A Journey Through the Minefields Of Indigenous Health Care
By Gary Geddes
Heritage House Publishing
The poet and the indigenous survivor are sitting at a restaurant table, painfully going over a history of atrocities — photographs that record part of Canada’s scandalous treatment of the indigenous people who were long-term residents of this continent before the poet’s European ancestors arrived. The survivor, Joan Morris, is showing the poet, Garry Geddes, more than 100 black and white photos connected with the 17 years her mother spent in the Nanaimo Indian Hospital and the time she herself spent at the same institution.
If you don’t know that for over 100 years Canada maintained segregated “health” facilities for first nations people, or that those so called hospitals were involved in dangerous medical experiments, forced sterilizations and other forms of abuse committed against their indigenous patients, you are not alone. The history of these apartheid-like institutions is little known among non-indigenous Canadians, although the searing memories of the damage done in these institutions continue to haunt survivors like Joan Morris, the elder who had asked Geddes, whom she met at a 2012 hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to write about what he calls “the minefields of indigenous health care.”
To choose only one salient figure from a heartbreaking array of available evidence, in both B.C. and Manitoba, infant mortality among indigenous people is twice that for the non-indigenous population. And indigenous people live shorter lives more beset by chronic diseases like diabetes than non-indigenous Canadians.
How did this shameful state of affairs come to be? Geddes, a prolific and award-winning author and editor, poet and public intellectual who is lives on B.C.’s Thetis Island, traces the origins of these deadly realities of indigenous health and well being in part to the “Indian hospitals” he documents in his searing new investigative book Medicine Unbundled.
Recording the abuse and racism inflicted on indigenous kids sent to residential schools and the Nazi-like experiments conducted on their innocent bodies at the schools and the “Indian hospitals” which operated in tandem with the schools, and the documented use of starvation to drive indigenous people from their territories and onto tiny reserves, Geddes gives a passionate and persuasive account of the devastating impacts of Canadian government policies on the lives and health of this nation’s first peoples.
His book records his travels across Canada and his interviews with native elders who survived the schools and hospitals. He meets with activists who are fighting to re-establish the use of traditional foods and medicines to enhance health and of healing circles, sweat lodges and other rituals to promote healing. His account is moving, and energized by his keen poet’s eye that captures telling details of landscape, architecture and human gesture.
In this book, Geddes, who has also written about similar issues in Africa, challenges non-indigenous Canadians to face, at long last, the violence and injustice that has been done in our name against our indigenous neighbours. First nations activists have fought hard to make this record of injustice visible, and we non-natives, Geddes argues, bear a moral responsibility to act for reconciliation and healing in the face of what has been revealed.
This book deserves to be widely read, and should be acted upon boldly. Anyone who cares about human decency and social justice owes a debt to Gary Geddes and to his indigenous informants. We can no longer pretend we don’t know about residential schools, murdered and missing aboriginal women and “Indian Hospitals.” The only outstanding question is how we respond.
Tom Sandborn lives and writes on unceded first nations land in Vancouver. He welcomes feedback and story tips at firstname.lastname@example.org
A book launch and discussion of segregated Indigenous health care in Canada with Gary Geddes and Joan Morris will be held on February 15 at noon in the sty-Wet-tan hall of the first nations longhouse at 1985 West Mall, at the University of British Columbia.