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Life Beside Itself by Lisa Stevenson

Life Beside Itself Imagining Care in the Canadian Arctic

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Chapter 1

Facts and Images

 

On August 10, 1956, an Inuit woman named Kaujak left the Inuit community of Arctic Bay on the ship the C. D. Howe to begin her journey to the Mountain Sanatorium in Hamilton, Ontario.1 For months Kaujak had been getting weaker and weaker. She was increasingly unable to hunt and fish, and the medical personnel on the patrol ship had diagnosed her with tuberculosis. Her grandson Sakiassie, standing on the shore, followed the ship with his eyes until it passed out of sight beyond Uluksan Point. He never saw her again.

In June 2008 I received an email from Anna, Sakiassie's daughter, who for several years had been trying to figure out what happened to Kaujak.2 "My name is Anna," she wrote. "A few years ago I was in search of my dad's grandmother that passed away on the train to Hamilton[;] they unloaded her body before reaching Hamilton." The only trace of Kaujak Anna had been able to find was an index card from the municipal offices with Kaujak's name and disc number typewritten on it. Handwritten in ink was the word "Dead" and the year "1956."

A month later I arrived in Ikpiarjuk, a hamlet of approximately eight hundred people at the north end of Baffin Island, to speak to Sakiassie and other survivors of the tuberculosis epidemic that ravaged Canadian Inuit communities during the 1950s and {apos}60s. Surrounded by high hills and rocky cliffs, the houses in Ikpiarjuk (literally, "the pocket") cluster around an almost landlocked bay. Children play unattended on the gravel roads and at the shore, skipping rocks and jumping from one piece of ice to the other. ATVs and pickup trucks careen through the streets, spewing rocks and dust, but inside Sakiassie's house it is neat, orderly, and quiet. His house looks out at the bay toward Uluksan Point. Anna serves as my interpreter as we begin to talk.

Kaujak raised Anna's father, Sakiassie, as her son after his own father drowned in a hunting accident when Sakiassie was only a year old. Anna tells me that Sakiassie was very attached to Kaujak and that she "was able to do things a man could do. She was a very good fisher. She would go fishing, dry fish." Each spring when Sakiassie goes fishing, "a lot of the techniques [he uses] he learned from her." Anna continues, "She was very able woman . . . She was able of doing things that men were capable of doing. She was able to build qarmat [sod houses]. The year before she left she couldn't build the qarmaq and she developed an infection on her stomach and on her back . . . When the ship came in to screen people for TB they screened her, and that's when they sent her away."

Sakiassie was fo