When Taqialuk Peter opens the box, he can hardly believe what’s inside: a small stone statue of a caribou and, he says through tears, an unexpected “miracle”.
The carving was brought to the Hamilton Art Gallery by Kathryn Dain last Tuesday night. The two women had never met but, unknown to them, their late parents likely crossed paths over half a century ago.
Dain’s father worked as a director at Hamilton’s Sanatorium on the Mountain in the 1950s and ordered soapstone for Inuit patients to carve, the Brantford artist said. the current Producer, Julie Chrysler.
A patient had made the lifelike caribou that ended up in Dain’s house for years, emanating what she described as beauty and something close to anger, its antlers fitting delicately curved.
Now in Peter’s hands, look under where the patient had engraved his name and government-issued ID number: “Peter E-712.”
“That was my father,” Peter says, his voice shaking with emotion. “Oh my God”.
The serendipitous moment came on the last night of a historic trip for 14 Inuit elders from Nunavut to Hamilton. They visited the site where they were sent as children to undergo tuberculosis treatment, the cemetery where the patients who did not survive were buried, and the art gallery.
The current19:33Inuit elders seek healing, closure at former sanitarium
Trip made to ‘vindicate healing’
Some of the trip organizers, like Peter, who works for Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated, had parents or grandparents who had stayed at the sanitarium, cut off from family, language and culture for years.
Peter said his father didn’t talk about his time at the sanitarium, but that he had a long scar on his back from surgery there. She remembers wondering about that scar when she was a child.
“I’d run my finger down, play with it and ask, ‘Did it hurt?'” Peter said. “And he didn’t really respond.”
His mother also stayed at the sanatorium, but she also did not share many details. Her parents’ generation also endured residential schools and sled dog killings along with other colonial measures, and he tended not to talk about those experiences, Peter said.
However, Peter carries that intergenerational trauma, fear, anger and anxiety, and used this trip to “claim the healing my parents didn’t receive,” he said.
Dain said his father, Norm, loved his job at the sanitarium and encouraged patients to make art to help pass the time. Dozens of pieces decorated his home, and the caribou was the one Dain kept for years.
When he heard about the Inuit visit, he decided it was time to pay it back.
“There has been too much abuse,” Dain said. “Someone has to do something good.”
Peter took the caribou home to Iqaluit, carefully wrapped in tissue paper in a small box.
Groups work to return art, records, photos
More than 100 pieces of art were on display in the art gallery this past week. The Inuit group expressed their desire to repatriate the statues, textiles and dolls that represent the life, animals and myths of the north.
The art gallery has been honored to curate the “magical” art pieces since 2015, but recognizes that their home may be elsewhere, said Shelley Falconer, CEO and president.
“As far as we’re concerned, it’s his 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 says were originally purchased from a sanitarium gift shop, said Christine Braun, collections leader.
Along with the art, there are a host of photographs and records that should also be returned to Inuit communities, said Vanessa Watts, an assistant professor of sociology and indigenous studies at McMaster University in Hamilton. She is Mohawk and Anishnaabe and from the Six Nations of the Grand River.
The university has thousands of sanitarium 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 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 their family members, and what was happening to them when they left these communities.”
She is looking at ways to transfer the materials to Inuit organizations, or at least provide them with digital access.
HHS is currently figuring out how to proceed, spokesman Thomas Perry said.
“Informed by our legal obligations and indigenous engagement, the hospital is exploring best practices to ensure relevant records are appropriately retained and managed with respect for the privacy and dignity of individuals and their families,” it said.