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Life Beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian Arctic

Life Beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian Arctic

by Lisa Stevenson
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In Life Beside Itself, Lisa Stevenson takes us on a haunting ethnographic journey through two historical moments when life for the Canadian Inuit has hung in the balance: the tuberculosis epidemic (1940s to the early 1960s) and the subsequent suicide epidemic (1980s to the present). Along the way, Stevenson troubles our commonsense understanding of what life is and what it means to care for the life of another. Through close attention to the images in which we think and dream and through which we understand the world, Stevenson describes a world in which life is beside itself: the name-soul of a teenager who dies in a crash lives again in his friend’s newborn baby, a young girl shares a last smoke with a dead friend in a dream, and the possessed hands of a clock spin uncontrollably over its face. In these contexts, humanitarian policies make little sense because they attempt to save lives by merely keeping a body alive. For the Inuit, and perhaps for all of us, life is “somewhere else,” and the task is to articulate forms of care for others that are adequate to that truth.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520282940
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 08/22/2014
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 784,449
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Lisa Stevenson is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at McGill University and the editor of Critical Inuit Studies: An Anthology of Contemporary Arctic Ethnography (2006).

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Life Beside Itself

Imagining Care in the Canadian Arctic

By Lisa Stevenson


Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-28294-0


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. 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. "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 Arctic Bay, 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 '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 fourteen years old when Kaujak was sent away on theC.D. Howe. I ask him whether he remembered the day of his grandmother's departure. "Yes, I remember very clearly," he tells me. Her illness had been getting worse and she began to pay visits to family members, even distant relatives, saying she might not live long enough to see them again. Sakiassie was very worried. "It was very painful when the helicopter came from the ship to pick her up to move her," he tells me. Kaujak was taken from her camp outside town to the ship where the medical team was waiting. Kaujak tested positive for tuberculosis.

When the x-ray technician discovered a shadow on the lung, Inuit generally weren't allowed to return to shore for fear they would never return to the ship. But for some reason they made an exception for Kaujak. She made a last trip to shore in a small skiff. Sakiassie didn't get to speak to her. He was unloading the ship's supplies at the time, and he saw his grandmother smiling and posing for a photograph—all from a distance.

That fall—it was in October, though Sakiassie doesn't remember the exact date—the Hudson's Bay Company manager called him on the radio to let him know that Kaujak was dead. Nothing else was said.

For years after that, when the ship returned on its yearly patrol, Sakiassie would go to the beach where people were loading and unloading its cargo, and patients were disembarking after being at the sanatorium, to listen. He listened for his grandmother's name in the hope that someone would mention her, her death, or anything about her. As Anna described it:

Each year, whenever the ship came in to do a screening, he would rush over to where the patients' area was near the ship to see if he could overhear anyone talking about his grandmother. He was afraid to ask about her so he wouldn't ask. He would just hang around to listen to see if anyone would mention her—to see if they've seen her or there's any news of her—and he would check to see if she was on the boat ... He did this for many years.

I was confused and tried to clarify. "Each year when the ship came ... he still didn't know if she was alive or not?"

She left in August and in October they heard she had died and that's all that was said. No mention of where her body was, how she died, nothing. They were just informed that she had passed away. That's all the news that they got.


Kaujak's story, although unusual in that she died on the train and not in the southern sanatorium, is not an unfamiliar one. In the 1950s and '60s tuberculosis was known as the "Scourge of the North," (Albrecht 1965: 153) and "that ubiquitous disease of the Northland" (Ward 1952: 292). Between 1954 and 1964 approximately 8,600 Inuit patients were looked after in southern hospitals, and $12.5 million was spent on their hospitalization (Moore 1964: 1193). In 1956, the year Kaujak left Arctic Bay for the sanatorium, the tuberculosis mortality rate among Inuit was calculated to be 232 per 100,000 (Grygier 1994: 84) and it was estimated that one out of every seven Inuit was in a southern hospital being treated for tuberculosis (Phillips 1967: 219–20). Dealing with the epidemic was a priority for Canada's Northern Administration and especially the Indian Health Services Department, and segregation of tubercular Inuit in southern sanatoria was considered the most expedient way to curb the rate of infection (Ward 1952; Phillips 1957; Grzybowski, Styblo, and Dorken 1976: S8).

In the Eastern Arctic where Kaujak lived, most of the tuberculosis evacuations occurred via the C.D. Howe, the ship the RCMP used for their annual patrol of the region. The ship was equipped with "a complete sick-bay, operating room, x-ray room, dental office and laboratory, and a complete medical party and dentist to staff it" (Moore 1956: 232). In fact, the C.D. Howe, which appears in many of the photographs and stories I collected, becomes something of a minor character in the history of the period. Leah Idlout d'Argencourt, an Inuit woman from Pond Inlet who published an account of her evacuation in the magazine Inuit Today, captured the momentousness of the C.D. Howe 's annual arrival: "The first glimpse we had of the C.D. Howe was always amazing to me. Rounding the side of a steep cliff, she would suddenly appear in view. I found it hard to believe that a thing so enormous could move so fast. Her white bow seemed to cut through the water like a knife, sending huge waves that hissed and rolled all the way to where we would be waiting at the water's edge" (1977: 33). After the ship dropped anchor, Inuit would be brought onboard and screened for tuberculosis, and those suspected of harboring the disease would be kept on the ship to begin their journey south.

Being transported from a life in Canada's North—either from a small settlement or an ancestral hunting camp out on land—to a hospital where none of the doctors or nurses spoke Inuktitut and Inuit patients were largely confined to their beds, was an experience of radical disjuncture. D'Argencourt said of her trip to the South that it "changed my life so completely it made it difficult for me [afterward] to remain a full Inuk living in the North" (1977: 31). In 1951, at twelve years of age, she was sent by ship to a southern sanatorium all by herself.

It all happened so fast I scarcely had time to think. By the time we arrived back on the ship, I knew for sure it was true, that I was really going, although I was totally unprepared and didn't even have any baggage to take along.... I hardly remember anything that was happening or being said to me at the time of departure except that my dear oldest sister Rebecca (Qitsualik) was crying. Was I going away for good? I didn't feel sick. Was I going to die in the white man's hospital? It terrified me to think of these things. (1977: 35)

By 1959, Otto Schaefer, the doctor onboard the 1955 and 1957 Eastern Arctic Patrol, would write, "Many old Indians and Eskimos are still more afraid of evacuation to the white man's land than of death" (Schaefer 1959: 249).

In addition to uncertainty about how long Inuit would be separated from their families, the inability of the doctors, nurses, and hospital administrators to communicate with their Inuit patients often led to confusion about the identity of their Inuit charges, especially the children. In 1950, the governmental list of Inuit in southern hospitals had 119 names. Patient identification details for 42 of those listed were "either omitted or incomplete, or wrong" (Grygier 1994: 27). Children quite literally went missing, some of them eventually adopted into white families in the South (Grygier 1994: 126).

Donald Marsh, bishop of the Anglican Diocese of the Arctic from 1950 to 1973, dramatized this confusion in a collection of short stories he wrote about the Inuit, Cry the Beloved Eskimo. In one of the stories collected there an Ottawa bureaucrat wonders what to do with fifteen Inuit children cured of tuberculosis and ready to return home from the hospital. "'They can't speak a word of English,' says the bureaucrat helplessly, 'we don't know who they are or where they came from'" (Marsh 1991: 187).

In addition to the confusion about identities, Inuit patients who died in southern hospitals were generally buried in unmarked graves in southern cemeteries. Families were not always informed of these deaths or the whereabouts of the burial sites. Even when the news did arrive, it was only a bald statement that so-and-so had died. There were no details about the cause of death, no information about the burial, no letter of explanation or condolence—just a radio call or cable or, later, a telephone call through an official (Grygier 1994: 128). Reflecting on the situation years later, an Anglican missionary to the Inuit concluded, "They did not think the Eskimo people were worthy of being informed of where they precisely were, and didn't think it important that relatives should be informed, that parents should be told where their children were. There was none of that. The authorities didn't think it important that they should get their names right" (cited in Grygier 1994: 123).

In some sense Sakiassie was lucky that he heard so quickly about his grandmother's death. Other Inuit would spend years wondering whether their child or mother or father was dead or alive, and some would never know for sure (Grygier 1994). Sulaa Kublu didn't hear anything for two years.

When the C.D. Howe medical ship came to Arctic Bay for the first time in 1951, [my husband] Kublu was x-rayed and told he would have to go to hospital in the South.

It was two years later, in May 1953, when the RCMP told me that my husband was coming back in the summer. They told me he had gained a lot of weight and looked healthy again. But only his belongings arrived with the boat that summer.

I looked for him at the place where they kept the patients on the boat, but he wasn't there. When I finally realized what happened, I went numb with shock. People had to hold onto me. For several days I couldn't cry, sleep or react in any way. I was only a breathing, existing thing with no life in me. (Kublu 1978: 63–64)

The striking thing is that although the authorities were uncertain who had died, and who was buried where, they were very clear about how many Inuit they had in their care. We know, for instance, that in 1956, the year that Kaujak left Arctic Bay, "1,578 Eskimos with active tuberculosis were in sanatoria. That was one-seventh of the Eskimo population, and it did not include Eskimos fallen prey to other diseases or accidents." In fact, as officials liked to point out, "the largest Eskimo communities were the tuberculosis wards of hospitals in the cities of southern Canada" (Phillips 1967: 219–20). The statistics are precise: 1,578 Eskimos, no more, no less.


Keeping track of Inuit became a central concern for the Northern Administration, which found it difficult to accept and work with the Inuit lack of surnames. Administrators argued for the necessity of a system that "would enable the government administrators to distinguish each Eskimo from every other and facilitate the taking of censuses, the keeping of records and the registration of vital statistics" (Roberts 1975: 2). Dr. A.J. MacKinnon, a medical officer in Pangnirtung, wrote in 1935 to the Department of the Interior with a suggestion—that at birth each Inuit child "be given an identity disc on the same lines as the army identity disc and the same insistence that it be worn at all times. The novelty of it would appeal to the natives" (Roberts 1975: 6). MacKinnon wrote again in 1936, restating his case and emphasizing, "As far as the Eskimo is concerned, it does seem to me that this names business is of no great concern to them. They have got on nicely for a long time without cluttering up their minds with such details" (Roberts 1975: 8).

Despite some resistance to the idea of identification discs, including the concern that "misunderstanding might easily arise if Eskimos wore chains" (Roberts 1975: 8), in 1941 the Northwest Territories Council passed a motion to institute a "system of identification discs for Eskimos," which meant that each Inuit would be given a serial number (much like a social insurance number today) that he or she would be required to wear on a pressed fiber tag around the neck. By August of that year, officials on the Eastern Arctic Patrol were distributing the discs. The response, according to the arctic administrators, was enthusiastic. "Everywhere the idea of native identification has been welcomed by all concerned," was how the superintendent of the Arctic described their reception (Roberts 1975: 15).

Although each disc number was unique and designated a specific individual, the individuals identified were also, in an important sense, equivalent. Derek Smith has suggested that the disc list system reduced "the Eskimo population to identical constituent atoms of the same type for the purposes of state operations" (Smith 1993: 67). Thus, as MacKinnon made very clear, it didn't actually matter what the names of the Inuit were; it simply mattered that a system be developed that would allow administrators to enumerate them. Such equivalence—the ability to replace one item in a series with another—is at the heart of the colonial and bureaucratic reason through which the Canadian Arctic was governed. As the anthropologist Robert Williamson reports, the RCMP depended heavily on the disc numbers and would even use them in their reports without any corresponding names (Williamson 1988: 255).

This "turn toward seriality and uniformity" (Duttlinger 2008: 82) is something to which Walter Benjamin, writing in Europe in the 1930s, was also attuned. Calling our attention to the way a work of art's "aura" withdraws in the age of mechanical reproduction, when every original begets a duplicate, he describes this as a symptomatic shift in our mode of perception, our way of seeing the world. "What withers in the age of the technological reproducibility of the work of art," writes Benjamin, "is the latter's aura." More importantly, "the process is symptomatic; its significance extends far beyond the realm of art" (Benjamin 2008: 22). The destruction of the aura is a signature of a new mode of perception, one "whose 'sense for all that is the same in the world' has so increased that, by means of reproduction, it extracts sameness even from what is unique. Thus is manifested in the field of perception what in the theoretical sphere is noticeable in the increasing significance of statistics" (2008: 23–24).

Borrowing Benjamin's words, the disc numbers given to the Inuit, like the withering of the aura of the artwork, are the signature of a perception whose sense for all that is the same in the world makes it irrelevant who actually dies. The analogy MacKinnon makes between disc numbers and dog tags is telling. Military dog tags designate bodies whose very lives are interchangeable (Does it really matter which soldier dies? Is there such a thing as a unique soldier?), as well as bodies that are in some sense the property of the state. The pressed fiber tags Inuit were supposed to wear seem to work in a similar fashion. They designate interchangeable lives (and deaths) that somehow belong to the Canadian state.


Excerpted from Life Beside Itself by Lisa Stevenson. Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Prologue: Between Two Women 
1. Facts and Images 
2. Cooperating 
3. Anonymous Care 
4. Life-of-the-Name 
5. Why Two Clocks? 
6. Song 
Epilogue: Writing on Styrofoam 
List of Illustrations 

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