#114 From apartheid to resurgence

Medicine Unbundled: A Journey Through the Minefields of Indigenous Health Care
by Gary Geddes

Victoria: Heritage House, 2017
$22.95  /  9781772031645

Reviewed by Mary-Ellen Kelm

First published April 4, 2017


Harold Cardinal’s assessment of Canada’s Indigenous policy in 1969 as “a thinly disguised programme of extermination” in The Unjust Society is born out almost fifty years later in Gary Geddes’ non-fiction work of research and listening, Medicine Unbundled, which tells it like it was in segregated Indian Hospitals–sterilization, starvation, botched operations, sexual abuse, medical experiments, absence of family and neglect.

Protest in Toronto, 2017. Photo courtesy APTN News

Along the way Geddes coins the useful phrase “genocide in slow motion.”

In the 1930s, in Alberta, when Indigenous people represented only 2.3 per cent of the population in Canada, 25 per cent of those sterilized in Alberta were Indigenous people. The nefarious experiments described in Medicine Unbundled are no less disturbing.

By collecting first-hand testimonies from survivors of Indian Hospitals, primarily in Western Canada, Geddes has generated a valuable and necessary work to complement Yvonne Boyer’s Moving Aboriginal Health Forward: Discarding Canada’s Legal Barriers (which Geddes reviewed for The Vancouver Sun), Maureen K. Lux’s Medicine That Walks and her newly released academic study, Separate Beds: A History of Indian Hospitals in Canada, 1920s-1980s (UTP 2016) – Ed.


Sandy Morris grew worried when his brother Ivan did not return from surgery at the Nanaimo Indian Hospital. When Sandy went to Ivan’s cot on a ward in the hospital, he found two orderlies stripping it.

Sandy asked them what they were doing and where was his brother. They responded by twisting his arm behind his back to punish the impertinence of speaking to them at all. When they were through abusing him, they walked away. One orderly said, over his shoulder, that Ivan would be of no use to Sandy now; he was in the morgue.

Tearfully Sandy ran to the basement of the hospital where he found Ivan on a gurney. Terrified and heartbroken, he pulled back the sheet to reveal Ivan’s face. Leaning forward to kiss his brother one last time, he felt the subtle feathering of breath against his cheek.

And he realized Ivan was alive.

Clamouring noisily up the stairs as only a little boy can, Sandy confronted the orderly asking him to bring his brother back up the ward – he was not dead. The orderly responded: “If you want your brother so badly, bring him up yourself.”

Songhees elder Joan Morris

While shocking, such stories no longer surprise us as Canadians. We have heard many like them of the Indian Residential Schools. But Medicine Unbundled is necessary nonetheless.

In Medicine Unbundled, Gary Geddes makes the case that the Indian Hospitals, like the one at Nanaimo, were part of an integrated system of institutions, including the residential schools, designed for the suppression of Indigenous peoples and having long-lasting health impacts on them.

Canadians know little of the Indian Hospitals; their history is only now being documented. There were once twenty-two of them, mostly in the West, although there were three in Ontario. They were opened in an era when health officials worried that intransigently high rates of tuberculosis among Indigenous people (status and non-status Indians, Métis, and Inuit) would undermine the control over the disease that public health measures were gaining among Canadians.

Nanaimo Indian Hospital, 1966, a former army camp. Photo by Agnes M. Flett courtesy Victoria Times Colonist

The Indian Act made treatment compulsory for status Indians with communicable diseases and so they had little choice but to go to hospital often far from home and sometimes on a moment’s notice. Their hospital stays could be long, lonely and traumatic. Geddes writes that the treatment offered in Indian Hospitals was outdated. There surgeons continued to perform procedures, including the removal of bone, gland and lung tissue, long after such surgery was considered effective treatment.

Antimicrobial drugs made their way to the hospitals first through clinical trials but their introduction as treatment was inextricably delayed. Not surprisingly, Geddes notes, few Indigenous people he met trust our medical system.

This book is not so much about medicine, though, as it is about relationships, about conversations and about listening. It begins with a conversation between Geddes and Joanie Morris, a Tsartlip survivor of Kuper Island Residential School and the niece of Sandy and Ivan Morris. Her mother spent seventeen years in the Nanaimo Indian Hospital.

As Joanie Morris learns to trust Geddes, she opens the door to others who might wish to share their stories and they in turn introduce him to more people until he has travelled half way across this country. Some bring photos but mostly they talk and they challenge Geddes, and us, to listen.

Postcard of Kuper Island Residential School, the school Joanie Morris attended, known as Alcatraz by Coast Salish people. The school was demolished in the 1980s. Photo courtesy Library and Archives Canada

When Geddes wonders whether he, as a white man, should be doing this work, Joannie responds, “Hey, Gary, no one has listened to us for the last two hundred years, so why don’t you get off your butt and be the first?”

Listening, as it turns out, can be a problem for Canadians. As Joanie puts it, “the problem I have with white people is that they don’t listen.”

For decades, Canadians dismissed the testimony of residential school survivors or simply refused to hear it. Some still wish to see the “good” in the schools.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its public events across the country offered all Canadians a chance to hear survivors’ testimony and many thousands did just that. Through the massive TRC report, we can hope that the weight of such testimony has removed disbelief.

Nonetheless some publishers told Geddes, when he was looking for a publisher for Medicine Unbundled, that “no one in Canada cares about Indians.”

Brandon Sanitarium. Courtesy The Brandon Sun

When it comes to the Indian Hospitals, Geddes finds we have a long way to go. Our ears remained blocked, partly because the stories are so horrific, but we have learned through the TRC that such stories are nonetheless true. Geddes, and the people he met, worry that Canadians will not listen because we are still inclined to weigh documentary evidence as more trustworthy than oral history. For those who want the documents to speak, getting access to them is not easy. Geddes, it seems, was refused access to the archival files he requested. Some of the most compelling examples of medical abuse remain uncorroborated – children, now adults, recall repeated vaccines, or other shots, but without school medical or hospital records we cannot know what the vaccines were, or why or how they were administered. Sometimes the records seem simply to no longer exist, such as those of the mysterious deaths at the Brandon Sanitarium in the 1950s. Access denied, files destroyed, Geddes writes that the archives have been cleansed of the evidence of our atrocities. We cannot hear the stories we cannot find.

Nanaimo Indian Hospital, ca. 1948

Mainly, Geddes argues, we have trouble listening because we lack a narrative into which to fit what we are hearing. The national history we embrace — of the multicultural peacemaker — simply does not equip us to reckon these other stories, the ones Geddes tells here of residential schools, medical abuse, and the segregated hospital system. As Canadians we remain fractured from our own past until we find a new narrative: one that embraces all of our history, the contradictory impulses, the heartbreaking realities alongside the growth we perceive in ourselves. Without the truth, we cannot heal. That is, we – Canadians — cannot heal.

Gary Geddes

As Richard Wagamese wrote: “It’s been a story of generations of abducted children, intergenerational pain and wounds passed down because the whole story has not been told…First Nations people know that. It’s time that Canada came to understand the nature of that truth as well.”

As we approach the 150th anniversary of Confederation we can start to craft a new honest history of our nation, one that embraces the darkness of that past.

As in his previous books on violence and reconciliation in sub-Saharan Africa, Geddes is fascinated by healing. Repeatedly, he asks the people he speaks with why they are not angry, why they do not hate. They respond that in healing they have let go of their anger. They are turning inward to their own cultures, their languages, their foods, and their medicines. This is what Indigenous writers like Taiaike Alfred and Lee Ann Betasamosake Simpson call resurgence. It is healing for Indigenous people by Indigenous people.

Overtly there is not much of Geddes the poet in this book, but look closely and there are some compelling images. An eagle and a heron battle in the sky above Geddes’ Thetis Island home; the heron escapes the raptor because it has strong wings that carry it aloft to safety. Thetis Island sits adjacent to Penelakut Island, where Kuper Island Indian Residential School once stood — the site of many of the saddest and most terrifying stories in the book. Thetis is Penelakut’s twin, Geddes tells us; they are connected. Just as Canadians are connected to these histories, to this past, and to Indigenous people now and in the future.

Demolition of Fort Qu’Appelle Indian Hospital, 2017. Courtesy CTV News


Mary-Ellen Kelm

Mary-Ellen Kelm is a professor of history at Simon Fraser University specializing in settler colonial and medical histories of North America. Her first book, Colonizing Bodies: Aboriginal Health and Healing in British Columbia 1900-1950 (UBC Press, 1998) won the Sir John A. Macdonald Prize and the Clio award for British Columbia both awarded by the Canadian Historical Association. In 2007 she received the second place award in the BC Historical Federation’s annual history writing competition for editing The Letters of Margaret Butcher: Missionary-Imperialism on the North Pacific Coast (University of Calgary Press, 2007), which tell the story of the Elizabeth Long Memorial Home, an Indian Residential School in Kitamaat, BC, from the perspective of an English teacher and nurse at the school. Her history, A Wilder West: Rodeo in Western Canada (UBC Press, 2011) is an illustrated examination of rodeo’s small-town roots, and a look at how the sport brought people together across racial and gender divides. She is currently examining the ideas and methods medical researchers brought to the study of Indigenous health in North America from 1910-1990. She is co-editor of the Canadian Historical Review.


The British Columbia Review

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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