Book excerpt: The dark past of native health care

In Gary Geddes’s newly released book Medicine Unbundled, the dark history of segregated indigenous health care in Canada is revealed through interviews Geddes conducted with dozens of indigenous elders from across the country.


Joan Morris, or Joanie as she prefers to be called, is seated across from me at Ricky’s Restaurant in a small plaza on Admirals Road, a major street that cuts the Songhees Reserve in half. Apparently, you don’t argue with rank when it comes to colonial thoroughfares. She is spreading at least a hundred black-and-white photographs on the table, all associated with her mother’s 17-year sojourn in the Nanaimo Indian Hospital, which operated from 1946 to 1967.

“That’s my mother when she was admitted. She was healthy then. This is her a few years later, after the injections, bloated and sickly.”

The difference is shocking. Confidence and youthful exuberance are gone; and in their place a close-cropped woman with a puffy, unhealthy face and no light in her eyes. Joanie provides a running commentary on the photographs.

“This is Uncle Ivan, a patient at the same time, who almost died from a botched operation. That’s the priest from Kuper who raped my friend. And this is the Nanaimo Indian Hospital where I was admitted at age two, and again at age five. I visited the place once after it closed to offer a prayer for those who died there. I’d never felt anything so cold before — it was like the hand of death on my neck.”

As Joanie pauses over her coffee, I take a second look at the hospital’s ramshackle wooden structure, faded and without character, a former army barracks that went from preparing youth for the killing fields in Europe during the Second World War to providing medical short-shrift to Canada’s indigenous sick, administering forced sterilizations and gratuitous drug and surgical experiments. I’m shocked to notice the hospital’s proximity and resemblance to the buildings at Vancouver Island University when it was called Malaspina College, where I’d often read my poems to classes taught by friends in the English Department.

Our second meeting takes place the following week at the Rebar Restaurant off Bastion Square, just up from the harbour in Victoria. I try to convince Joanie to order my favourite pot-stickers, but she turns up her nose at them, as well as at the house special, wheatgrass smoothies. She chooses fish tacos.

While waiting to be served, we trade details of our dysfunctional backgrounds. Mine — poverty, a mother who died at 35 and an alcoholic father — pales in comparison to what she’s been through. It would be a gross understatement to say that Joanie was not welcomed into this world. Her injuries started as a newborn when her mother tried to strangle her and managed to destroy one of her vocal cords. This explains why, despite our cramped quarters in the corner of the restaurant, I strain to decipher her words and why the nuns at the Kuper Island Residential School punished her so often for not speaking up.

Joanie’s mother, Mary Theresa Morris, had wanted to be a nun, but was seduced and made pregnant, then forced into marriage by her parents. Her first child was aborted, and no love was wasted on Joanie, the second. Sent to the Nanaimo Indian Hospital two weeks after Joanie was born, her mother ran away three times but was returned by the authorities. Eventually she came to view the hospital more as a place of refuge than a prison, a retreat where she could escape a marriage she did not want, a daughter she could not love and the responsibilities that come with life on the outside.

Joanie finishes her last fish taco, washes it down with water, and casually eyes my pot-stickers, while I wonder how she, as a religious person, manages to balance the forces of love and anger that must vie for ascendancy after what she’s been through. She has plenty to resent in her personal and tribal history, grievances enough to drag any normal person to self-destructive behaviour, even suicide. On top of all that, she has recently been diagnosed with cancer.

After so many negative experiences in hospitals, she has decided not to undergo surgery, requesting instead medication that will stabilize or slow down the disease. A recent biopsy to check out the progress of the cancer revealed small growths on her pancreas, which turned out to be benign. She has a lot of pain in the midriff area, she tells me, but tries not to let this affect her busy schedule. Joan is in demand in nursing circles, both as a spokesperson recounting her time at Nanaimo Indian Hospital and for her decades-long experience as a nurse’s aide.

Her interviews have not only been recorded on audiotape and film, but are also the subject of the CBC documentary State of Care that aired on The Current in 2013. She has also, I notice, become an instant convert to pot-stickers, having decided that her new friend is not always wrong, at least when it comes to restaurant food.

“Not bad,” she says, with a mischievous grin, spearing another of those little satchels of succulence from my plate.

“Shortly after I was born and my mother was shipped off to the Nanaimo Indian Hospital, I was living with my grandparents, Elizabeth and Andrew James, in Esquimalt Harbour. Grandmother was a midwife. Grandfather, a lovely man when sober, became violent and angry when drunk. He survived residential school on Penelakut Island but never talked about it. All that went to the grave with him. The house in Esquimalt burned down when someone knocked over a kerosene lantern. That’s how we all came to be living with my great-grandparents, Tom and Alice James, on Chatham Island, my spiritual home.”

Joan’s and my latest culinary rendezvous takes place at the coffee shop at Oak Bay Marina, where offerings are limited but the view is unbeatable. The marina, with its vast flotilla of mostly unused sailboats and yachts, looks out at the snow-capped mountains of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula and, more importantly today, at Little Chatham, or Tl’ches, the small outcrop of rock in the tumultuous Juan de Fuca Strait, where Joanie spent some of the best years of her childhood in the loving care of elderly relatives.

They survived on a diet of fruit and vegetables from their gardens, fish, clams, oysters, the occasional seal and a variety of other creatures and marine plants unfamiliar to most non-indigenous peoples. Grandfather Andrew, an avid fisherman, would sometimes paddle with Joan in the canoe from Chatham to the Songhees reserve in Esquimalt Harbour, some eight or ten kilometres in swift currents and very changeable weather. He spoke little but conveyed a deep affection as he stopped regularly along the way to jig for cod and to show Joan how to bait a hook, offer a prayer of thanks for the catch and put the fish quickly out of its misery with a sharp blow to the back of the head. Her great-grandmother, Alice, also known as Ts’emiykw’, was the dominant presence on Chatham, the refuge Joan describes as an all-too-brief taste of “heaven on earth.”

“Whenever I get lonely, I cry for the old ones,” she confides over coffee and a chocolate muffin. “They were so loving. I never heard a harsh word, never knew hunger.”

The old ones, including Granny Elizabeth, or Sellema, the closest to a saint Joanie has encountered in this mortal sphere, would tell her stories around the pot-belly stove on this remote and relatively treeless island, while winter storms raged.

“I never worried,” she says. “They told me if the house caught fire or blew away in a storm, I should take refuge between two driftwood logs and that would keep me safe.”

Joanie has brought half a dozen large but fading photos that show her as a small child on Chatham, tending chickens with her great-grandmother. The old woman’s ghostly image has almost disappeared from the photograph, sadly symbolic of the Songhees nation itself. The few sheep they raised provided wool to make knitted tuques, gloves and sweaters, to be bartered with the merchants in Victoria’s Chinatown for the goods and produce they needed.

“Together we would all pick seaweed,” Joanie says as we prepare to leave, “gather oysters, sea urchins, and something whose English name is chitons. They were the hardest to pull off the rocks.”

“Not as hard to remove as the settlers,” I can’t resist adding.

Joanie nods her head and offers an indulgent smile. Life on Little Chatham was not easy, but it was a safe and caring environment for a child whose mother had rejected and almost killed her.
I return the earlier batch of photographs, which I’ve scanned and placed in a leather-bound album so Joanie can keep them safe. I’m not expecting her question.

“What did you think after looking at all those pictures?”

She has something more than curiosity in mind, but I’m not sure what it is. I tell her the photos made me angry and upset at the waste of human lives, though I know it’s also because old photos always remind me of my own losses and the relentless passing of time.

“This is just a drop in the whirlpool,” Joanie says. “We’ve lost thousands, maybe millions.”

I understand her use of the pronoun “we” to include the indigenous peoples in the Americas, perhaps worldwide. She then talks about the spread of smallpox blankets and of German-speaking doctors showing up at Kuper when she was there, with long needles to inject “medicines” into the chests of students, one of whom died shortly after.

I don’t know how to respond to these stories. I’ve written about the long history of racism in Canada and read about medical experiments conducted by the U.S. military on prison inmates, African-Americans and Hispanics, servicemen, veterans, foreign nationals and others. When you go through the long list of illegal medical experiments conducted by military groups, you have to conclude that there is nothing we are incapable of inflicting on our fellow human beings, the more so if they are defenceless and seen as somehow inferior and, therefore, expendable.

Many Canadian historians dismiss indigenous people’s stories about smallpox and other deliberately introduced diseases as fabrications, arising from justifiable paranoia among peoples displaced and forcibly incarcerated at the schools. I certainly don’t dismiss those painful testimonies, so fresh in the minds of survivors, but I need more proof about smallpox and atrocities that occurred 150 years ago. It’s an issue that will have to wait.

All are welcome to attend two events with Gary Geddes and Joan Morris at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 16, at Royal Roads University (1-866-890-0220) and at 3 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 23, at the University of Victoria, Engineering/Computer Science Building, 124 (250-721-6044).
 

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