Inuit sue federal government over medical experiments that included skin grafts

IQALUIT, NUNAVUT-They were pulled off the street or summoned from their homes or schools to a building where “the experiments” took place.

Now almost 50 years later five Inuit have stepped up and filed a lawsuit against the federal government over medical experiments they say were performed on them.

The claimants are well known.

There’s Paul Quassa, a former Nunavut premier and the current Aggu MLA.

Zacharias Kunuk

Award -winning filmmaker and a recipient of the Order of Nunavut  Zacharias Kunuk.

Madeline Ivalu, a storyteller, musician, actress and writer; Lazarie Uttak; and Lydia Inooya are all suing for general and punitive damages of more than $1 million each and an apology.

The statement of claim was filed June 7 at the Nunavut Court of Justice in Iqaluit. It says they are seeking $100,000 in general damages and $1 million each in punitive damages, with interest and costs, and “special damages to be determined at the trial of this matter.”

Quassa said in a news release that affected Inuit were treated like “experimental monkeys.”

It happened at a time when the United Kingdom was asserting control over the north, imposing laws, settling an RCMP detachment in periodically to enforce those laws.  Health officials Indian Affairs workers were all brought in. It was almost 50 years ago in Igloolik, a community not much more than a hamlet that suddenly became the site of a boom in scientific research. A project that was part of a larger project called the International

Madeline Ivalu

Biological Program.

“We would do all these different kinds of things for a researcher,” said former Nunavut premier Paul Quassa, who grew up in Igloolik. He said as a young man in the 1970s he would go to school and hunt.

He said researchers came into the community and were conducting experiments. Some he said were simply inconvenient and annoying, but others were more invasive.

Quassa remembers being taken to a research building with his uncle and his cousin. They were told to roll up their sleeves.

The claim says the experiments were performed on about 30 Inuit in Igloolik between 1967 and 1973 and involved three Canadian universities working with an international scientific program.The claimants are asking for aggravated damages due to their young age and their vulnerability when they say were “assaulted and degraded” by researchers linked to the University of Manitoba, the University of Alberta, the University of McGill and the International Biological Program.

A statement of claim filed in Iqaluit, Nunavut, says the experiments included skin grafts to see whether Inuit could better accept skin grafts because they were less “outbred” than other Canadians. They were made to stand outside in the cold while improperly dressed

The plaintiffs also allege they were prodded with sharp instruments to assess their reaction to pain and some had instruments inserted into body cavities.

Edmonton lawyer Steven Cooper says he’s aware of at least 30 people in two different communities who were affected.

The statement says they suffered pain and discomfort at the time of the experiment and after when the wound became infected. They say the experiments left infections the results of the procedure being carried out in unsanitary conditions and caused permanent scarring at the location of the skin grafts or puncture.

They say that there was no cosmetic reason or benefit to the experiments. They say they weren’t informed of the risks or able to refuse. There was no follow-up, and that “consent was neither given or requested.”

Over time, they say they have suffered from thinking that a part of their body was grafted on to someone else and “persistent” concerns that a part of someone else was grafted on to their body.

In “Beyond the Hippocratic Oath: A Memoir on the Rise of Modern Medical Ethics,” Dr. John B. Dossetor, who oversaw the experiments, confirms they took place and said “the research was successful in showing that the skin grafts would last longer in the Inuit” than in the “outbred” Caucasians.

“We did not discuss hepatitis B or C viral risks (we knew nothing of HIV at the time) and it was fortunate that none of these viruses were prevalent in the North at that time. Otherwise our research would have been disastrous,” he writes in his book.

Dossetor had help in communicating with people in Igloolik from the late Dr. Otto Shaeffer, who is remembered fondly in Pangnirtung for his work there during the tuberculosis epidemic.

In his book Dossetor maintains his experiment received “group consent” from community elders.

In his book he also dismisses the account of a woman, then a young girl, who tells about her experience in the book “Saqiyuq: Stories From the Lives of Three Inuit.”

She is not yet one of the claimants.

“They thought Inuk skin was different from Qallunaat skin,” she said in the book. “I don’t know. It sure would have been nice to know what they were doing at the time. Anyways the grafts did not heal into my skin… very lucky the cuts weren’t on my face.”

Dossetor, in his book claims “there was only minimal risk involved and that diminishes, but by no mean abolishes, the need for fully informed consent.”

Cooper said he expects that as the matter becomes more publicly known, others will step forward and join the lawsuit.

“For those still living, the time is now to seek compensation and an apology,” his release states, because “many have already died without having had the opportunity to seek an apology and compensation from the Government of Canada whose responsibility for the administration of health and welfare.”

The statement of claim says that the defendant has up to 30 days to respond with either a statement of defence or an appearance.


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