Online project explores Indigenous tuberculosis history

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A new website about Indigenous tuberculosis history in Manitoba is now available from the Manitoba Indigenous Tuberculosis History Project.

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A new website about Indigenous tuberculosis history in Manitoba is now available from the Manitoba Indigenous Tuberculosis History Project.

The community-led, Indigenous-centred health history project has been working towards sharing and recovering histories of Indigenous tuberculosis in Manitoba spanning decades, from the 1930s to ’70s.

The project was launched at the National Gathering of Elders in September 2019 in response to a demand from Indigenous communities for more resources about the topic. From in-person photo workshops before the COVID-19 pandemic to virtual public talks during the last two years, the goal of the project is to advocate for Indigenous access to Indigenous historical records.

Children who were treated at one of Manitoba’s tuberculosis sanatoriums.

The website, which launched on June 21 — National Indigenous Peoples Day — features the histories of tuberculosis sanatoriums and Indian hospitals in Manitoba, a searchable database of photos of Indigenous patients and staff and digitized and searchable historical publications from the Sanatorium Board of Manitoba. The website is also home to the Missing Patients Initiative Online Research guide and the project’s blog, which regularly gives updates on its research and upcoming events.

Erin Millions said the website came into existence as part of project’s attempts to foster community engagement during the COVID-19 pandemic, when there was a shift from in-person events to virtual ones.

“Since we couldn’t go out to communities anymore during COVID, we set out to construct the website so that people could access the materials without us having to bring it to them. That’s really what’s been at the heart of this project — making Indigenous records and histories accessible to Indigenous communities,” Millions, PhD and research director with the project, said.

The Brandon Sanatorium, which ran from 1947 to 1959, was part of Canada’s segregated health-care system that saw Indigenous people treated as part of the Federal Indian Hospital System, which was funded separately from the other Canadian health-care systems. It’s a history that Millions said many people in Westman are not aware of.

“The existence of the Brandon Indian Sanatorium has been written out of the public memory of Brandon. It’s important to acknowledge that it existed. It was there for many years. There are many community members that worked at the sanatorium.”

First Nations and Inuit people came from all over Manitoba to be treated at the Brandon Sanatorium. Many of them were buried in Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, including children sent to the sanatorium from residential schools.

One of the things that came out of Millions’ research is just how interconnected tuberculosis hospitals and residential schools truly were. When it comes to movements like Every Child Matters, the reconciliation movement from the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, this is an important finding.

“We can’t understand those systems if we think of them separately,” Millions explained. “When people are looking for missing residential school students, some of those students died not at residential schools but in hospitals. Where they died impacted where they were buried, so we have to be looking for these missing students in the hospital records.”

Since Manitoba has very restrictive laws around personal health information — even for historical medical records — the website is a great way for survivors and families to trace their histories.

“The photos are records of Indigenous health history. They tell us the histories about people’s experiences in the hospitals in ways that sometimes we’re not able to access otherwise.”

Most of the people in the photographs are not named, so what the project did before COVID, and what it continues to do now in person and virtually through the website, is update the archival records as knowledge grows. The project also repatriates copies of photos to family members.

Everything the project is doing is of particular importance to Debbie Huntinghawk, whose mother Theresa McKay spent four years of her young life in the Ninette Sanatorium. Her mother, who died in 1992, was a Métis victim of the ’60s scoop who stayed at the sanatorium from when she was 12 years old until she was 16.

Though her mother did talk fondly about the nuns who ran the hospital, and even named one of her daughter’s after one kind nurse, Huntinghawk said her experience there affected every part of her mother’s life.

Part of a tuberculosis sanatorium. (Manitoba Lung Association)

“She had a lot of depression, anxiety and mental health issues, and she had heart problems. She should have been a teenager, going to school and living life, instead of being confined to a bed for four years.”

Huntinghawk, who works at the Brandon Friendship Centre as a ’60s scoop program co-ordinator, said she applied to be part of a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of former patients of the system that named the Brandon Indian Hospital as one of 29 segregated hospitals in early 2022.

The $1.1-billion lawsuit cites allegations of widespread mistreatment and abuse of patients at the sanatoriums. Huntinghawk has helped others who have come to her at the Friendship Centre to file a claim with the lawsuit as well. She said it’s important that the victims and their families receive justice for their time at the sanatoriums.

“They experimented on my mom. She had a big hole in her leg from an injection, and her teeth were rotten. They tortured them,” Huntinghawk said.

She travelled to the site of the Ninette Sanatorium in spring to offer some tobacco and say a prayer for all the people who were treated there. She also picked up a book about the sanatorium her mother stayed at, but said she hasn’t been able to read it yet.

“I haven’t really had the courage to open up that book, in case I see my mom’s name in there.”

Funding for the project’s new website, indigenoustbhistory.ca, was provided in part by a grant from Manitoba Indigenous Reconciliation and Northern Relations in partnership with the Manitoba Lung Association.

» mleybourne@brandonsun.com

» Twitter: @miraleybourne

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