Nunavik communities struggle with burial of Inuit who die in the South
Region also suffers from lack of morgues, say KRG councillors
KUUJJUAQ — Kativik Regional Government councillors say they’re worried about what happens to family and community members after they die — especially when they die outside the region.
Councillors told the KRG council Sept. 11 that they are asked by families who have lost relatives outside the region about how to bring a deceased person’s body back home, and who should pay for the transportation.
Kuujjuaq councillor Jennifer Watkins said a community member recently died in Montreal, but family members in Kuujjuaq didn’t have the money to fly them home.
“So they went to the hospital, to the municipal council until finally the landholding corporation agreed to help them, because that family was just barely surviving,” Watkins said. “We know that something has to be done.”
Puvirnituq councillor Aisara Kenuajuak said he is often called to intervene to have a body of a community member flown home.
“The families end up paying — or we’ve had to use municipal funds because the families don’t have the money,” Kenuajuak said. “But nobody seems to claim this responsibility.”
That responsibility varies depending on where exactly the person died.
If a Nunavik resident dies in a Montreal hospital, for example, the health sector would pay to transport the deceased person home.
The same is usually true if someone does in a prison, depending on the circumstances.
But if the deceased had been living on the streets — one example Kenuajuak gave — it becomes the family’s responsibility to pay to transport that person’s body back north.
And those caseworkers are inevitably called on to deal with clients who die while living on the streets, although no specific money has been allocated to helping out if or when they die there.
But councillors say the challenges don’t stop even once a deceased person has arrived back home in Nunavik.
That’s because most of the region’s communities don’t have morgues to keep bodies until a funeral service and burial have been arranged.
Kuujjuaraapik councillor Parsa Kitishimik says deceased persons in her community are kept in a small room off the back of a local church.
Kitishimik said it generally takes between three or four days to gather family for the burial, so she’s pushing Nunavik health authorities to help the community build a larger room or a separate, refrigerated building where bodies could be cleaned and even embalmed.
Communities across Nunavut have made the same plea. While shacks might suffice as makeshift morgues during the winter, communities say they need refrigerated rooms to hold bodies in the summer months.
The KRG’s legal department says it has been in touch with the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services, which is looking at possibly designating space in local health centres to hold bodies.
Department director Catherine Fortier-Pesant cautioned councillors that communities require a special permit to operate a morgue — and that municipalities don’t actually have jurisdiction to take care of bodies.
In Quebec, there are three kinds of morgues, she pointed out; coroners’ offices, hospitals and private organizations like funeral homes.
But KRG chair Maggie Emudluk said provincial laws just create another barrier here for communities that don’t have access to proper morgues.
“We can’t even take care of our dead,” she told the council Sept. 11.