What were Indian Hospitals in Canada? 3 things you might not know

By Amei-lee Laboucan

A historic snapshot of Coqualeetza Hospital, which was operated by Indian Health Services and the Department of National Health and Welfare.
Linked to Residential Schools, Indian Hospitals in Canada operated from the 1930s to 1980s. Photo: Library and Archives Canada and UBC

Like Residential Schools, Day Schools and reserves in Canada, Indian Hospitals were created as a method to segregate, isolate and control Indigenous people

Because of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Orange Shirt Day, non-Indigenous Canadians are becoming more aware of Residential Schools in Canada. However, most still remain unaware of Indian Hospitals.

Indian Hospitals in Canada operated from the 1930s to the 1980s. The system expanded rapidly from the 1940s, due to the tuberculosis (TB) epidemic. By the 1960s, the system began to wind down as the epidemic subsided and the federal government looked to shift Indigenous health care to the provincial system. By the early 1980s, the last of the hospitals closed or were repurposed.

Here are three things you might not know about Indian Hospitals.

1. Indian Hospitals were linked to mainstream society’s fear of tuberculosis

In the beginning, Indian Hospitals primarily operated to isolate Indigenous people who were sick with tuberculosis. Indigenous peoples had rates of TB 10 times the national average, as recorded in 1944. Within mainstream society, there was widespread belief that Indigenous people were more susceptible to TB, solely based on race, and that they had a more dangerous version of TB. There was a broad fear of being infected with “Indian TB.”

This racist, anti-Indigenous myth did not account for poverty, malnutrition and inadequate health care, nor a lack of care at the provincial level and the general mistreatment of Indigenous people on reserves, at Residential Schools, and at other institutions. It is now widely understood that overcrowding and rudimentary care on reserves and at Residential Schools led to the spread of TB among Indigenous people.

2. Indian Hospitals were closely affiliated with Residential Schools in Canada

Indian hospitals were both funded and administered by the Canadian government. They were often set up in buildings that the federal government already owned, such as military bases, as well as in older missionary hospitals and Residential Schools.

Indian Hospitals and Residential schools were routinely entangled. Some of the early hospitals grew out of makeshift Residential School sanitoria that had been set-up to house and quarantine child patients, as a result of high TB rates in schools.

Both institutions operated on a funding model where expenses for food, clothing, and care per person were intentionally kept lower than similar services available to the general public.

Children would become infected at a Residential School, be sent to an Indian hospital, and if recovered, be sent back to the school. Indigenous children who were at the hospitals were sometimes discharged to Residential Schools without the consent or knowledge of a parent.

It should also be acknowledged that many patients did not survive the hospitals, including many children, and that their families were not always notified of their deaths.

The federal government did not consult Indigenous communities when setting up these hospitals, nor when shutting them down. In some cases, the government shut down the only hospital local to an Indigenous community, so Indigenous people fought the closure or for a suitable alternative.

3. Indigenous patients were admitted and held at Indian Hospitals against their will, and subjected to abusive treatment

An amendment to the Indian Act in 1953 made it illegal for Indigenous people to refuse to see a doctor, refuse to go to the hospital or leave before discharge. The RCMP would arrest Indigenous people and deliver or return them to hospital or send them to jail.

Indigenous patients were not informed or consulted on the plan of care for treatment. Indian Hospitals did not practise holistic care, use traditional medicine practices or provide proper interpreter services for patients who did not speak English. The lack of cultural safety at these hospitals often left Indigenous patients confused, isolated and lonely.

Even when under direct federal administration, the hospitals were chronically underfunded and understaffed. Hospital workers, such as doctors and nurses, were sometimes underqualified or not licensed at all.

According to Survivor testimony, experimental treatments were inflicted upon individuals without their consent. This aligned with other experimentation without consent at Residential Schools and on reserves.

Patients underwent invasive surgeries long after invasive surgeries had stopped in general hospitals and non-invasive methods became the norm. Indigenous people were also generally kept in the hospital longer, often because there was a distrust of Indigenous people’s ability to self-medicate and follow an at home treatment plan.

Younger patients, who naturally wished to move around more, would sometimes be restrained to their beds through the use of straps, caging and casts. Currently, 29 Indian Hospitals across Canada are named in a class-action lawsuit against the federal government. Three operated in British Columbia: Miller Bay near Prince Rupert, Coqualeetza at Chilliwack and the third in Nanaimo.

Learn about how Indigenous data sovereignty relates to truth and reconciliation

Amei-lee Laboucan is a writer for the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre. This article was published on May 17, 2024. Feel free to republish the text of this article, but please follow our guidelines for attribution and seek any necessary permissions before doing so. Please note that images are not included in this blanket licence.

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