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This article was published 3/9/2016 (1168 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
In the midst of years of medical treatment, extreme loneliness and forced assimilation, one young indigenous sanatorium patient was unwittingly writing the first chapter of her love story.
Catherine Mason was seven years old when she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent away from her home in St. Theresa Point First Nation, a reserve in northeastern Manitoba, for treatment.
"At that time, I didn’t know any English or what was going on — they told me I was sick," Mason said. "I thought one of my parents would come with me, which they didn’t."
As an unaccompanied minor, Mason remembers having to wear a brown envelope around her neck — which she assumes contained some form of identification — while travelling first to Norway House, then to Ninette and eventually on to Brandon and Winnipeg.
She was shuffled between sanatoria for five years and has no idea how long she spent at each location. However, her memories of the Ninette Sanatorium are by far the most prominent.
The sanatorium, located about an hour south of Brandon, opened in 1910 and started treating aboriginal patients in the mid-1950s. Roughly a decade later, the TB centre started admitting children.
Plucked from her community and sent hundreds of kilometres away from her family, Mason says she was overwhelmingly "lonely and scared."
When Mason arrived in Ninette in the ’60s, she took solace in the fact that there was one other girl from St. Theresa Point in her ward — in Ninette the adults and children were treated in different buildings and the boys and girls kept in separate wards.
"I felt a little comfort that there was somebody from my hometown ... I kind of felt like she was my big sister," Mason said, adding that her "big sister" spoke the same Island Lake dialect of Cree as she did.
Unfortunately, the friendship was fleeting as the older patient was soon moved to the women’s ward and Mason was again left to fend for herself in unfamiliar territory.
Aside from the treatment regime, which consisted of a myriad of injections and pills — as many as 24 pills a day, according to a former sanatorium staff member — and near constant bed rest, Mason was faced with learning a new language and eating foreign food.
One food-related incident was particularly damaging.
During dinner one day, a nurse told Mason she wouldn’t be able to leave the table until she finished a piece of meat she was struggling to eat.
"I just couldn’t eat it, I don’t know why," she said.
Instead of eating the meat, she tucked it into her pyjama pants with the intention of flushing it down the toilet before bed. Unable to do so before lights out, she stuffed the meat into a container in her bedside table. Another patient saw this and told on her the next morning.
According to Mason, what followed was similar to a scene in the 1981 film "Mommie Dearest," in which the protagonist feeds her daughter the same food over-and-over until it’s rotten.
She continued to refuse the meat and the nurse came up with a different punishment.
"She put me in front of the (ward) where all the boys were and she told me to put my arms up way up high and had somebody sit there with a yardstick and she said, ‘If she puts them down make sure you hit her,’" Mason recalled. "Above that all she put my pyjama pants down, spread my legs and I was supposed to stand like that."
Mason is unsure what happened next as she believes she blacked out.
She was deeply affected by the incident and remembers being regularly overcome with emotions. She was crying so much that the sanatorium staff arranged to have someone who spoke Island Lake Cree visit with her.
Mason had never received visitors in Ninette, so when a nurse called her into the common area she was perplexed.
"Suddenly this guy came around the corner and sat in front of me and I started crying," she said. "He started talking and I understood what he said — he said ‘Stop crying’ in our language."
The visitor was quite a bit older than Mason, but during their short conversation he told her that he would marry her if she stopped crying in an effort to calm her down.
"I thought this was my opportunity to get out of here, knowing that he was going to take me away from there."
But he never came back.
Mason, who is now 59, was 12 years old when she was discharged from the sanatorium system and 21 when she moved back to St. Theresa Point.
With the help of her cousin, she spent the next three years relearning her language and culture.
"When I came back, I had completely lost my language — I couldn’t understand what my brothers and sisters were saying," she said. "I felt like I wasn’t there, that I didn’t belong."
Shortly after moving home, she met the man who would become her husband.
Harry was 11 years her senior and after the two married, Mason remembers lying in bed when he asked how many boyfriends she had before him. She told him not many and mentioned the stranger who visited her in Ninette.
All of a sudden, Harry rolled over and said, "You mean that was you I (visited)?"
The couple had never talked about her time in the sanatorium, but had somehow found each other again nearly 15 years after they first met. Earlier this summer, they celebrated their 38th wedding anniversary. They have five children and 14 grandchildren together.
Last year, the family made a trip to visit the site of the former Ninette Sanatorium.
For Mason, it was emotional and difficult to be back on the grounds.
"I started punching my husband and said, ‘Why didn’t you come back again?’ ... he said, ‘I’m here and I’ll be with you all the time,’" she said. "(I’m) glad to be able to tell him about the things that happened during that time."
Mason is one of several people lending their experiences to a research project titled "Indigenous Histories of Tuberculosis in Manitoba, 1930-1970," which is headed by University of Winnipeg Prof. Mary Jane McCallum.
McCallum says oral histories are an important part of the project because they tell a different story than the official records kept by the Sanatorium Board of Manitoba — which is now known as the Manitoba Lung Association.
"The archival records tend to be by doctors, nurses and hospital administrators and they don’t ever really speak directly to the patient experience," McCallum said. "They tend to paint an overly rosy picture of what was going on in the hospitals."
One former patient told the researchers that he hid under his bed in fear when a man dressed as Santa Claus visited the ward.
"Incidents like those really help to understand the extent to which patients experienced those sanatoriums as a really culturally alien and unsettling kind of place," McCallum said.
For Mason, the main goal of sharing her story is shedding light on the largely undocumented abuse suffered by indigenous patients at Manitoba sanatoria.
"I’m not looking for any publicity. I just want them to be aware that not only in residential schools that happened — it happened in the hospitals, too," she said.
McCallum says there were many similarities between the two government-run institutions.
"The experience of relocation for a certain amount of time, the sort of cultural and psychological trauma and feeling kind of alienated from the services of the federal government in the longterm — like health and education," she said, adding that TB surveyors would often go into residential schools to find new cases of the disease.
The U of W researchers have conducted roughly 15 interviews to date and have been speaking to both patients and sanatorium staff members. Since many of the province’s sanatoria closed in the 1960s and ’70s, most of the interview subjects were children when they attended the hospitals — McCallum says finding staff members has been more difficult.
Stella Olver was a nursing assistant at the Ninette Sanatorium from 1956 until it closed in 1972.
She recently contacted The Brandon Sun in reaction to our story about two Brandon residents who say they suffered sexual and physical abuse at the hands of Ninette staff members as children.
Olver’s experience working in the sanatorium was decidedly different.
"I knew the nurses that worked (in the children’s ward) and we were all very close, so I couldn’t see them doing something like that," she said. "At least I never saw anything."
Olver was stationed in the men’s ward for most of her tenure and would occasionally take shifts in the children’s ward when someone called in sick.
She was 18 years old and "fresh off the farm" when she started working in Ninette, and says the hospital’s roughly 50 medical staff were like "one big happy family."
Based on McCallum’s research, Ninette was one of the nicest sanatoria in the province and was often described as the Sanatorium Board’s crown jewel.
While Ninette wasn’t racially segregated like a number of other institutions, the treatment was often different for indigenous and white patients.
Olver says indigenous patients were kept at the hospital for years at a time because doctors "were afraid they wouldn’t take their medication, because they would have to take the medication for sometimes a year after."
She believes there were roughly 20 Inuit patients in the sanatorium at one time and most of the children were indigenous.
"Social services would bring them in or they would arrive on the bus," Olver said. "I never saw a parent there, that was very sad.
"But you know, the kids got attached to the staff, and some got attached to the other patients there — the women especially would be like foster moms to them."
Olver, who is 78 years old and originally from Saskatchewan, says she still hears from former patients from time to time — many of whom recall positive memories of the sanatorium.
"I think it had a lot to do with the medical staff, the doctors they made special time for these patients … and I think that made the time they spent there a lot easier to bear," she said. "It was a very special place, anyone who worked there had special feelings about the centre."
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