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Nanilavut program leads to relief for those searching for loved ones' graves

Jack Anawak searched for his mother's grave for years, mostly trying to track word-of-mouth information offered to him.

Now the Nanilavut (Let’s find them) database has confirmed the location.

Nanilavut officially launched March 8 in Iqaluit when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized for the government's treatment of Inuit during the tuberculosis epidemic (TB).

Jack Anawak, as a child, with his mother Piovaa, who was sent to the south for tuberculosis treatment in 1956 and died two years later. Anawak finally has confirmation of the location of Piovaa's grave, thanks to the Nanilavut (Let's find them) database officially launched in March.
photo courtesy Jack Anawak

Piovaa was taken from Naujaat to the south for medical treatment, at the same time others were heading south for TB treatment, in 1956 when Anawak was six.

"Two years later, March of 1958, we got word that she had passed away," Anawak recalled.

"They didn't tell us where she was buried."

When Anawak spoke with Nunavut News in May 2017, he felt he might be getting close to finding her. Most recently, he felt even closer, based on information from a woman Anawak's wife Caroline met by chance in Fort Qu'Appelle, Sask.

"But we didn't have the resources to really look. So when the Nanilavut program started, I gave them my mother's name and disc number. They found her," said Anawak.

"It was that place, Oak River Reserve Cemetery. Nanilavut proved it."

Piovaa's grave is Nanilavut's first success, found within a week of the launch.

"And by the way, Trudeau apologized 61 years to the day of my mother's death, March 8," said Anawak.

The date is meaningful to Anawak because his mother has always found ways to communicate with him through encounters with others throughout Nunavut who had known her.

Joanasie Akumalik is Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.'s Nanilavut project manager. He says at least 15 people have come forward asking for help to find a loved one's grave in the south. The database contains roughly 900 names of Inuit who never returned from TB treatment in the south.

Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.'s Nanilavut project manager Joanasie Akumalik helps families find the graves of loved ones who were sent to the south for tuberculosis treatment mid-century, but never returned.
Michele LeTourneau/NNSL photo

Three graves have officially been matched with searching family members so far, says Akumalik.

He lays out the process.

"Usually, they'll call me first. Then they start telling the story. It gets emotional," he said.

Akumalik is uniquely suited to do this difficult but rewarding job. He helped his father and uncle find their father's grave at a Hamilton, Ont., cemetery.  He likens it to detective work. There are multiple spellings of names, and E-numbers can be repeated. Records kept by each cemetery are different.

"Some of them have good records and some of them don't. There was a story of an 'unknown Eskimo' in Yellowknife. We expected that," said Akumalik, adding in some cases cremation took place or a location is unknown.

"We expect that, too," said Akumalik.

"So my job is to get that piece of information. I connect the dots to get the proper information. I have to be 100 per cent sure."

The process can take 10 minutes or a few weeks, depending on many factors, including provincial government response time.

People are relieved when they receive information, and very emotional, Akumalik said. There are mental health supports for those who need it.

"In the end, it was a feeling of great relief," said Anawak about Piovaa's grave being definitively located.

"And almost like euphoria. I'm still sort of thinking that the real emotional feeling will be when we get to that cemetery."

Anawak will have help with that, as well, explains Akumalik. Nanilavut funds two airline tickets for family members, accommodations and meals.

"Some people have asked if NTI can produce a marker if the grave doesn't have a marker. We can do that," said Akumalik.

Akumalik can also help organize flights, transportation on the ground, hotel reservations, directions to the cemetery, and what to expect once they get to the cemetery.

"I have plans to go down on June 10th, with my adoptive sister – because she was my adoptive mother – her (Piovaa's) only daughter," said Anawak.

"I'm just so happy, I want the whole world to know, even though I'm sure it will be emotional when we get there."