John R.H. Matchim
Since the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Amundsen was reactivated in 2004 it has conducted multiple mass health surveys of Inuit communities across the Canadian Arctic. In 2004 and 2017 surveys organized by the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services and Laval University’s Population Health Unit asked some 2,000 residents questions about housing, family violence, addictions, food insecurity and the reappearance of tuberculosis. While its promoters spoke of improved community health outcomes and “empowerment,” the data was also used “to compare the current situation with the health and social repercussions of the Plan Nord,” Quebec’s contentious programme of northern industrialization. Another pair of surveys, conducted in 2007 and 2008, was funded by the federal government as part of the 2007-08 International Polar Year, and its researchers interviewed and examined adults and children in Nunatsiavut, Kitikmeot, and Inuvialuit regions. Launched to great fanfare, the surveys have been criticized for a lack of transparency and withholding of research findings.
The Amundsen was a critical component of these surveys, providing researchers and governments with a platform that could move technology and people through adverse Artic conditions and sustain them for months at a time. But the Amundsen is just the latest of a long line of ships that have provided governments, companies and health care providers with a means to extend authority, monitor populations, and carry out research in a vast territory that challenges conventional methods of governance. Indeed, news of the Amundsen’s planned visit in 2004 awakened painful memories of the C.D. Howe, another icebreaker that conducted tuberculosis surveys during the 1960s and forcibly removed Inuit to sanitoria in southern Ontario. Drawing upon my on-going research of the International Grenfell Association (IGA), a semi-autonomous health care provider active in Labrador until 1981, this piece will provide some historical context for the contemporary health surveys of the Amundsen. In particular, it will highlight the IGA’s mass tuberculosis survey of Inuit communities in northern Labrador, conducted by the hospital ship Strathcona III in the summer of 1970.