Curing Disease or Curing Culture? The Hidden History of Segregated Healthcare in Canada

Laura Bergen

When compiling an anthology of key events that shaped history, it is important to consider whose history is being discussed.

The segregated health care system in twentieth-century Canada has had a profound and lasting impact on generations of Indigenous families, however it is a history that many people are unfamiliar with – even within Canada. The Charles Camsell Indian Hospital (Camsell, hereafter) was the largest ‘Indian hospital’ in Canada, housing hundreds of Inuit, Métis, and First Nations patients from 1946 to 1996. While the public-facing mandate of the hospital was to treat tuberculosis patients during the 1940s and 50s, it was also part of the Canadian government’s wider scheme to assimilate the Indigenous population. Throughout the 40s and 50s, the Camsell undertook mass x-ray surveys of the Inuit population of the western arctic to screen for tuberculosis. The rate of the disease was disproportionately higher in Indigenous populations as a result of the conditions imposed by colonization, however there were no established health care facilities in the north that could effectively combat the epidemic. The Camsell staff screened community members with mobile x-ray units, and those deemed ill were loaded onto ships or Royal Canadian Air Force transport planes to be shipped to the hospital in Edmonton, Alberta. Most community members were not told what was happening and therefore could not consent to the process. The language barrier contributed to this confusion, however the conception that the Inuit were “child-like” and “psychologically distinctly a different race” was pervasive, thus adding to their inferior treatment. Patients were separated from their loved ones without warning, and were whisked away to the unfamiliar environment of the southern hospital.
Curing Disease or Curing Culture? The Hidden History of Segregated Healthcare in Canada
Eleventh Annual Pictorial Review: Charles Camsell Indian Hospital and Canadian Indians and Eskimos, (Edmonton: Charles Camsell Indian Hospital, 1958), 174. Photograph by Dr. John S. Willis, Indian and Northern Affairs Services.

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Once inside the hospital, many patients were subject to abuse and experimentation while being thrust into the broader network of assimilation programs.

Historians Laurie Meijer Drees and Maureen Lux have conducted oral histories from survivors and former staff to collect these stories. Common among the stories were instances in which patients were tied up or bound by plaster casts so that their movements were controlled. Photographs within the Camsell’s annual yearbook also show young children in cage-like cribs with lids that prevented them from standing. The regimes were strict, and the environment was foreign. As an extension of the residential school system, many children within the hospital were required to attend classes based on a Western, Christian curriculum. At the same time, their appearances were altered to fit a ‘white’ ideal. Barbers were brought in to provide haircuts, despite long hair being a significant spiritual symbol for many Indigenous groups. Many teenagers and young adults who recovered from tuberculosis entered the hospitals rehabilitation program, in which they were provided western clothing and trained in skills designed to integrate them into the western workforce. Within the hospital, many patients became dissociated from their culture and lost their first language. Many patients died while in the hospital and were buried in unmarked graves without their family’s knowledge, while others were unable to reconnect with their loved ones upon release. The experience of segregated health care has had lasting intergenerational effects on Indigenous families that are still felt today. At the same time, this story is also one of resilience and survival. Some patients made lasting friendships within the hospitals, and many survivors have fought to reclaim their cultural knowledge. I have recently become a part of the Manitoba Indigenous Tuberculosis Photo Project (MITPP) which aims to repatriate photographs from Manitoba sanatoriums to their communities, and to foster an exchange of knowledge pertaining to segregated healthcare in Canada. The conversations that have emerged throughout the project have illustrated the strength of Indigenous communities in the face of oppression and ignorance.
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Curing Disease or Curing Culture? The Hidden History of Segregated Healthcare in Canada

Laura Bergen

Laura wrote for Edition 3, Key events in History.
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