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The legacy of segregated

hospitals haunts Indigenous

By Lauren Pelley
On a brisk spring day in 1965, Annie Michael stepped onto an airplane for
the rst time.

The 10-year-old had tested positive for tuberculosis, the airborne disease that
had ravaged her hometown of Niaqunngut, a remote Ba n Island community
southeast of Iqaluit. Her southbound ight was the rst leg of a days-long
journey to the Queen Mary Hospital for Tuberculous Children in Toronto.

While Michael’s stay at the hospital was meant to cure her potentially deadly
condition, the experience left damage of another kind.

When she arrived, hospital sta cut Michael’s long, dark hair into a shaggy bob.
She met stern nurses who enforced a strict dress code — tunics and crisp,
white blouses — and slapped young patients with rulers for punishment.
Michael struggled to process the strange sights and sounds of the bustling
sanatorium, and was only allowed to speak to her parents by phone once a
month, for 10 minutes.

Even her name was di erent: The English-

"They wanted us to speaking sta called her Annie E7-1261, her
dress like the white government-supplied “Eskimo” identi cation
people, eat like the number.

white people. We
“They wanted us to dress like the white people,
were savages to
eat like the white people,” Michael, now 63,
them." recalled. “We were savages to them.”

Michael was among thousands of Indigenous

people across Canada who endured a similar experience. For decades,
Indigenous children and adults were treated at tuberculosis sanatoriums as
well as in segregated, government-run “Indian hospitals.”

Some survivors say they experienced psychological and physical abuse and lost
the ability to speak their own language There are even reports that some
the ability to speak their own language. There are even reports that some
patients endured medical experiments at the hands of hospital sta .
Researchers who have explored these accounts say the intended purpose was
to separate Indigenous people from the broader community, and that much
like residential schools, this health care system was built on a combination of
government policy and widespread racism. But unlike the school system that
has underpinned a conversation about reconciliation and nancial
compensation, these hospitals remain largely hidden in the shadows of
Canadian history and weren’t included in the Indian Residential Schools
Settlement Agreement.

CBC spoke to numerous hospital survivors and researchers about this

segregated health-care system, as well as activists hoping to broaden the
conversation about reconciliation and expose how decades of isolation and
mistreatment have harmed First Nations and Inuit communities to this day.

Annie Michael said her year-and-a-half stay at the Queen Mary, thousands of
kilometres from her loved ones, left a lasting impact.

“It was hell on earth for me.”

The photo above of Annie Michael was taken on the grounds of Queen Anne
Hospital, shortly after sta cut her hair. The reverse side of the photo
contains her hospital identi cation, or 'Eskimo' number. (Submitted by Annie

The Queen Mary Hospital for Tuberculous Children o cially opened its doors
on June 3, 1913. With two pillars on each side of its main entrance, the stately
brick building was the newest addition to a manicured hospital complex in
west-end Toronto, alongside the Toronto Hospital for Consumptives, which had
been established in 1904.

Initially, provincial tuberculosis sanatoriums focused on treatment of the

disease among the general population, not Indigenous communities
speci cally. But that started to shift as the rise of e ective antibiotics lowered
infection rates. Sanatoriums across the country slowly emptied, and in many
cases, Indigenous patients from remote communities began to ll the spaces
vacated by the non-Indigenous population.
The Queen Mary Hospital for Tuberculous Children opened on June 3, 1913, as part of a sanatorium complex in west-end
Toronto. (West Park Healthcare Centre archives)
The Queen Mary Hospital was no exception. According to hospital archives,
Indigenous admissions at the Queen Mary were dropping by the 1960s — from
350 Inuit and First Nations admissions in 1959 to less than 170 by 1962. But
eight years before the hospital nally shut down in 1970, a government
program meant to curb the prevalence of tuberculosis began bringing in more
Inuit patients.

Michael was one of them, and the memories of her stay — which lasted from
May 1965 to January 1967 — continue to haunt her a half-century later.

Earlier this month, she visited the former hospital site for the rst time in years.
The location now houses another health care facility. Walking by a Queen Mary
heritage plaque while bundled up in a red parka and a beaver-fur hat, Michael
gazed around the snow-covered grounds, her eyes glinting in the sunlight.

“I hated it here,” she said.

Michael said she constantly felt homesick. She wrote regularly to her family,
and often cried to her mother during their monthly phone calls. The experience
was jarring for a child who hadn’t left her community before. Michael had
never seen people of di erent skin colours. She had also never eaten hospital
food — a rotation of bland salads, meat and potatoes — which was nothing like
her traditional Inuit diet of mostly whale, caribou and seal.

While some of the nurses helped make the hospital feel more like home, by
taking the children on day trips to the zoo, others intimidated their young
charges by ignoring them or slapping their hands as punishment, Michael

“That’s how I learned about white people,” Michael said, laughing for a brief
moment. “Being manipulated, dominated by white people.”

She’s not the only former patient who noticed a culture of racism and
intimidation Less than a year after Michael was released from the sanatorium
intimidation. Less than a year after Michael was released from the sanatorium,
Teresa Leon, a blond-haired eight-year-old from Toronto, spent three months
in the facility.

In this undated photo, a nurse reads stories to two Indigenous patients at

Queen Mary Hospital. (West Park Healthcare Centre archives)

Leon recalled being the only non-Indigenous child there for most of her short
stay. Soon after her arrival, she noticed sta members treated her di erently
than the Inuit and First Nations children. While the Indigenous kids were given

daily needles for tuberculosis treatment, Leon was given pills. When she asked
a nurse why, she was told it was because the other children couldn’t be trusted
to take their medication.

Leon, who is now 59 and living in Mexico, also witnessed multiple instances of
mistreatment, including an uncomfortable tuberculosis test that involved
slowly pushing a tube down children's throats and into their lungs. She believes
hospital sta allowed student nurses to practice this method on Indigenous

As punishment for uncooperative young patients, Leon recalled, some nurses

would tie them face down on a stretcher and shove it up against the railing of a
staircase in the middle of the hospital, forcing them to peer down at the
ground several oors below.

“It was like torture,” said Leon. “These punishments were really barbaric and

In recent years, stories of two-tier treatment have bubbled up from former

patients of various types of health-care facilities.

The many provincial sanatoriums at times cared for large numbers of

Indigenous patients, but there were separate “Indian hospitals” that were
developed for a narrower purpose. Church-run hospital facilities catering to
Indigenous patients popped up in the 1800s, and government-run facilities
opened their doors in the decades that followed. Indian Health Services, which
became a branch of the Department of National Health and Welfare
established in 1944, founded most of the institutions in the years following the
Second World War.
Scenes from Queen Mary Hospital in the 1960s. (West Park Healthcare
Centre archives)

Researchers estimate there were roughly 20 to 30 “Indian hospitals” in Canada,

operating on and o until around the 1980s.
Sanatoriums and fully segregated hospitals were a xture in towns across the
country. There was the Whitehorse Indian Hospital in the Yukon; Fort
Qu'Appelle Indian Hospital in Saskatchewan; Parc Savard Hospital in Quebec
City; the Sanatorium on the Mountain in Hamilton, Ont.; Frobisher Bay Indian
Hospital on Ba n Island; and dozens more.

While on the surface the two were distinct, with sanatoriums focusing on
tuberculosis and “Indian hospitals” on general health care — from maternity to
disease treatment — the same mindset applied, according to historian
Maureen Lux.

For more than a decade, the Brock University professor dug through
government archives and spoke to Indigenous community members for her
2016 book, Separate Beds: A History of Indian Hospitals in Canada.

During an interview in her St. Catharines, Ont., o ce, Lux described her
understanding of “Indian hospitals.” Underfunded, intentionally overcrowded
and often in isolated areas, she believes the facilities were a cheap federal
government alternative to treating Indigenous people in community hospitals.
She said in some cases, state-of-the-art local hospitals and separate
Indigenous-only facilities could be found in the same communities, only
reinforcing a two-tier system of care.

A letter sent by Manitoba’s acting superintendent of medical services in the

early 1940s highlights her point. Addressed to a sta member at a paper mill in
Pine Falls, Man., the letter from Canada’s federal archives notes that residents
contributing to the upkeep of the local “white hospital” objected to “Indians
being treated in that hospital.”

The point of segregated hospitals was not to help Indigenous populations, Lux
explained, but to keep disease-ridden “Indians” away from the rest of society.


Tobique Indian Hospital

Manitowaning Indian Hospital

Lady Willingdon Indian Hospital

Moose Factory Indian Hospital

Sioux Lookout Indian Hospital

Brandon Indian Hospital

Dynevor Indian Hospital

Fisher River Indian Hospital

Fort Alexander Indian Hospital


That sense of otherness was evident not only in government policy but in the
questionable treatment of Indigenous patients at the hands of hospital sta in
facilities across the country.

At the Charles Camsell Indian Hospital in Edmonton, which began admitting

patients in 1945, there were instances of forced sterilization, said researcher
and documentarian Miranda Jimmy, who interviewed numerous survivors and
hospital sta for a documentary released by the Edmonton Heritage Council in

The largest facility of its kind, the Camsell was the setting for 125 sterilizations
of First Nations and Inuit patients from 1971 to 1974 alone, according to
government data cited in a 2012 journal article by Karen Stote, a professor at
Wilfred Laurier University.

Some survivors and researchers also believe overly aggressive treatments or

medical experimentation took place at some hospital sites. Lux said many
survivors she spoke to shared stories of major chest surgeries that weren’t
being performed on non-Indigenous patients. At the Camsell, she said, one
surgeon doing these procedures preferred to use a local anesthetic to a
general one.

“Patients were actually conscious while their chests were opened up, their ribs
sawn and removed,” Lux said. “This was not a one-o or an unusual

Gerald McIvor says that’s what happened to his brother Michael. The pair grew
up in Sandy Bay First Nation in Manitoba, and when Michael was four years old,
he was taken more than 200 kilometres south to the Ninette sanatorium for
tuberculosis treatment. He didn’t come home for four years.

When he nally returned, Michael McIvor shared

Surrounded by stories of having surgery to remove parts of his
English-speaking ribs and one of his lungs, something he believed
hospital staff for was a medical experiment. “He had a massive

years, Wesley’s scar on his back,” recalled Gerald McIvor.

Ojibway language
Other scars were psychological. Elise Wesley
faded away. recalled spending three or four years — she isn’t
quite sure — in segregated hospitals for
tuberculosis treatment. Her time away from
home in northern Ontario included a brief stay at a facility in Sioux Lookout,
then a longer one in the Fort William Indian Hospital Sanatorium, which
opened in 1935 in what is now Thunder Bay, Ont.

Surrounded by English-speaking hospital sta for years, Wesley’s Ojibway

language faded away. It was a lonely existence.
The Queen Mary hospital supplied this list to its patients, teaching them both
the English and Inuktitut translations for common phrases, including
questions such as 'When will I be going home?' (West Park Healthcare Centre

“I couldn't see my mom, or any of my family, my brothers and sisters. I could

write to them once in a while, but my money was so limited,” she recalled.
Every so often, Wesley said, one of the training nurses would give her a stamp
so she could write her family a letter.

During Wesley’s time away, her father died in a car accident and her mother
remarried. In 1964, when Wesley nally returned to the Naicatchewenin First
Nation at the age of 11, her Ojibway was so poor she couldn’t communicate
with her remaining family.

In other instances, family members simply never returned. Of the thousands of

Inuit who went south for tuberculosis treatment throughout the 1950s and
1960s, many were shu ed between hospitals, often dying without their
family’s knowledge, due to poor record keeping. For many families, the nal
resting places of their loved ones remain a mystery.
This undated archival photo shows a 10-year-old Inuit patient who was
treated at the Queen Mary Hospital for tuberculosis of the spine. '(West Park
Healthcare Centre archives)
Ry Moran heard about these kinds of experiences repeatedly in his
conversations with thousands of Indigenous community members during the
Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“There was just an overall lack of dialogue, an overall lack of consent, generally
in place with Indigenous health for a very long period of time in this country,”
said Moran, who is now director of the National Centre for Truth and
Reconciliation, the Manitoba-based organization tasked with sharing the
ndings gathered by the TRC.

“That’s left many people in this country wondering what exactly happened … to
them or their loved ones.”

In recent years, lingering questions are being coupled with a call for action.
Indigenous advocates across the country are now involved in a growing push to
gain recognition for the decades-long health-care system many say has had an
large impact on the health of Indigenous populations.

In Manitoba, Gerald McIvor is pulling together research and plainti s in hopes

of ling a class-action lawsuit on behalf of all Indigenous segregated health-
care survivors and their families. In northern Ontario, activists are ghting to
have the Fort William Indian Hospital Sanatorium added to the residential
school settlement agreement, despite an Ontario Superior Court justice ruling
earlier this month that the facility doesn’t satisfy the criteria needed.

The concerns are also on the radar of the federal government. In a statement,
the o ce of minister Carolyn Bennett, who oversees Crown-Indigenous
Relations and Northern A airs, said it is “aware of allegations of abuse, a loss
of culture and possible medical experimentation at some of these facilities.”

“We are committed to moving forward together past this sad and terrible
chapter in our history towards a renewed relationship,” the statement

A working group called Nanilavut — which means “Let’s Find Them” in Inuktitut
— is among the government’s e orts. A partnership with Inuit leadership, the
initiative is meant to help locate family members who passed away while
undergoing medical treatment and create a database of records of those who
were sent away for treatment at facilities in the south.

The federal government also hopes to continue increasing First Nations’ control
of the health-care system and improve integration with provincial systems, the
statement concludes.
Indigenous health expert Yvonne Boyer said that’s not enough. An Ottawa-
based lawyer whose aunt spent a decade in a tuberculosis sanatorium in Fort
Qu’appelle, Sask., Boyer believes there should be a complete structural
overhaul of the health system.

In the interim, she feels there should be immediate changes to ensure there
are more Indigenous people in positions of power and training to ensure all
health-care providers understand the needs of First Nations, Metis and Inuit

Yvonne Boyer, left, and her late aunt Lucille in the mid-1970s. Boyer said her
aunt spent a decade in a tuberculosis sanatorium in Fort Qu’appelle, Sask.
“She saw her family once — in 10 years,” Boyer said. (Submitted by Yvonne

But the hospitals themselves, Boyer said, are just one piece of the puzzle. The
bigger issue is the deeply entrenched theory that Indigenous people are
“inferior” and incapable of making their own health decisions, a notion Boyer
said permeates Canadian legislation and policies to this day.
“It’s no wonder there’s such ill health,” she said.

Indeed, Canadian public health data paints a dire picture. According to federal
brie ng documents from the Indigenous Services Department, the latest
numbers show life expectancy for Indigenous people is 15 years shorter than
for other Canadians, while infant mortality and disease rates are signi cantly

As for tuberculosis, a disease that has been largely eradicated, infection rates
for Indigenous populations are worse than those in most other communities.
Among Inuit, the tuberculosis rate in 2015 was more than 270 times higher
than the rate among Canadian-born non-Indigenous people, a staggering
statistic that prompted the Inuit community and federal government to launch
a task force aimed at tackling the crisis.

“If rates of disease that are happening in Indigenous communities were

happening in white communities, I think it would be seen as a national
emergency,” said Ian Mosby, a historian whose research exposing Canada’s
nutritional experiments on Indigenous children in residential schools made
headlines several years ago.

Mosby said Canada’s “systemic underfunding” of

Martin-Hill believes Indigenous services today is on a continuum with
the problems of the the alleged medical experiments and segregated
past are still present care of the past.

Dawn Martin-Hill, one of the founders of
McMaster University’s Indigenous studies
program, said structural barriers are tied to the
health outcomes among First Nations and Inuit people, while systemic racism
has led Indigenous people today to distrust modern, western health care.

She added that researchers are documenting stories of Indigenous patients

receiving biased or “substandard” care in the Canadian health-care system —
such as stroke patients being left on the oor because hospital sta believe
they’re inebriated, and Cree-speaking women in Alberta who say health
workers encourage them to have their “tubes cut.”

While tuberculosis sanatoriums, along with most “Indian hospitals,” have long
shut their doors, Martin-Hill believes the problems of the past are still present

Annie Michael now lives in Donnacona, a town roughly 40 kilometres west of

Quebec City, and occasionally comes to Toronto to visit her sister Raigelee

Sitting together at Alorut’s kitchen table on a recent weekday, the sisters sliced
muktuk, a traditional Inuit meal of frozen whale skin and blubber, and chatted
in a mix of English and Inuktitut, sharing laughs and reminiscing about their
family and friends.

Alorut is 53, a decade younger than Michael, and only learned what her sister
experienced at an Ontario hospital later in life. Alorut said that their family was
torn apart by government policies tied to medical treatment and education.
After being diagnosed with tuberculosis, their father was sent to a Hamilton,
Ont., sanatorium for ve years. One brother, who was born with the disease,
stayed with a family down south for nearly a decade. Their other six siblings
spent time in residential schools or other institutions.

(// (//    

Annie Michael talks about her experience in segregated health care in the
1960s, which her sister Raigelee Alorut only heard about years later. (Paul

“We don’t want to be shameful any more talking about it,” Alorut said. “We have
to be open and talk about it, and that’s the only way we could move forward
into this healing process.”

Michael long kept her story private. She chose to share it now because she
believes not enough people know what former patients like her endured. The
experience, she said, made her feel alienated and helpless.

But Michael believes she was one of the lucky ones. In the end, she made it
back to her family, went on to have children and grandchildren of her own,
became a medical interpreter and now, in retirement, paints watercolour
scenes of traditional Inuit life.

Yet after a lifetime of other memories, Michael can still remember, vividly, the
moment hospital sta at the Queen Mary told her she could nally go home.

“I hugged my doctor. I was the happiest Inuk there, everybody dancing around
— I’m going home! I’m going home!” Michael recalled.

“‘Lucky, lucky you,’ they said.”

UPDATED: Two Canadian law rms have led a class-action lawsuit focusing on
29 "Indian hospitals" across the country. Read more here.
Top photograph: David Donnelly | Editing: Andre Mayer
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