MAHONEY: The beautiful Inuit legacy at the San

Stephen Lewis was asked to lunch and a personal tour of an Art Gallery of Hamilton show Friday not to make a meal of his words about Canada's response, 1950s-1960s, to tuberculosis among the Inuit but to measure them against a different picture.

Those words? "Cultural genocide" and a residential schools comparison were among his descriptions of that history, including virtually enforced evacuation, in recent speeches.

So he was invited, by AGH president and CEO Shelly Falconer, not for rebuttal but for the sake of conversation, understanding. What higher goal can an art gallery aspire to?

Lewis — co-director, AIDS-Free World — gamely accepted the come-on-over and, in his first-ever visit to the AGH, got walked through "Carving Home: The Chedoke Collection of Inuit Art," on at the gallery since the summer.

The exhibit explores and celebrates the contributions made and beautiful carvings done by Inuit TB patients at the Mountain Sanatorium (later Chedoke Hospital).

Nancy Anilniliak, a former patient (1958 — she was five) and McMaster University's Emily Cowall, an anthropologist specializing in the Inuit and tuberculosis, were his guides.

Some 1,200 Inuit from Canada's eastern Arctic were sent here between 1953 and 1963.

Some stayed a short time. Some longer. Some died here.

The works they created were a sensation at the time, and their appeal continues, strong as ever.

On the other hand, Lewis visited two Inuit communities earlier this year and heard people talk about what has been described as the breaking of a chain that those years of evacuation and convalescence represented.

A chain of language, traditional skill transmission; a chain of contact and continuity with family and community life, snapped. In some cases, family members were never reunited.

"They (the elders) spoke with such a depth of emotion, as they talked about loss of family and language," Lewis told the gathering at the gallery. "They wept as they spoke, this outpouring of eloquent grief." (Sadly, TB is still an acute problem in the Far North.)

On the other hand, there was a medical emergency, thousands of Inuit suffering with TB with no help anywhere near. Many of the evacuated were successfully treated. There were even stories of happiness, like Nancy Anilniliak's.

Efforts were made, imperfect as they were, to do the best in a bad situation.

As Emily Cowall noted in her remarks before the tour, the idea of building a hospital in the Far North was considered: "It would've taken 10 to 20 years." Hamilton already had a centre of excellence for critical care.

"There were radio headphones at every bed. People (patients) could go on the radio waves. They brought in an arts and craft program."

The results?

The amazing sculpture and art featured in the exhibit.

Anilniliak, who now lives in Pangnirtung on Baffin Island, has been back to Hamilton many times since her year at the San.

Educated in Churchill, Man., she recently retired from a long career with Parks Canada in Nunavut. This past summer, helping with the exhibit, she was reunited with one of her nurses.

"The nurses were very good to me," she said. She was happily reunited with her family.

TB sufferers from around the globe were sent to the sanatorium, which combined expert staff and facilities with an ideal setting for convalescence, given the unobstructed wind, sun exposure and salubrious air that prevailed at that elevation — the escarpment brow.

The sadness of separation and discontinuity were common to all, said Cowall, no matter where from, a synchronism of the treatment of isolation of communicable disease.

In his remarks after touring the exhibit, Lewis praised the beauty and quality of the works and expressed gratitude for the opportunity to look and learn about the stories behind the experience.

This, Falconer suggested to me at the end, was the gallery in the full bloom of its responsibility as a spur for dialogue, historical context, culture and character in the city.

I think she's right. The exhibit itself is fascinating and informative. And this is the last weekend it's up, so go see it.

jmahoney@thespec.com

905-526-3306

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