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Embassy West hotel in Ottawa on Nov. 15, 2021.Shelby Lisk/Courtesy of family

An Ottawa retirement home is falling short of its commitment to Nunavut seniors, according to a letter of complaint that says the facility doesn’t provide enough interpreters, liquids or stimulating activities for Inuit elders.

The letter, delivered to Nunavut’s Health Minister on Thursday, was written by the board of an elders’ society in Iqaluit after relatives of some of the home’s residents flew to Ottawa to help with their care and feeding during a COVID-19 outbreak that began in December.

While there, the relatives discovered that the home, called Embassy West Senior Living, was sending Inuktitut-speaking elders to the hospital on their own.

“It is very sad to hear that residents are sent to hospital alone with only their patient chart and without human companions or an interpreter,” the letter reads. “It is not surprising that residents can be misunderstood if they are sick and alone.”

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The Nunavut government has a contract with Embassy West to take in elders who require round-the-clock care. The territory is short of long-term care beds and doesn’t have any facilities capable of providing advanced dementia care, which leaves some Nunavut families no choice but to send their elders thousands of kilometres away for their final years.

The question of where and how to care for Inuit elders has become a major political issue in Nunavut. The subject is expected to top the priority list when the territory’s new government releases its formal mandate statement this month.

Around 40 Nunavut seniors usually live at Embassy West, although the number fluctuates as people come and go.

Embassy West’s director of operations, Selma Basic, said she wasn’t able to respond in detail to the letter, which she had not seen until The Globe and Mail sent her a copy.

Lizzie Ittinuar, 93, sewing in her room at Embassy West Senior Living in Ottawa where she now lives, far from her home in Nunavut.Courtesy of Peter Ittinuar/Courtesy of family

“However, I can assure you that Embassy West Senior Living provides the highest quality of care and service to all our residents,” she said by e-mail. “Every effort is made to respect the cultural, traditional, care and interpretational needs of the Nunavummiut elders.”

The Nunavut Department of Health, meanwhile, said in a statement that Health Minister John Main is reviewing the letter and looking into the grievances raised by its authors.

The letter contained a list of concerns and possible solutions compiled by Pairijiit Tigummiaqtikkut, the Iqaluit elders’ society, after relatives of Embassy West’s Inuit residents addressed the society’s board at a meeting on March 2.

The letter alleged that Inuktitut translation wasn’t regularly available at Embassy West, particularly on nights and weekends, even though the home says it has three interpreters on staff. It said residents weren’t given adequate liquids because that would force staff to take them to the washroom too often.

The letter also accused Embassy West of infantilizing Inuit elders, with expert seamstresses and renowned artists offering construction paper and stickers for craft projects. It said workers made a habit of calling all the Inuit women “anaana,” or mother, and the men, “ataata,” or father, rather than learning their names.

Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster, a member of Nunavut’s legislative assembly, called that reminiscent of a past era when the federal government assigned Inuit numbers on leather tags instead of recording their actual names.

“It just seems so incredible that the Government of Nunavut wouldn’t hold any contractor accountable for at least giving people the respect of calling them by their names,” she said.

Learning of the allegations in the letter disturbed Adamee Itorcheak of Iqaluit. One of his uncles lives at Embassy West now, and other friends and relatives of his have stayed at the facility in the past.

He said it was crucial for the Nunavut government to find a way to bring more elders with advanced care needs back to their home communities. “Our elders are our encyclopedias,” he said. “Right now, we are failing our elders.”

The letter, signed by Aimo Muckpaloo and Annie Nattaq, the society’s president and vice-president, offers many suggestions for improving the day-to-day lives of Inuit living at the Ottawa home, such as providing more country food – the term Inuit use for traditional fare such as caribou, seal and Arctic char – playing Inuktitut radio and TV programs and hiring more Inuit workers.

“There are over 5,000 Inuit in Ottawa, and a lot of them know how to care for elders,” said Manitok Thompson, a former Nunavut politician who lives in Ottawa and pays regular visits to Embassy West. She was in Iqaluit for the society’s board meeting on March 2.

“Just to have a conversation in their language, that would lift them up,” she said.

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