Igloolik Inuit sue feds over medical experiments that they say saw them treated like “monkeys”

“It is hard to imagine a more invasive series of non-consensual, quasi-medical techniques performed on Canadian citizens”

These photos show some of the scars from skin graft procedures conducted on Igloolik Inuit between 1967 and 1973. Five Inuit are now seeking damages and an apology from the federal government. (Photo courtesy of Steve Cooper)

By Jane George

Five Inuit from Igloolik are suing the federal government for medical experiments, including painful skin grafts, conducted on them in the 1960s and 1970s.

The claimants, who include a former premier of Nunavut and the most recent recipient of the Order of Nunavut, are suing for general and punitive damages of more than $1 million each and an apology.

The claimants say the experiments, conducted on about 30 Inuit between 1967 and 1973, included skin grafts to see whether Inuit could better accept skin grafts because they were less “outbred” than other Canadians.

The claimants also say they were exposed to cold so that their reaction to cold could be noted, poked with sharp objects to note their ability to withstand pain and saw the insertion of “objects into the body cavities.”

The statement of claim says that they felt they were “not inherently valuable as human beings but disposable in the same way as a laboratory rat it and they were exposed to serious risks solely for the purpose of furthering someone else’s’ knowledge.”

The plaintiffs say Canada failed in its fiduciary duty to protect them and allowed them to be subject to experiments that were “demeaning and disregarded their inherent value as human beings and have the right to treated with dignity.”

“The experiments could not have taken place without the concurrence, consent or collaboration of Canada and Canada took no or inadequate steps to prevent the experiences,” the statement of claim says.

Their chief lawyer in the statement of claim, filed June 7 at the Nunavut Court of Justice in Iqaluit, is Steven Cooper, a partner in the Edmonton-based legal firm Cooper Regel of Edmonton.

Cooper has successfully taken on many high-profile cases on behalf of Inuit, including the residential school class action case.

“It is hard to imagine a more invasive series of non-consensual, quasi-medical techniques performed on Canadian citizens,” Cooper said in a news release. “Surely such medical experimentation was not acceptable at any time but particularly in the post-World War II environment.”

Former Nunavut Premier Paul Quassa, now MLA for Aggu, is among the five plaintiffs who say they endured painful skin grafts in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Igloolik. (Photo by Jane George)

The claimants are Paul Quassa, a former Nunavut premier and the current Aggu MLA; Zacharias Kunuk, an award-winning filmmaker and recipient of the Order of Nunavut, Madeline Ivalu, a storyteller, musician, actress and writer; Lazarie Uttak; and Lydia Inooya.

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.”

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.

They say the experiments included skin grafts to others. They say they were exposed to cold so that their reaction to cold could be noted, poked with sharp objects to note their ability to withstand pain and saw the insertion of “objects into the body cavities.”

They say that they suffered pain and discomfort around the time of the experiment and while the wound was infected. They say the experiments left infections from 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. They say that the conditions were unsanitary, 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, 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.

But 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.”

Cooper told Nunatsiaq News that three Nunavut licensed lawyers are working on the claim, himself, Maria Grzybowska and Jenna Broomfield, an Inuk lawyer who’s originally from Nunatsiavut.

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

Filed Statement of Claim 07… by on Scribd

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(11) Comments:

  1. Posted by Marie-Lucie Uviluq on

    I asked for a clarification to the skin graft done on my person. The lady who was a part of the experiment team did not answer. The skin of the other person came off and didn’t become one with my skin.

  2. Posted by Israel MacArthur on

    What has this got to do in any way with the feds? Seems to be that it should be the researchers, and more specifically the universities and they ethics review boards who approved the research.

    • Posted by Very true, Israel on

      Some anthropologists have come to our community and
      have written very bad and untrue stuff about Inuit people.
      Their universities should be sued, not the FEDS.
      I don’t know why Inuit councils let those type of people do
      this, could sue them as well.
      Some time ago,2 CELTIC men ran a youth club, and it was
      very successful, the kids loved it !
      Then came an anthropologist and a regional social service
      expert and demanded it be closed down.
      Two Brit. nurses complained but were told their comments
      were irrelevant.

      • Posted by Vicarious Liability on

        Wikepedia: Vicarious liability is a form of a strict, secondary liability that arises under the common law doctrine of agency, respondent superior, the responsibility of the superior for the acts of their subordinate or, in a broader sense, the responsibility of any third party that had the “right, ability or duty to control” the activities of a violator. It can be distinguished from contributory liability, another form of secondary liability, which is rooted in the tort theory of enterprise liability because, unlike contributory infringement, knowledge is not an element of vicarious liability.[1] The law has developed the view that some relationships by their nature require the person who engages others to accept responsibility for the wrongdoing of those others.

        • Posted by Israel MacArthur on

          Yes, I’m familiar with this through workplace experience. It is that experience that makes me wonder how exactly this would apply in this situation? Anyone more knowledgeable than I able to help out?

  3. Posted by Tommy on

    There goes my respect for these people. As if Inuit everywhere weren’t struggling enough, these prestigious Inuit from Igloolik are suing for a specific study the universities initiated. Inuit everywhere have been studied where some have died. The people have been a curiosity since contact, even today. People, especially Igloolik Inuit, should read more about “Canadian” history. Seeking monetary fund through legal action while promoting Inuit tradition makes you wonder.

    • Posted by AnotherView on

      Seeking an apology when you feel it is necessary I don’t think translate to throwing out what you value in your tradition.

      Treating Inuit less then equals continues and has to stop.

  4. Posted by Why 50 years later? on

    Why after 50 years? Paul Quassa was NTI president twice and should have done something then; you’d think….

    • Posted by oh Ima on

      Either your new to Nunavut or just plain ignorant person that doesn’t know or understand colonialism in Nunavut. Inuit had no real say back then and dare i say now we still don’t have a proper voice. Qablunaat had a lot of power back than and we were taught not to question authority that is why people like John Amarualik, Cathy Towtongie, Eric Tagoona, Tagak Curley and Paul fought for our rights and fought for Nunavut. This is why Inuit are speaking about past injustices and I hope there will be more injustices will be expose because there are so many. It’s also not just about money it’s about exposing the real history of colonialism.

      • Posted by James Rondockett on

        @oh Ima – You hope there will be MORE injustices!?! Terrible idea in my opinion, unless it’s a matter of potential compensation for you, in which case you’re unfortunately falling in line with exactly what Tommy is saying.

        Asking why Paul Quassa didn’t take any action on this is certainly not an ignorant question. In fact, opposing the question of why he didn’t do anything while he was President of NTI is ignorant. Inuit clearly had and have a voice…it’s called NTI…it’s called the territory of Nunavut…it’s called ITK.

        If it’s not just about the money in your opinion, then it’s clearly a little about the money. Canadians are very interested in learning about the history of this country. But I know I don’t like the idea of paying for a $1,000,000 at a time.

  5. Posted by INUK on

    All names should be announced in the apology, My mother had scars in her arm, and would not talk about her experience, it would upset her if asked about her scars, also her E# was tattooed into her arm. A lot of people will not talk about it.

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