Should Indigenous People trust White-man’s Medicine?


Some people wonder why Indigenous people are suspicious of vaccines. The shouldn’t be.

Indigenous people in Canada, like African American people in the United States, have many reasons to be suspicious of statements made by Canadian Health authorities about what is good for indigenous people. Indigenous people have been lied to and exploited by Canadian health officials too many times to be sanguine about the advice they get from them. They have good reason for saying those health authorities do not have their best interests in mind.


At a time when all of Canada needs Indigenous people to trust the Canadian health authorities so that we can together achieve herd immunity and prevent the virus from mutating any more than it has, that would benefit everyone in Canada,  indigenous people are demonstrating hesitancy to take the vaccines that are available. The longer the disease is in Canada without being checked the more likely it is that the virus will mutate and perhaps become more harmful and overcome our defences including vaccines.

Yet as Elisa Levi an MD Candidate at the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine, member of Chippewas of Nawash, and Yellowhead Institute Research Fellow said about indigenous people,

“But it is equally important that they are given all the information necessary to make an informed decision and that their concerns are respected. Some members of Indigenous communities have legitimate concerns around medical treatments, rooted in historical trauma.”


We need to get Indigenous communities on side. Because of their high degree of socio-economic marginalization they suffer disproportionate risks of health problems and if they go untreated we all suffer. We need them on side not just to help them, but to help us too! As Levi said, “With a vaccine that is 95 per cent effective, it has been projected that 70 percent uptake is needed for community immunity.”

 However, to get them on side, we must take into consideration the historical trauma they have suffered because it has led to understandable vaccine hesitancy. As Levi put it,

Indigenous people have good reason to distrust government.” There are many reasons for distrust, but here is an important one: “in the 1940s, government scientists performed nutrition experiments on Indigenous people without consent in some of these hospitals, as they did with children in residential schools.”


The history of Canada’s residential schools is horrific. I intend to blog about this more fully, but for now, I think now this issue relates the pandemic and our historic treatment of indigenous children.

As Leslie Young reported in Global News,

“Before 1940, tuberculosis was a leading cause of death in residential schools – even more than in the general population, the report found. In 1880, the tuberculosis death rate in Montreal and Toronto peaked at 200 out of every 100,000 people, according to the report.

The death rate from tuberculosis at residential schools meanwhile was upwards of 4,000 out of every 100,000 people, according to one contemporary estimate at the turn of the century.”


In other words, at its peak the death rate from tuberculosis was 20 times higher in residential schools than in Montreal and Toronto!

 Of course the indigenous children were subjected to even more deception than that. Experiments were conducted on them just as American scientists subjected African American children. It was all part a pattern of white supremacy. Non-white children just did not count. They weren’t important. They weren’t even human. As Young reported,

“Students at various residential schools were also used as involuntary guinea pigs in a variety of experiments, notably a number of studies on nutrition.

Students were given more or less milk, some were given vitamin C tablets (and others were not), some were given vitamin-enriched flour, and others were not. The intent was to determine whether these dietary interventions cut the incidence of various diseases – but the control group students were never given the chance to share in any benefits, and in some cases, children were denied access to dental care or iron supplements.


They were also used as research subjects without their or their parents’ consent.

All of this was camouflaged as science. But it was pure racism. To the white authorities the children were just objects. Dehumanized objects that they could do with as they chose.

We must remember, that these children were often taken away from their parents without their parents consent, to places where many were subjected to horrific emotional, physical and sexual abuse and then they were not protected from tuberculosis. And we did that all of that, purportedly, for their own good. At least that is what non-indigenous Canadians claimed. It was done because the officials said the parents of the indigenous children did not know how to take care of their children. They were incompetent parents, the adults said.

How can we expect indigenous people ever to trust the rest of us again? This demonstrates how historic injustice can come back to haunt the perpetrators and their successors. Now when non-indigenous Canadians  need the  cooperation of indigenous people, the lack of trust is seriously harmful to everyone.


Leave a Reply