TB’s dark history

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LAC BROCHET -- Catherine Moise never got to say goodbye.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 04/11/2009 (4713 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

LAC BROCHET — Catherine Moise never got to say goodbye.

The 68-year-old elder of Northlands First Nation sobs as she tells the story that has left her with a lifetime of questions.

Forty-five years after her daughter Agnes was taken from her arms, Moise still does not know what happened to the baby nor where she is buried.

Doctors in The Pas diagnosed Moise with tuberculosis right after she gave birth to Agnes in May 1964. She was moved to the Clearwater Lake Hospital in The Pas, without her newborn, for treatment. The sanatorium’s strict regime of bedrest and isolation meant she couldn’t do much. She wasn’t allowed to stand up and walk to the bathroom, let alone contact family to find out what happened to Agnes.

Baby Agnes was a month old when she died of the TB she likely contracted from her mother, but Moise wasn’t told of her baby’s death until three months after.

Decades later, she is still searching for answers.

"I’m still looking for the little baby. She died from TB," she said, wiping away tears. "They never tell me anything about it."

There’s a movement afoot to help people in Moise’s situation, people looking for relatives who died of TB and never came home. They were likely buried in unmarked graves. Officials don’t know how many unmarked graves there are, but a former gravedigger said he believes there are about 200 aboriginal TB patients buried beneath dense underbrush a 15-minute drive from the old Ninette sanatorium.

This part of TB’s sad legacy explains why some First Nations TB patients are afraid to seek medical attention when they get sick. When TB cases surged in 2004, documents show those in communities with a long history of TB were upset by the disease’s sudden comeback. Some aboriginal people said it brought back memories of a time when people were taken away to sanatoriums and never came home.

Fear of TB hampered northern health-care workers’ efforts to convince TB patients to take their medication. The workers had to take extra steps to try to control the outbreak.

"If (patients) go to flophouses or they have a favourite area in the bush, you have to know where that is," said Marion Ellis, vice-president of acute care and chief nursing officer for the Burntwood Regional Health Authority in Thompson.

"Some of us have worked in the field. We’ve gone into the bush and gone into the traplines, and we expect that."

The trauma of TB still lingers for many former sanatorium patients and their families and communities. That’s why First Nations people are seeking ways to heal the old wounds. Grand Chief Ron Evans likens it to the residential school apology, a way to acknowledge what happened to people such as Moise and recognize the pain they suffered.

Unmarked gravesites have been found near three former sanatoriums. First Nations chiefs want forensic scientists to identify the remains so the bodies can be returned to their home communities.

"A lot of families, a lot of communities have lost their family members who went into sanatorium, and many of them never returned home. They don’t know where they’re buried," Evans said.

"There needs to be an inquiry into what happened."

Moise spent 18 months in sanatorium care before she returned to Brochet — a remote northern community where she lived with her husband and three other children until the early 1970s. She asked around to see if anyone knew where Agnes was laid to rest, but nobody knew. Moise, a residential school survivor, was afraid to ask government officials what happened to her baby. It was a time when Moise and others didn’t ask officials pushy questions.

No one in Brochet had a telephone, and Moise wouldn’t have known where to start looking for Agnes if she had one. On her reserve, she was cut off from the world, the only way out a winter road or an expensive flight.

She and her family uprooted in the early 1970s and moved north to Lac Brochet to get away from the drinking in Brochet and live off the land. Times were different, Moise said, and people spent their time hunting caribou, fishing and cutting hides.

But the burning question of what happened to her baby was not extinguished.

Ten years ago, First Nations leaders began calling on provincial and federal officials to help people such as Moise find burial information, but there has been little progress. There is still no central registry for burial records of people who died of TB, let alone archival information for the many First Nations TB patients who were buried in unmarked graves.

Officials say they are working at establishing a process to track burial records, but the problem is complex and progress slow.

However, the Free Press found a willing archivist to search for Agnes, and in two days she found the information Moise had waited decades to hear.

Baby Agnes was buried in a cemetery in Brochet — at a spot across the river from Moise’s home, several years after the baby’s death. She never knew her daughter’s tiny body was resting so close to home.

It’s a windy day in August, and Moise boards a plane to fly to Brochet from her home in Lac Brochet to say a proper goodbye to Agnes. No all-year roads link Brochet and Lac Brochet, and the frail senior is in poor health, likely too weak to brave such a long drive on a winter road.

Tears flow down her cheeks before takeoff as she talks of the last four decades of anxiety and despair over losing her daughter.

"Every time I think about it, I feel so sad, you know?" she said.

The plane lands at an airstrip where Moise’s son — aptly nicknamed Airport — was born. A brisk north wind howls through the Barrenlands First Nation, a community 400-strong. Brochet Mayor David LaPonsee meets Moise at the cemetery and walks with her past dozens of graves, elaborately decorated with colourful plastic wreaths and miniature white-picket fences.

Burial records couldn’t pinpoint the exact location of Agnes’ grave, so LaPonsee agreed to meet Moise and point out the small area of the cemetery where children who died as far back as the 1960s are buried.

They stop at a small grassy area. Here, there are no names on the tiny crosses, no decorative wreaths, no photos or loving messages atop grave markers to mark where the dead lie.

"That’s the area," LaPonsee said, pointing to small wooden crosses sticking out of the grass.

"That’s the place where we used to select the place for babies, small children. It could be any one of these."

Moise surveys the scene, taking it all in, saying nothing.

"My little angel is somewhere here. My little angel, my little girl," she says softly.

She leans down and touches a small white cross that’s topped with a tiny pink flower. She gravitates towards one of the oldest child graves in the cemetery, a grey wooden cross, simple and unmarked. Here, Moise believes, is where Agnes is.

"Goodbye, Agnes. Goodbye, my baby. I’ll come and see you. I didn’t even see your body, but I see your grave," she said, tears streaming down her face.

"I’ll never forget you Agnes. One of these days, I’ll see you again. Mommy loves you."

jen.skerritt@freepress.mb.ca

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