Judge Giesbrecht in his recent article in the Winnipeg Sun, blamed tuberculosis for the deaths of indigenous children. He said, “Tuberculosis was a major killer, and it didn’t spare children.” That is true, but it hardly gets Canada off the hook. Why did tuberculosis sicken and kill so many more indigenous children than children in the general population? That is the question that Judge Giesbrecht dodged.
The truth is that the high death rates were a direct result of Canadian policy.
The TRC report chastised the conditions in schools that led to a tuberculosis crisis:
The tuberculosis health crisis at the schools was part of a broader Aboriginal health crisis that was set in motion by colonial policies that separated Aboriginal people form their land their land, thereby disrupting their economies and their food supplies. This crisis was particularly intense on the Canadian prairies. Numerous federal government policies contributed to the undermining of Aboriginal health. During a period of starvation, rations were withheld from bands in an effort to force them to abandon the lands they had initially selected for their reserves. In making the Treaties, the government had promised to provide assistance to First Nations to make a transition from hunting to farming. This aid was slow in coming and inadequate on arrival. Restrictions in the Indian Act made it difficult for First Nations farmers to sell their produce or borrow money to invest in technology. Reserve land was often agriculturally unproductive. Reserve housing was poor and crowded, sanitation was inadequate, and access to clean water was limited. Under these conditions, tuberculosis flourished. Those people it did not kill were often severely weakened and likely to succumb to measles, small pox, and other infectious diseases.
Canadians should also recall what we have learned from a professor of medicine at the University of Manitoba, James Daschuk who pointed out that the prairie of North America, before the arrival of Europeans was one of the best places in the world to live, from a health perspective. The ecology was astonishingly abundant, particularly when it came to bison. It has been estimated there were about 60 million or more bison on the plains before they were decimated after Europeans arrived. Indigenous people were shocked at how sickly Europeans were!
Everything depended on the food provided by bison. The calories provided by bison were astonishing. Some have considered it the miracle food. It was one of the greatest food resources on the planet, and the Indigenous people were the beneficiaries. Its ultimate loss was one of the world’s greatest ecological disasters ever! This was a major step on what Anthony Hall called the journey from ecocide to genocide.
As James Daschuk described it, “Studies of skeletons have shown that, in the mid-nineteenth century, peoples on the plains were perhaps the tallest and best-nourished population in the world.”] The Plains of North America supported one the world’s great civilizations, but because they were blinded by the bias of white supremacy, the Europeans failed to appreciate this. But things spiralled into decline after the First Nations of Canada made Treaties with the white supremacists of Canada.
In their home communities, the TRC reported, many students had been raised on food that their parents had hunted, fished, or harvested. “These meals were different from the European diets served at the schools. This change in diet added to the students’ sense of disorientation.” It wasn’t just that the food at the schools was bad, although it certainly was, it was so different from what the children were accustomed to that they suffered as a result. Bernard Catcheway reported to the TRC that “we had to eat all our food even though we didn’t like it. There were lots of times there I seen other students that threw up, and they were forced to eat their own, their own vomit.”
The schools were also places where the only thing that flourished were diseases like tuberculosis. A report from the National Association of Principals and Administrators of Indian Residences concluded,
“In the years that the Churches have been involved in the administration of the schools, there has been a steady deterioration in essential services. Year after year, complaints demands, and requests for improvements have, in the main, fallen upon deaf ears.
The Canadian government was responsible for the condition of those schools. The Canadian government let down the students there who had been ripped out of their homes, often without parental consent. Canadians cannot get away with their neglect by blaming it on disease. Canadians did everything they could to ensure that disease was rampant in the schools they insisted indigenous people attend.