Cultural Safety Module 1: Peoples Experiences of Colonization

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Indian Hospitals

Indian hospitals were established to treat Aboriginal peoples with certain diseases, such as tuberculosis. Their purpose was twofold: to fulfill the "white man's burden" to care for those less "civilized" and thus appear humanitarian38 and to further assimilate Aboriginal peoples into the general population. However, the "fear of interracial pathological contagion" likely provided the greatest motivation for the development of separate services.

In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, medical science contributed a great deal of new knowledge, and society underwent a general medicalization, which included the establishment of separate health services for Aboriginal peoples. The prevailing racial beliefs supported the view that Aboriginal peoples were weak and, thus, unable to withstand disease and survive in a changing world.

The new power and influence yielded by medical science was evident in the Indian Act:

The Governor in Council may make regulations... (f) to prevent, mitigate and control the spread of infectious diseases on reserves, whether or not the diseases are infectious or communicable; (g) to provide medical treatment and health service for Indians; (h) to provide compulsory hospitalization and treatment for infectious diseases among Indians.39

There was also a growing demand from Aboriginal peoples for medical treatments and health services. Aboriginal healers looked to medical science, and the knowledge of those who had brought new diseases to Aboriginal communities, for help in treating their people. This demand coincided with official efforts to ban traditional healing practices, which served to increase the overall power of medical approaches.

By the early-20th century, the spread of tuberculosis, in particular, was causing much anxiety.40 Between about 1912 and the mid-1930s, government and health officials debated whether to establish separate facilities for Aboriginal people suffering from the disease. In the meantime, a few hospitals opened wards for Aboriginal people with TB, but, overall, treatment facilities were few and far between.

Then in the mid-1930s, the Cooqualeetza Indian Hospital was established in Sardis, B.C.; it was the primary sanitorium for a decade. In the mid-1940s, Indian hospitals also opened in Nanaimo and Prince Rupert. Medical practitioners who worked with Aboriginal peoples had advocated in the 1920s for more facilities closer to where people lived and where their families could be involved in their care.41 The system of hospitals that was established had the opposite effect, however, separating families by large distances, emotionally and physically.

Listen to what Joan Morris has to tell us about her experiences of being at Nanaimo Indian Hospital:

As in the case of residential schools, there are numerous accounts from Indian hospital survivors of multiple abuses, including sterilization and medical experimentation. Records on the treatment of patients admitted to Indian hospitals are scarce. In fact, according to one source, the archives of Nanaimo Indian Hospital were destroyed.42

Consider the experiences of Aboriginal Elders, Abraham Morris and Art Thompson.

Abraham is a Tsartlip First Nation community member and he is a survivor of the Nanaimo Indian Hospital. Abraham was a healthy young person before he was put into the hospital because he supposedly had tuberculosis (TB). The treatment of Abraham and his relatives at Nanaimo Indian Hospital was not the professional medical help we have come to believe that provides comfort and recovery for people in need of care. Instead, this hospital left traumatic scars on many of the residents where they lived out anywhere from two to fifteen years of their lives in this institution. This leaves many bitter memories when dealing with medical professionals today.43

Joan Morris: Hospital abuse
Joan Morris,
Hospital Abuse

[Text Transcript]

Art Thompson, born into the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation at Nitinat Lake on Vancouver Island, was victimized by convicted residential school supervisor Arthur Plint, and also spent three years in the Nanaimo Indian Hospital for tuberculosis. Mr. Thompson states that "We were segregated even by disease." All children at residential school were assigned a number and Thompson further states that "a lot of us didn't know what our names were." Thompson's strong spirit and the time spent at home during the summers during his residential school years provided sustenance and "reinforced in my mind there was something better than what I was going through."44

You may find the information provided so far in Module 1 disturbing and distressing. If you do, the Suggestions for Self Care may be of help.

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