will take 60 years to build the 3,000 new public housing units it needs with current levels of funding. That is simply unacceptable.
Lastly, food insecurity, which lowers a person’s resistance to infections, is at “crisis” levels in Nunavut, according to a Conference Board of Canada study last year.
Shockingly, that study found two-thirds of those under the age of 18 were living in households that could not afford to buy healthy foods.
Considering the population of Nunavut is currently under 40,000, says the board, that’s an issue that can and should be easily resolved.
The government must commit to shipping in healthier foods at lower costs.
Last year, just in advance of World Tuberculosis Day on March 24, Philpott promised to eliminate TB in Inuit communities by 2030 by spending $109 million over 10 years to battle the disease with rapid diagnostic technology and antibiotics.
That isn’t good enough. This year the Trudeau government should mark the occasion by fast-tracking that plan.
After all, this is Canada in 2019. It’s fine for the government to acknowledge the wrongs of the past. But it’s more important to right the wrongs of today.