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The last time a medical ship visited the remote village of Inukjuak was more than three decades ago.

Inuit elders remember it clearly, and their memories are not pleasant.

What looked like a steam-powered behemoth -- it was 91 metres long -- dropped anchor in the frigid waters of Hudson Bay, where the town sits along the coastline of Quebec, just north of the 58th parallel.

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A shipboard crane lowered a boat into the water, and soon a doctor arrived on shore with a team of armed RCMP officers.

They took the Inuit from their skin tents, gave them dog tags with identification numbers and loaded them onto a barge.

Some never returned. Thousands of Inuit from across the North received medical checkups aboard the CCGS C. D. Howe from 1950 to 1969, and hundreds were whisked away to be treated for tuberculosis in southern cities.

Most were snatched from their families with no goodbyes, no chance to pack belongings and no idea they would spend years -- or lifetimes -- away from home.

It remains a painful memory for many residents of Quebec's northern shores, and the old wounds opened again in June when local radio stations began broadcasting advertisements that during the summer another medical ship will retrace part of the C. D. Howe's route.

"Older people have memories of the old ship," said Johnny William, 60, a municipal manager for Inukjuak. "They think the tugboat will pick them up and they will leave their family for a long time."

Mr. William remembers the number on his dog tag, A9748, and how the C. D. Howe took away his half-brother, who was coughing up blood. His brother recovered after several years at a sanatorium in Hamilton, but never went back to Inukjuak.

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"It was a hardship," Mr. William said. "We didn't know what was going on, or where the ship had gone."

Organizers of the latest expedition are trying hard to quell those fears. They're holding community meetings, putting up posters and running two-minute musical advertisements in the local language of Inuktitut to tell people that the new ship, the CCGS Amundsen, is wholly unlike the C. D. Howe.

Both ships are Coast Guard icebreakers, but doctors on the Amundsen are interested in studying the Inuit, not treating them, although a few medical tests will be done. Climbing aboard will be entirely voluntary and everyone will return to their villages in a few hours.

"We're trying to be very, very careful not to compare it with the C. D. Howe," said Elena Labranche, executive director of the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services, whose brother was taken away on the C. D. Howe at the age of 4.

"People had a very, very bad experience," Ms. Labranche said. "They were brought onto that ship and not allowed to leave. Lots of people didn't come back."

The Amundsen will set off from Churchill, Man., on Aug. 28 and tour northern communities for one month. Researchers will study Inuit diseases, diet, weight, teeth, gambling, smoking, sexuality, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, heart rhythm, bone density and safety habits, among many other health issues.

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The project isn't purely for research, however: The 3,000 Inuit randomly selected to participate will also get medical testing they might never receive in the subarctic. Women aged 50 to 69 will be offered mammograms and pap smears.

It will be the first medical vessel to visit Nunavik, the northern reaches of Quebec, since the C. D. Howe was declared redundant in 1970 because of improved air transportation. Also, it will be the first expedition under a new, $25.7-million federal research initiative called ArcticNet, a seven-year program in which experts from 41 Canadian and foreign universities will travel northern waters to study the natural, medical and social effects of climate change.

"Not only are we studying the natural systems, but also how humans are reacting to the natural systems," said David Barber, director of the Centre for Earth Observation Science at the University of Manitoba, who will join the crew.

As well, the Amundsen is a unique vessel, Dr. Barber said. It used to be called the CCGS Sir John Franklin, until it was declared surplus two years ago and converted to Canada's first research icebreaker.

The overhaul included adding a "moon pool," a port in the bottom of the hull that allows scientists to deploy a small submarine or take water samples even when surrounded by ice. Fully equipped laboratories were also built inside and, in rough weather, patients can be transported by helicopter.

That's vastly different from the equipment available to the medical staff of the C. D. Howe in the 1950s and 1960s. Getting to the ship, aboard a barge hauled by a tugboat, was sometimes treacherous and doctors had to make diagnoses while the X-ray images of the patients were still wet with developing chemicals.

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Fred Lee worked as a medical attendant on the C. D. Howe's six-person hospital staff for one summer in 1957 before returning to university. Now the chief executive officer of a private security firm in Hamilton, the 68-year-old Mr. Lee looks back at the mission with mixed feelings.

"There are complaints that people were taken from their native milieu," he said. "But there was an epidemic going on."

Tuberculosis was unknown among aboriginals for centuries, leaving them vulnerable when Europeans introduced the disease. In the 1950s, the government estimated that at least one-third of Inuit were infected with TB. Thousands of Inuit and other natives were shipped to sanatoriums in Hamilton and Edmonton.

At one point, Mr. Lee said, the Mountain Sanatorium outside Hamilton became the world's largest Inuit community.

Life aboard the ship was comfortable, he said. A jacket and shirt were mandatory attire in the dining lounge, where staff and crew shared meals. He carried trays of food down to the forward hold where 47 Inuit slept on bunks.

The involuntary patients seemed upset only at first, Mr. Lee said. Once, he saw an Inuit who had just realized he would be gone a long time reach into his pockets and give a handful of seashells to his teenaged son. Mr. Lee remembers the man explaining to his son that he should take care of his wife and family. "He basically said, 'You're the boss now.' "

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Others would get more distraught, Mr. Lee said, though never violent. "The police were standing there, you know, and in those days, people tended to do what they were told."

But Mr. Lee knew the ship wasn't liked among the Inuit. As the C. D. Howe drew closer to a village, he would often see people hastily packing up their tents and fleeing.

Many Inuit suffered seasickness on the long journey south. Once they arrived at the sanatoriums, they often had difficulty adjusting to a European lifestyle.

Paul Wilson, author of a forthcoming book about the Hamilton sanatorium, said one man escaped the hospital and lived in the nearby woods for months. He died of starvation and exposure.

Children who eventually returned home to the North were like foreigners in their own land, Mr. Wilson added, because they spoke English and never learned the skills essential for survival in the northern winters.

"I can understand how the C. D. Howe became a symbol for a kind of death," Mr. Wilson said.

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When the Amundsen arrives this summer, however, local officials don't expect the Inuit to run away. People have been given plenty of information about what the doctors want this time, said Lucassie Inukpuk, mayor of Kuujjuaraapik.

"This time they will respect us," he said. "It's like history they want to redo."


A July 10 story about a medical ship visiting the Inuit of Hudson Bay misidentified the author of a forthcoming book about the Hamilton sanatorium. He is Ralph Wilson, not Paul Wilson.

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