Skip to content

Families and former patients seek access to federal ‘Indian hospital’ records

Survivors say they were tied to their beds, forced away from their families and sexually abused
Georgina Martin poses for a photo at Lheidli T’enneh Memorial Park in Prince George, B.C. on Wednesday, August 10, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/James Doyle

Georgina Martin says she is still searching for answers about the treatment of her mother.

Martin was born at the Coqualeetza Indian Hospital in British Columbia after her mother was confined there with tuberculosis. Martin grew up with her grandparents in Williams Lake First Nation, or T’Exelc, in that province, while her mother remained hospitalized.

The professor and chair of Indigenous/Xwulmuxw studies at Vancouver Island University says she does not have a complete picture of her past, despite asking repeatedly for records.

“My birth in an Indian hospital was my first experience of trauma, which was then compounded by being reared without the closeness of a mother,” Martin wrote in a coming memoir.

“There is no information in the limited literature available about the effects of these hospitals on the Secwépemc people in my community,” wrote Martin, whose research focuses on intergenerational trauma linked to both residential schools and the health-care system

“What I am aware of is that I was born there. I made some effort to obtain my birth records; so far I have not been able to locate where I can find them or know if they even exist.”

The federal government established “Indian hospitals” across Canada from the 1930s, expanding them widely after the Second World War. They were originally created to treat Indigenous Peoples who contracted, or were suspected of having contracted, tuberculosis.

They later became segregated hospitals for Indigenous Peoples that treated all manner of conditions, including pregnancy, burns and broken bones. They had all closed or amalgamated into the mainstream health system by 1981 after concerns were raised over how the patients, including children, were forcibly confined and treated within their walls.

Some patients who died at the hospitals were buried in unmarked graves because the government often refused to pay the costs of sending their bodies home to their families.

Now communities are looking for answers.

The Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations has signalled it would be willing to open the records related to the former “Indian hospitals” as part of any response to a $1.1-billion class-action lawsuit filed in 2018 on behalf of Indigenous Peoples who received treatment at those institutions.

A Federal Court judge certified the class-action lawsuit in January 2020.

“Survivors recount stories of sexual violence, physical abuse, forced confinement, including being tied to a hospital bed for prolonged periods, forced isolation from families, surgeries without anesthesia,” said Adam Tanel, a lawyer with Toronto-based Koskie Minsky, one of two law firms involved in the action.

None of the allegations have been proven in court.

READ ALSO: ‘It has to be heard’: Nanaimo Indian Hospital survivor recounts torture he endured

“First Nations people deserve an effective and reliable method to access their own historical records — both on an individual and a community level,” Tanel said.

Kyle Fournier, a spokesperson for the Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations, said Ottawa is “working collaboratively with the parties toward a meaningful resolution” to the class-action lawsuit. Fournier suggested the federal government would be willing to provide access to the long-sought files.

“Ensuring the availability of records to former patients and their families will be considered as part of any resolution discussions,” said Fournier.

“Research to collect relevant documents from various archives is ongoing.”

Academics who have had limited access to the records through access-to-information requests say many Indigenous tuberculosis patients received outdated treatment for the disease compared to the non-Indigenous population.

Laurie Meijer Drees, who is also a member of the Indigenous/Xwulmuxw Studies faculty at Vancouver Island University, recorded testimonies of Indigenous Peoples who were treated in these institutions for her 2013 book, “Healing Histories: Stories from Canada’s Indian Hospitals.”

She said the collective understanding of how patients were treated there is incomplete.

“Oral histories are helpful, but institutional policy documents would reveal administrative directives,” she said.

Documents she has found through her research suggest a cavalier attitude toward consent from parents of children with tuberculosis.

“I do not think consent of parents for open T.B. cases should be stressed too much. It should be taken for granted,” said a March 1946 memo, seen by Meier Drees, that the Department of National Health and Welfare sent to officials at what was then the Department of Indian Affairs.

By 1953, an amendment to the Indian Act meant those subject to it could be prosecuted if they refused to go to hospital or comply with a doctor’s orders.

Maureen Lux, who teaches the history of Indigenous-government relations and the social history of medicine at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., also wants the records made available.

“I’ve been trying to get at all the records of the Indian hospitals for 10 years,” said Lux.

“Lately, it has proved very difficult to get anything.”

Lux wrote a book on the subject in 2016, “Separate Beds: A History of Indian Hospitals in Canada, 1920s-1980s,” in which she shared the story of a young boy who arrived at the Charles Camsell Indian Hospital in Edmonton after being sent there alone from his home in the Arctic.

She said none of the staff in the facility could pronounce his name, so he was referred to as “Harry Hospital.” He spent most of his childhood there and was then sent by train to Ottawa, without being able to say goodbye.

Lux said many families still do not know where loved ones who died in the hospitals are buried.

“It’s important that the hospitals open up their records, especially for families so they can find their loved ones,” she said.

In 2019, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized in Iqaluit for the federal government’s mid-century policy on tuberculosis, which included separating thousands of Inuit from their families and sending them to be treated in institutions in Southern Canada. Many never came home.

As part of the apology, the Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations set up the Nanilavut Initiative, a database to help families access information about Inuit who were sent South for treatment of tuberculosis from the 1940s to 1960s, including where they were buried.

Claudette Commanda, an elder from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg in western Quebec who will become chancellor of the University of Ottawa in November, said several members of her family were sent to “Indian hospitals” — some for years.

“In my father’s case he was shipped out to one of these Indian hospitals. I was about 13 years old, he was there for at least a year or two years,” she said. “My husband, his mother was put in an Indian hospital. They removed her lung.”

She said people in her community returned with scars from operations they had not been properly informed about.

“There is no reconciliation without the truth,” she said. “They need to open up these documents.”

Marie Woolf, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.