Acknowledging the Past (Health)

Indigenous communities have always used plants for medicine, identifying over 400 different herbs and fungi with medicinal properties (Turner, 2019). Consequently, there is little division between medicine and food, as both provide health and nutrition. Taking or applying plant medicines was often accompanied by ritual and storytelling, focussing on the spiritual aspects of healing. With colonization, and the introduction of new diseases (e.g., tuberculosis, smallpox, and diabetes), some existing remedies provided relief to Europeans, as well as Indigenous populations (Turner, 2019).

Retaining health and balance is aided by visiting sweat lodges to purify the body, mind and soul (Gadacz, 2017). Resting in the structure, in the centre of the four directions, participants experience intense heat from steam poured on heated rocks (Anishnawbe Health Toronto, 2017).

The Medicine Wheel is based on Indigenous cultural values, tradition and spirituality. Its four directions (East, South, West and North) symbolize completeness, wholeness, connectedness and strength. In order to achieve optimal health and wellness the Medicine Wheel’s elements must be in balance – the Physical, Emotional, Mental and Spiritual. (Toronto’s First Indigenous Health Strategy 2016-2021  2016).
Linked below is a resource made available through Tribal Trade Co to better understand the Medicine Wheel teachings:

The Indigenous Medicine Wheel Teachings – Tribal Trade Co


During the COVID-19 pandemic, although vaccines were very consciously made available even to remote Indigenous communities, vaccine hesitancy was also prevalent in this population, leading to higher rates of infection (Mosby & Swidrovich, 2021). To understand the cause of this hesitancy, it is necessary to consider the history of Western medicine as it has been practiced on Indigenous populations in this country. Sheila North, former grand chief of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak stated that, “back in residential school days, [people], that are now elders, remember being used as guinea pigs or [having] vaccines tested on them when they were children without their permission or their family’s permission” (North as cited in Rodriguez 2020, para. 14). Dr. Peter Bryce toured and reported on the deplorable health conditions in residential schools in the early 1900s.

Anyone who has investigated research ethics is likely familiar with the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” in which Public Health researchers conducted a forty-year study of the progression of syphilis—a study that continued even after penicillin became available to treat the disease in the mid-1940s. Similar experiments were happening in Canada through this period using Indigenous children and adults as test subjects, often without consent.

TMU’s Ian Mosby has researched and written extensively on the impact of nutritional and medical experiments on Indigenous adults and children in residential schools from 1942 to 1952. His archival investigation scrutinizes researchers of the period as they investigated malnutrition in Indigenous communities. Documents from the mid-1940s suggest that food available to residential school students did not meet the government’s own nutritional requirements; additionally, appliances necessary for food storage and preparation, as well as adequately trained staff were missing (Mosby 2013). For more information on Nutrition and Food follow the linked text.

Mosby’s research led to the 2018 class action lawsuit against the Federal Government by residential school survivors. Children, who are now elderly adults, have shared stories of misdiagnosis and unnecessary painful treatments, some leading to permanent physical and psychological injury or premature death (Kassam 2018).

Led by Dr. Lionel Bradley Pett, the Canadian Council on Nutrition was formed in 1938 to investigate supplements for vitamin and mineral deficiencies. To support this research, some residential school students were fed experimental foods. Options such as “blood sausage” and “meat spread” made from offal (parts of animals not commonly used for human consumption) were actually rejected for contravening the Food and Drugs Act after the Department of Agriculture determine that “they would not be on very good ground in allowing products for sale to the Indians in Canada, that they would not be prepared to release for the benefit of the White People” (Moore & McHenry 1945 as cited in Mosby 2013). Pett published his findings in 1952, failing to mention that residential school students were experimented on without their consent or parental consent, or that students were divided into experimental control groups and sometimes had food withheld. After World War II and the Nuremberg Trials holding Nazi Germany accountable for its actions during the war, the Nuremberg Code’s ten principles for medical experiments on human subjects was published in 1947; however, Pett still defended his experimental record in an interview in 2000 (Mosby 2013).

Nurse takes blood sample from boy at the Indian School, Port Alberni, B.C., during a medical and dental survey conducted by the Department of National Health and Welfare. Retrieved.

As one residential school survivor states: “Hunger was never absent” (R. Moses quoted in Mosby, 2017, para. 2). Ian Mosby blames the malnutrition of residential school diets for the high rates of Type 2 diabetes in Indigenous adults today. While diabetes impacts about 5% of Canada’s general population, it increases to 17.2% of the Indigenous population living on-reserve (Crowshoe et al. 2018).

Tuberculosis was one of many diseases brought to the Americas by European settlers (others include smallpox and typhoid (Crowe 1991)) which, in combination with willful violence, are thought to have reduced the Indigenous population by as much as 95% (Stannard 1993). So-called “Indian Hospitals” were in operation from the 1920s to the 1980s, and originally functioned as tuberculosis sanatoria, but later became more generalized facilities for Indigenous patients. While some of these hospitals were repurposed buildings on or close to reservations, others required long journeys away from family and community support. Some were independent hospitals, while others were segregated wards or wings of existing hospitals, and sometimes even basements, to ensure that those with “Indian” tuberculosis were separated from tuberculosis patients in the general population (Indigenous Corporate Training, 2017) .

Similar to residential schools, Indian hospitals were often administered by religious orders. Under the Indian Act, Indigenous adults or children suspected of having tuberculosis could be apprehended and forcibly detained in Indian hospitals. Notably, this law, Article 73. h) of the Indian Act has still not been revised, so in theory, could still be enforced. Because children in residential schools were often undernourished and housed in unsanitary conditions, disease was common (Bryce 1922). Students were sometimes moved from residential schools to Indian hospitals without parental knowledge (Indigenous Corporate Training, 2017).

Alarmingly, numerous reports indicate that Indigenous adults and children were forcibly placed in Indian hospitals even when they showed no indication of tuberculosis or other disease. In these institutions, poorly trained medical personnel conducted experimental treatments (such as electro-shock therapy) and surgeries (such as removing ribs or lungs for no apparent reason) with only local anesthesia; patients were sometimes permanently maimed or died (Kassam 2018; Geddes 2017). By the 1950s, effective treatments for TB had been developed, and yet Indigenous patients continued to be housed in these institutions, rather than receiving out-patient treatment (Lux 2015).

Because of the prevalence of tuberculosis in the Indigenous community, supported by profoundly racist medical and political views of the time, the experimental Bacille Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine was administered to Indigenous infants. With funding from Indian Affairs and the National Research Council, Dr. George Ferguson, the director of the Fort Qu’Appelle Sanitorium in Saskatchewan, began human trials in 1933. The trial itself was a success, with only six of the 306 vaccinated children developing TB and two dying; in the control group 29 of 303 children developed TB and nine died. Of the 609 children in the experiment, 77 died before turning one, and about a fifth died in total, but not from TB; their causes of death were usually from stomach flu or pneumonia. While the BCG vaccine prevented TB, it did nothing to alleviate the poor socio-economic conditions endemic to reservations and residential schools (Lux 2015).

Although better vaccines and treatments were in use in non-Indigenous populations by the 1950s, allowing use of a simple skin scratch test to check for TB, widespread BCG vaccination programs continued in Indigenous communities into the 1960s. The BCG vaccine precludes the effective use of scratch testing, instead requiring regular chest X-rays to check for TB. Indigenous populations were subjected to decades of routine X-ray exposure, increasing their risk of cancer, while the rest of the Canadian population had moved on to a better vaccine that didn’t require X-rays for confirmation of the absence of TB. Despite questions regarding the efficacy of the BCG vaccine, it continues to be used in some provinces (Lux 2015).

Given the catastrophic history of government involvement in Indigenous healthcare for over a century, it shouldn’t be surprising that contemporary Indigenous communities are often suspicious of medical and government programs. Ongoing cases of systemic racism in hospitals, such as the death of Joyce Echaquan in a Quebec emergency room, only stoke the reluctance to engage with medical institutions (CBC 2020). Much of this history encompasses populations across Canada; however, as is shown in the section on Land and Housing the majority of Indigenous people living in Toronto have come here from other cities and provinces bringing their histories with them.