A Nunavut judge has barred territorial officials from sending an Iqaluit woman who needs around-the-clock care to a home in Calgary, saying the cycle of sending Inuit to facilities thousands of kilometres from their families and culture, “does need to be broken.”
Justice Deborah Gass ruled last month that it was not in the best interests of Ina Ishulutak, 60, to be moved to southern Canada, despite Nunavut’s Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee (OPGT) insisting there was no choice because the territory’s few long-term care facilities are full.
“This decision does create a crisis in itself, and I am very mindful of that,” Judge Gass told an Iqaluit courtroom on Aug. 11, according to a transcript of the proceedings. “But in my view, it seems to me that a crisis that is going to be created by this decision may well be a crisis that will bring about some change.”
A shortage of long-term care facilities – and housing in general – has led the Nunavut government to regularly send Inuit elders and others who require supportive care to facilities in the south, a practice opponents say harks back to the days of residential schooling and tuberculosis treatment far from Inuit lands.
It’s too early to say what the ruling could mean for other Inuit, but the Ishulutak family’s lawyer, Anne Crawford, hopes it will at least show Nunavut residents that they can successfully fight the removal of their loved ones in court.
“Being forced to move is a cultural shock,” Martha Kunuk, Ms. Ishulutak’s sister, said in an interview on Friday. “When I’m away from town for a week or two, I long for home.”
Ms. Kunuk, along with Ms. Ishulutak’s other siblings, challenged the plan to send their sister to Calgary not long after their mother, Sheba, died in May. Until then, Ms. Ishulutak, who has schizophrenia that is controlled by medication, lived with her mother in Iqaluit.
It was only after the death of the family matriarch that the siblings learned the OPGT, which looks after the interests of dependent adults who don’t have next of kin to care for them, had become Ms. Ishulutak’s court-appointed guardian in 2019.
Ms. Ishulutak’s brother, Norman Ishulutak, said in an affidavit submitted to the court that the family had always understood that Ms. Ishulutak’s younger sister, Elisapee Ishulutak, would become Ms. Ishulutak’s private guardian when their mother was no longer able to perform that role.
Regardless, the OPGT was in charge of Ms. Ishulutak’s affairs when she wound up staying at Akausisarvik, an Iqaluit mental-health facility. That came to pass because Ms. Ishulutak was, according to an OPGT memorandum to the court, left alone and uncared for while Elisapee and other members of the family accompanied a gravely ill Sheba to hospital in Ottawa, where she later died.
While the family was away, Ms. Ishulutak had emergency surgery at the hospital in Iqaluit for a life-threatening blockage to her intestine, after which she was discharged to Akausisarvik on a temporary basis.
Following her surgery, Akausisarvik staff concluded Ms. Ishulutak needed the type of long-term care their mental-health facility wasn’t equipped to provide.
They turned to the OPGT, which inquired about a bed in one of Nunavut’s long-term care facilities, all of which were full. Calgary was the only option, short of leaving Ms. Ishulutak homeless, the OPGT said in court documents.
(Thilairani Pillay, director of the Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee for Nunavut, said in a statement to The Globe and Mail that she couldn’t comment on individual cases, but that her office doesn’t take sending people south lightly and aims to do it only temporarily wherever possible.)
Ms. Ishulutak’s family fought the move to Calgary, and Judge Gass sided with them. The judge said the public money that would be spent caring for Ms. Ishulutak in Calgary could, “best be spent by trying to remediate the situation for her, both housing-wise and care-wise, in Nunavut itself.”
Elisapee has offered to take her sister in with the help of home-care services, if she can move into a larger and more accessible public-housing unit. In the meantime, following Judge Gass’s ruling, a temporary bed was found for Ms. Ishulutak at an elder-care facility in Arviat, a community that is about 1,300 kilometres west of Iqaluit but still in Nunavut.
Ms. Kunuk said the family is glad a short-term placement could be found in an Inuit community, but they are looking forward to having their sister back in Iqaluit and living with Elisapee soon. Ms. Kunuk also said she is “very happy” the judge came down against relocations.
“The cycle of removal, in situations even where it is the last resort, does need to be broken,” Judge Gass told the court. “Sometimes it takes a crisis to bring about change.”