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‘There’s nowhere to put them’: Nunavut community still without morgue

Gjoa Haven putting its dead in a shed, lobbies for public facility

When James Dulac’s friend died in 2019, his body was kept the same way others are in his northern Nunavut community — in a shed with no heat or electricity.

Dulac, who lives in Gjoa Haven, said he was shocked to see his friend’s frozen body in a bag and covered in blood on the shed floor.

“(His) body was in an RCMP plastic bag, lying on the ground frozen. Another body was lying also on the ground with the head resting on (his) feet,” Dulac wrote in a letter last January to Tony Akoak, his member of the territory’s legislative assembly.

His friend’s arms and legs were twisted and frozen in place, making it impossible to put him in a coffin. He had to be put in a cardboard box instead, Dulac said.

With no morgue to put bodies, the community of about 1,300 people uses an old storage shed, which Dulac describes as a container with boarded up windows.

“When somebody dies, there’s nowhere to put them. They go on the floor and if there’s more than one person, the other person goes on top,” Dulac told The Canadian Press.

Not much has changed since he wrote to Akoak, Dulac said. Another friend of Akoak’s who recently died was left in the same condition.

“There were two other bodies lying over his feet. One over his feet, one over his leg. It’s unbelievable,” he said.

“I tried to clean him, but he was frozen. It’s just heartbreaking.”

Dulac wants to see a new space built with an area to prepare bodies, as well as a room for people to pray.

Akoak said the shed has been used as a morgue for as long as he can remember. He said he has raised the issue in the legislative assembly six times, most recently this fall, but nothing has changed.

“I am hopeful that this will be the final time that I need to raise it,” Akoak told the assembly in September.

“It is not a pretty sight to see if you go into that building.”

The hamlet of Gjoa Haven had applied to the Nunavut government to pay for a morgue through a program called the Small Capital Fund, which supports projects with up to $250,000.

Jeannie Ehaloak, Nunavut’s community and government services minister at the time, told Akoak that Gjoa Haven had applied too late, missing a Sept. 1 deadline, so the request was denied.

The next deadline for funding is April 1, Ehaloak said.

“We want to lay them to rest respectfully. I really want that. But I guess we will have to wait another year for that to happen,” Akoak said.

Community and government services bought two portable morgues in May 2020, but it’s unclear what has been done with them. They cost about $77,000 each.

The department did not respond to a request for comment on Gjoa Haven’s application or on how many other Nunavut communities need a morgue or have applied for funding to build one.

Dulac said, at this point, he’s calling on both the federal and territorial governments for help.

“Ask them down south in the city of Toronto or Ottawa or Montreal if they would accept a container as a morgue. Why us?

“What makes them different than us?”

—Emma Tranter, The Canadian Press

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