The Price of Colonization


Canada after 1867 took over as the colonial authority in Canada. The policy of colonization is closely tied to the concept of white supremacy. The colonial powers—first the French and English, followed by the Canadians—saw their role as civilizing the savages. They believed they were doing a favor to the Indigenous people by taking over from them. With the collapse of their way of life and food source (hunting and fishing) Indigenous society was getting ready for disaster and so were their schools. Canada faced a health crisis largely of its own making.

As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report said,

“The high death rates in the schools were, in part, a reflection of the high death rates among the Aboriginal community in general. Indian Affairs officials often tried to portray these rates as simply the price that Aboriginal people had to pay as part of the process of becoming civilized. In reality, these rates were the price they had to pay for being colonized. Aboriginal livelihoods were based on access to the land; colonization disrupted that access and introduced new illnesses to North America. Colonial policies wiped out food sources and confined Aboriginal people to poorly located reserves, with inadequate sanitation, and shelter. The schools could have served as institutions to help counter these problems. To do that however, they would have had to have been properly constructed, maintained, staffed, and supplied. Government officials were aware of this. They were also aware that death rates among students at residential schools were disproportionately high. It would be wrong to say the government did nothing about this crisis: the 1910 contract did provide a substantial funding increase to the schools. But the federal government never made the type of sustained investment in Aboriginal health, in either the communities or the schools, that could have addressed this crisis—which continues to the present. The non-Aboriginal tuberculosis death rate declined before the introduction of life-saving drugs. It was brought down by improvements in diet, housing, sanitation, and medical attention. Had such measures been taken by the federal government earlier, they would have reduced both the Aboriginal death rates and the residential schools students’ death rates. By failing to take adequate measures that had been recommended to it, the federal government blighted the health of generations of Aboriginal people.


Principal J.F. Woodward complained to Indian Affairs: “For sickness, conditions at the school are nothing less than criminal. We have no isolation ward and no hospital equipment of any kind.” Despite many principals advising the federal government of the horrible conditions in residential schools who had no means of containing illnesses their pleas went unheard. As the TRC said, “General Aboriginal health care was never a priority for the Canadian government. Tuberculosis among Aboriginal people largely was ignored unless it threatened the general Canadian population.”

In 1937, Dr. H. W. McGill, the director of Indian Affairs for Canada, sent out an instruction that Indian health services “must be restricted to those required for the safety of limb, life or essential function.” As the TRC concluded, “Hospital care was to be limited, spending on drugs was cut in half, and sanitoria and hospital treatment for chronic tuberculosis were eliminated.”

The conclusion is inevitable. Health was only important for the Canadian government when white people were affected.

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