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How this Inuit caribou carving made at Hamilton sanatorium found its way home half a century later

When Taqialuk Peter opens the box, she can barely believe what is inside — a small stone statue of a caribou and, she says through tears, an unexpected "miracle."

Serendipitous moment came at end of historic visit by Inuit elders from Nunavut last week

woman stands with small caribou statue

When Taqialuk Peter opens the box, she can barely believe what's inside — a small stone statue of a caribou and, she says through tears, an unexpected "miracle."

The carving was brought to the Art Gallery of Hamilton by Kathryn Dain last Tuesday evening. The two women had never met but, unbeknownst to them, their late fathers likely crossed paths over half a century ago.

Dain's father worked as the head teacher at Hamilton's Sanatorium on the Mountain in the 1950s and ordered soapstone for Inuit patients to carve, the Brantford artist told The Current's producer, Julie Crysler.

One patient had made the lifelike caribou that ended up in Dain's home for years, emanating what she described as beauty and something close to anger, its one remaining antler delicately curved.

Now in Peter's hands, she looks underneath where the patient had etched his first name and government-issued identification number — "Peter E-712."

"That was my father," says Peter, her voice wavering with emotion."Oh my God."

The serendipitous moment came on the final evening of a historic journey for 14 Inuit elders from Nunavut to Hamilton. They visited the site where they were shipped as children to undergo treatment for tuberculosis, the cemetery where patients who didn't survive were buried and the art gallery.

The Current19:33Inuit elders seek healing, closure at a former sanatorium

Inuit diagnosed with tuberculosis in the 1950s and ’60s were removed from their homes and families in the North, and brought to sanatoriums in southern Canada, where they endured years of isolation and sometimes abuse. This week, a group of Inuit elders visited the site of a former sanatorium in Hamilton, Ont., in a search for healing and closure.

Trip made to 'claim the healing'

Some of the trip organizers, like Peter, who works for Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated, had parents or grandparents who'd stayed at the sanatorium — separated from their family, language and culture for years.

Peter said her father didn't talk about his time at the sanatorium, but he had a long scar on his back from a surgery there. She remembers wondering about that scar when she was a child.

"I'd trace my finger down, playing with it, and ask, 'Did it hurt?'" Peter said. "And he didn't really answer."

Her mother also stayed at the sanatorium, but also didn't share many details. Her parents' generation also endured residential schools and sled-dog slaughters along with other colonial measures, and tended not to speak about those experiences, Peter said.

However, Peter carries that intergenerational trauma, the fear, anger and anxiety, and used this trip to "claim the healing my parents didn't receive," she said.

Dain said her father Norm loved his job at the sanatorium and encouraged the patients to do art to help pass the time. Dozens of pieces decorated their home, and the caribou was the one Dain held onto for years.

When she heard of the Inuit visit, she decided it was time to give it back.

"There's been too much abuse," Dain said. "Somebody has to do something good."

Peter took the caribou home with her to Iqaluit, carefully wrapped in tissue paper in a small box.

Groups work to return art, records, photos

Over 100 pieces of art were on display at the art gallery last week. The Inuit group expressed their desire to repatriate the statues, textiles and dolls that represent northern life, animals and myths.

The art gallery has been honoured to hold onto the "magical" art pieces since 2015, but recognizes their home may be elsewhere, said Shelley Falconer, chief executive officer and president.

"As far as we're concerned, it's their collection," Falconer said. "Wherever they want the collection is where the collection will go."

Since the event, the art gallery has acquired two more small carvings and two dolls, which the donor said were originally purchased from a sanatorium gift shop, said collections lead Christine Braun.

Along with the art, there's a mass of photographs and records that also should be returned to Inuit communities, said Vanessa Watts, assistant professor of sociology and Indigenous studies at McMaster University in Hamilton. She is Mohawk and Anishnaabe and from Six Nations of the Grand River.

The university holds thousands of sanatorium records and photos for Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS), as well as hundreds more photos donated by residents over the years.

"I think this visit is indicative of a very obvious interest and that these records belong somewhere other than a temperature-controlled room far, far away," Watts said.

"People should be able to connect with themselves and family members, and what was happening to them when they were gone from these communities."

She's looking into ways for the materials to be transferred to Inuit organizations, or at least provided with digital access.

HHS is currently figuring out how to proceed, said spokesperson Thomas Perry.

"Informed by our legal obligations and Indigenous engagement, the hospital is exploring best practices to ensure that the relevant records are appropriately preserved and handled with respect for the privacy and dignity of the individuals and their families," he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Samantha Beattie is a reporter for CBC Hamilton. She has also worked for CBC Toronto and as a Senior Reporter at HuffPost Canada. Before that, she dived into local politics as a Toronto Star reporter covering city hall.

    With files from Julie Crysler

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    Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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