Racism, Disease, and Someone Else’s Life: Canada’s History with Indigenous Peoples

Anyone who says – or thinks – Canada is not racist should read Bob Joseph’s short book 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act. Every Canadian should read it, period. By quietly recounting facts from kidnapping children to banning language, Joseph shows how horrific Canadian policies against First Nations and Inuit peoples have been. Is it only in our past? Jim Daschuk, who wrote Clearing the Plains, points out that because of institutionalized racism and its effects on health, Indigenous individuals can continue to “expect a 15-year shorter life span”

Pandemics made things worse. Deadly epidemics became a fact of Indigenous life immediately after first contact with Europeans. Indigenous resurgence happened, not because of, but despite such ongoing policies. During research with Daschuk’s files, I found some surprises in the “quarantine reports” of the Government of Canada from 1893 to 1919 (RG 18, 1893-1919).

I don’t know who Inspector McGinnis of Battleford SK was. But during one of many smallpox epidemics at the beginning of the last century McGinnis wanted to deny quarantined Nêhiyaw (Cree) families sufficient food. We know that proper nutrition aids the fight against disease. Malnutrition results in more deaths. McGinnis wrote to his superiors about the Indigenous families that The worst feature of the disease [smallpox] seems to be that when we quarantine them a demand is made for food which we have to give them as they live only from day to day when at liberty. In the case of large families [this] … is expensive (dated March 7, 1904).

Reminiscent of some Chief Medical Officers today, it took a medical person to point out the obvious to the bureaucrat. On March 19, 1904 Dr. Patterson, the Dominion Officer in Winnipeg, wrote: I note what Insp. McGinnis says about the expense of rations.  This cannot be helped.  When these people are quarantined, they cannot be allowed to starve.

For those of us Canadians who have had minor troubles securing groceries during the Covid-19 pandemic it’s worth learning from this past. Only three months previous to the above report, on January 19, 1904, McGinnis was again sent a sharp rebuke. Note that despite the reprimand McGinnis was NOT removed from his post, a protection of the guilty that sadly still goes on today:

Your quarantine report dated 11th instant received and has been forwarded to the Indian Commissioner for his perusal.  The Commissioner directs me to say that you have no shade of right to burn anyone’s shack and that you have no right to use your position to do such autocratic actions and you will be good enough in future not to burn down any more shacks.

In January, in the harsh winter of northern Saskatchewan, this unnamed family was ripped away from their shelter as McGinnis’s official “response” to “other people’s lives.” This is but one example: Tanya Talaga, Charlie Angus, and Louise Skydancer Halfe, like Daschuk and Joseph, tell the stories of how in the Residential Schools, where overcrowding was accompanied by malnutrition and often, abuse, disease outbreaks turned the institutions into death traps.

During a time when governments and health officials are seeking to decide between health and safety on one side and economic concerns on the other, Canadians should avoid continuing a racist past, and look for wisdom from Indigenous thinkers. Writers such as Margaret Kovach Sakewew p’sim iskwew, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson remind us that behind the health of all communities are principles of relationality. “All my relations” is an Indigenous concept, but one from which Canadians urgently need to learn, especially in a time of plague.

3 comments

  1. Greetings Matthew. “Is it only in our past?” Unfortunately it continues today. There are still far too many indigenous women and girls who have “disappeared” and/or are abused. In a recent CBC Edmonton news clip, a video was taken of police using excessive force-i.e. kneeing an indigenous man, like George Floyd, while arresting him.
    Blessings, and hope you are well,
    Garth W-H

    1. Hi Garth – I agree completely. Thanks for the comment. I thought I included references to the ongoing issues of police and state violence against Indigenous persons in my article, but I may not have emphasized it enough. If you haven’t already seen it, you might be interested in this: Bruce McIvor, “Reconciliation at the End of a Gun: The Wet’suwet’en and the RCMP,” First Peoples Law: Feb 7, 2020). https://www.firstpeopleslaw.com/index/articles/435.php

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