Research shedding light on dark history of treating ‘Indian TB’ in Manitoba
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This article was published 18/06/2016 (2293 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
WINNIPEG — A group of Winnipeg researchers have embarked on a major project to shed light on the largely ignored history of racially segregated tuberculosis treatment centres in Manitoba, including in Brandon.
University of Winnipeg historian Mary Jane McCallum is the principal investigator of “Indigenous Histories of Tuberculosis in Manitoba, 1930-1970,” which aims to uncover the lived experiences and treatment of indigenous patients in provincial sanatoria.
“We’re really engaging in how a history of a segregated health-care service might now actually still have long-range impacts, especially in ideas about who belongs … and is deserving of care,” McCallum said.
McCallum, and a team of four other researchers, is combing through a mountain of archival records and conducting first-person interviews related to the Brandon Sanatorium, formerly located at the corner of 10th Street and Queens Avenue; Clearwater Lake Indian Hospital near The Pas; and Dynevor Indian Hospital near Selkirk.
While other sanatoria existed in the province, these three facilities were run by the Sanatorium Board of Manitoba and funded by the federal government with the express purpose of treating “Indian TB.” All of these buildings had been repurposed and most offered substandard living conditions and haphazard medical facilities.
“Not the kinds of spaces that would be acceptable to the majority of white Canadians,” project co-ordinator and historian Scott de Groot said.
So far, getting historical information about the Sanatorium Board — which is now known as The Lung Association of Manitoba — has been the biggest stumbling block for the researchers.
McCallum first put in a request for records with the board more than a decade ago.
“At that time, they said I could see their news bulletin, which is in fact a public document,” she said. “It’s an interesting source but … it doesn’t provide a critical window into the operations of the hospitals.”
In 2010, the Sanatorium Board formally donated all of its records and gave access-granting authority to the Archives of Manitoba. While this was a “big moment” for McCallum, it also meant all of the patient files became protected by the Personal Health Information Act.
“That act basically says, ‘Any personal health information is protected forever’ — it’s always restricted — which makes my work very hard to do,” McCallum said.
According to its website, the provincial archives have 22 metres of Sanatorium Board files, approximately 19.89 metres of which are subject to various access restrictions.
When McCallum asked the Health Information Privacy Committee for access to the restricted patient files, she was told she would have to get consent from each of the individuals.
“Thousands of people went through these institutions and many of them are no longer here,” McCallum said.
In 2012, the researchers finally gained full access to the records — which include photographs, film reels, patient records, meeting minutes, correspondences, financial statements and auditors’ reports, among other things.
These files paint a picture of the poor condition of the facilities and expose treatment disparities between indigenous and non-indigenous patients.
McCallum says minutes from the Sanatorium Board’s monthly meetings outline complaints that “steam was coming off the pipes and burning people” at the Dynevor sanatorium and that the building had no safe fire exits. There was also a “large rate of people dying.” A former military hospital, the Brandon Sanatorium was “opened up hastily and a lot of renovations needed to be done to make it a workable institution.”
Tuberculosis was one of the biggest health concerns of the 20th century and common treatment for the bacterial lung disease included bed rest and medication.
While non-indigenous patients stayed at sanatoria for an average of six months, indigenous patients were “encouraged” to stay in the facilities, often far away from their families, for a number of years.
“(Doctors) didn’t trust that native people would take their medications, so they encouraged them to stay for longer so they could watch them,” McCallum said. “The sanatorium treatment was also seen as a way of kind of assimilating people, too — they had this benefit of living in the south and learning the English language and having some education.”
The difficulty of this lengthy separation was apparent among Inuit patients, whose letters to the Department of Indian Affairs appear in the records.
“They are not happy letters, they are about being very frustrated, that they want to go home and they understand why they’re there,” McCallum said, adding that the men and women often expressed concerns about their family’s well-being during the winter.
Researcher Scott de Groot says he also uncovered records from Library and Archives Canada that show an experimental vaccine for TB was being tested on indigenous sanatoria patients without their consent.
“There was a vaccination program implemented from the late ’40s and into the ’50s that did not proceed with the consent of indigenous people — and that was explicitly stated in the documentation,” de Groot said. “Thousands of indigenous people, and particularly children, were vaccinated here … There were some adverse reactions.”
At the height of the TB epidemic in the 1900s, indigenous people were seen as a risk to public health because of an misconception that they were more suseptible to the disease because of their race. The disease as a symptom of poverty caused by colonization was not part of the conversation.
“It seems so obvious in retrospect, TB is contracted as the result of poor ventilation in housing and having poor nutrition makes one’s immune system compromised … yet there was a kind of blindness to it,” de Groot said.
The “Indigenous Histories of Tuberculosis in Manitoba” project is operating on a three-year grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. McCallum says the goal is to validate the experiences of indigenous sanitoria residents in Manitoba and upend some of the stereotypes that persist in health research.
“There are these longstanding ideas about indigenous people in health research that I don’t think have been seriously challenged by critical humanities and social science scholarship,” she said. “This is based not on blood or genetics, it’s got these larger questions about inequality that are really at the root.”
The researchers are currently collecting first-hand oral histories from sanatoria patients and employees. Visit indigenoustbhistories.wordpress.com to learn more about the project and to contact the research team.
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