Chapter 12: Modernity—Health and Water

In some cases, “Indian hospitals” were dedicated to Indigenous people because that was the principal population in the area. Elsewhere, these institutions were intended to segregate Indigenous patients from non-Indigenous populations. Source: National Film Board of Canada, Still Photography Division, Camsell Indian Hospital, October 1958, Online MIKAN # 4167190, Library and Archives Canada. Public domain.

“ . . . in medical and public health journals, doctors, nurses, and public health experts wrote about Indigenous people as ‘isolated,’ ‘primitive,’ and ‘susceptible’ and used images of ‘vast’ and ‘empty’ Indigenous territories to inspire a vision for colonial health services that would efficiently integrate Indigenous bodies into the nation through various means, including relocation, surveillance, and assimilation.”[1]

Contemporary Indigenous communities are currently battling the daunting legacy of a colonial agenda that sought to impose the values and practices of modernity. These included medical science, the professionalization of healthcare, twentieth-century psychology, and ideas about nutrition that incorporate a belief in supplements in lieu of better and traditional foods. Another modernist value and goal is efficiency. In the case of many Indigenous communities, this meant mandatory relocation to sites selected by settler governments in order to receive healthcare, education, and state management/regulation. Modernity also entails a firm belief in “Big Science” and an ability to construct the huge infrastructure needed to connect markets, produce energy for rapidly growing urban areas, and deliver water to fields and city-dwellers. For every hydroelectric project, however, there is a rise in mercury levels in the water; for every relocation, there is a spike in suicide rates; for every new agency placed on a First Nations reserve, there are issues of tenuous funding and unreliable staffing. Modernity is, as well, a jealous god: it has little tolerance for alternative and traditional health knowledge, little time for food security, and no patience at all for protests against “progress.”

The Doctor Will See You Now

Relocation of Indigenous communities was an important feature of modernization, one that accelerated in the twentieth century. In 1942, for example, twenty Mi’kmaq communities were consolidated into two with an eye to making administration more efficient and assimilation easier. This took place in the face of Mi’kmaq opposition and protest; within a decade, it was clear that the Mi’kmaq at Shubenacadie and Eskasoni were inadequately housed, and the services promised by the federal government had failed to materialize. Even after the policy of centralization was abandoned, these two communities remain the largest; and, of course, services to the smaller Mi’kmaq nodes deteriorated and, in some cases, disappeared entirely. Similar relocations took place in Labrador around the same time when Davis Inlet—a community that arose to serve the late nineteenth century fur trade—was abandoned and the community removed to “New Davis Inlet.” Existing social and internal political fissures widened after the move, manifesting in violence, abuse, and a high suicide rate.[2] Food resources, of course, changed in each of these instances, and concentrations of population living in poor housing made it easier for tuberculosis and other diseases to spread. Alcohol abuse existed at Davis Inlet; it became an epidemic at New Davis Inlet.

Predictably, declining health conditions in one reserve community after the next created conditions that settler society mistook for Indigenous in origin. Race and health had long been bound together in Euro-Canadian thinking, at the very least from the mid-nineteenth century. Immigrant groups living in poverty—from the pre-famine Irish in cholera quarantines through Chinese immigrants huddled in Chinatowns—were understood to be the engineers of their own ill health and poverty. “Race” was to blame, not social and economic barriers. This logic was applied to Indigenous communities, households, and individuals as well. There was, of course, little to no reflection on the common causes of suffering that might be bound up with colonial and/or racist policies. The twentieth century was, therefore, ripe for a modernist critique of Indigenous practices. Residential schools presented an opportunity to impose settler ideas about the human body and health on Indigenous peoples; likewise, incarceration of Indigenous adults and youth in the penal system provided a venue for control of the whole body and mind.[3]

The history of Indigenous health has become an important field of study in its own right. Mary-Ellen Kelm’s Colonizing Bodies: Aboriginal Health and Healing in British Columbia, 19001950 appeared in 1999; it was one of the first studies to recognize ways in which settler institutions like residential schools attempted to impose settler biological norms and practices on Indigenous physiologies. The goal of these efforts was the assimilation of Indigenous bodies as well as minds. Maureen Lux examined parallel situations on the Prairies in her 2001 book, Medicine That Walks: Disease, Medicine, and Canadian Plains Native People, 18801940. (She followed this with Separate Beds: A History of Indian Hospitals in Canada, 1920s1980s.) The broad arc of these and similar studies in the first two decades of the twenty-first century is traced by Mary Jane Logan McCallum in “Starvation, Experimentation, Segregation, and Trauma: Words for Reading Indigenous Health History,” as quoted at the beginning of this chapter.

Between 2012 and 2016, three studies appeared that significantly shifted the paradigm of Indigenous health studies. The first of these we have already met: James Daschuk’s Clearing the Plains. Part of Daschuk’s argument is that federal decisions to withhold relief for the Nêhiyawak and the Niitsitapi in the two decades after the first prairie treaties were signed led to starvation and long-term consequences of malnutrition. Ian Mosby’s 2013 article, “Administering Colonial Science: Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools, 1942–1952,” caused a ripple and then a storm as its implications became more widely understood. Briefly, highly-placed DIA officials worked alongside two leading Canadian nutrition and paediatrics researchers to conduct experiments on Indigenous children that led to serious physical suffering and even deaths. In the words of a subsequent study in Paediatrics and Child Health, In these experiments, parents were not informed, nor were consents obtained. Even as children died, the experiments continued. Even after the recommendations from the Nuremberg trial [of Nazi doctors accused of wartime atrocities], these experiments continued.”[4]Mosby’s research caught the attention of people involved in the early stages of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process. Battles were already underway and now intensified between those who sought access to closed federal documents under Freedom of Information (FOI) and officials in Ottawa who pushed back with claims of Protection of Privacy (POP). As this was unfolding, Adele Perry’s Aqueduct: Colonialism, Resources, and the Histories We Remember appeared. Perry shows how settler society literally leached health out of an Anishinaabe community, Shoal Lake 40, siphoning water for the thirsty city of Winnipeg to such an extent that the Anishinaabe were left without fresh drinking water for themselves.

What sets the Daschuk, Mosby, and Perry studies apart from much of what preceded them is the question of intent on the part of settler society. One could argue that the goal of the residential school project was always making Indigenous lives better, if by “better” we mean more like Euro-Canadian lives. Settler values may have been given precedence based on a racist (mis)understanding of Indigenous cultures and societies, but the objective was never to ruin lives. Similarly, reserves were conceptualized at least in part as a means of protecting Indigenous communities; they might have led to impoverishment, but that was not their goal. Daschuk, by contrast, uncovered consistent and compelling evidence of intentional deprivation that was intended to bring a population to its knees without firing a shot (at least until shots were fired in 1885 and the hangman was called in thereafter). Perry found engineers and politicians acting in ways that not only worked against the interests of Indigenous peoples, but did so with high-handed disregard for consequences. Worse, Mosby found damning evidence of experiments whose purpose was to cause pain in children. The legacy of 1885 has been the creation of an ecology suitable for the epidemic spread of tuberculosis, a disease that haunts Indigenous communities still; the legacy of Shoal Lake 40 has been generations of ill-health and isolation; the legacy of the systematic residential schools’ nutritional experiments has been—among other things—diabetes, an affliction that arises in response to nutritional depletion and which can be passed from one generation to the next.

Read a very abridged version of Adele Perry’s research here.[5] Mosby’s study is listed below, along with other studies pertaining to Indigenous health in a historic context.

Increasingly, historic health studies are turning to questions of food security and cultures of healthcare, both of which have been ruptured by colonialism. Millennia of Indigenous health and nutritional knowledge were actively suppressed—and ridiculed—by colonial society and scientists; the consequences have been significant. It is, indeed, a kind of double jeopardy in which settler society imposed conditions calculated (intentionally or otherwise) to cause physiological change and damage and yet, at the same time, worked actively to limit the ability of Indigenous communities to mount their own response. These studies, as McCallum observes, might best be viewed as histories of trauma. Expect to see this area of studies grow.


The nation-state and modernity were forged in the same furnace. It is difficult to imagine them as separate and distinct phenomenon. Insofar, then, that the nation-state is also a colonial enterprise, colonialism takes on modernist agendas and ideals. The enthusiasm for institutions (educational or penal), standardization (of everything from machinery to understandings of the human body), and progress (ideological, infrastructural, and technological) can be seen across the spectrum of settler-Indigenous encounters in the last 150 years or so. Modernity, too, offers tools to Indigenous communities with which to resist colonialism. The next and final chapter explores some of these.

Additional Resources

The following resources may supplement your understanding of the topics addressed in this chapter:

Burnett, Kristin. Taking Medicine: Women’s Healing Work and Colonial Contact in Southern Alberta, 1880–1930. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011.

Daschuk, James W. “The Nadir of Indigenous Health, 1886­–91.” In Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, 159–80. Regina: University of Regina Press, 2013.

Drees, Laurie Meijer. Healing Histories: Stories from Canada’s Indian Hospitals. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2013.

Drees, Laurie Meijer. “The Nanaimo and Charles Camsell Indian Hospitals: First Nations’ Narratives of Health Care, 1945 to 1965.” Histoire sociale/Social History 43, no. 85 (2010): 165–91.

Kelm, Mary-Ellen. Colonizing Bodies: Aboriginal Health in British Columbia, 1900–50. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1998.

Luby, Brittany. “Transforming Indigenous Foodways.” Active History, January 28, 2014.

Lux, Maureen. Medicine That Walks: Disease, Medicine, and Canadian Plains Native People, 1880–1940. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001.

Lux, Maureen. Separate Beds: A History of Indian Hospitals in Canada, 1920s–1980s. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016. (A twenty-minute podcast summary of this study may be found in an interview: Lux, Maureen. “Witness to Yesterday: The History of Indian Hospitals.” By Greg Marchildon. The Champlain Society. Accessed October 4, 2019.

McCallum, Mary Jane Logan. “Starvation, Experimentation, Segregation, and Trauma: Words for Reading Indigenous Health History.” Canadian Historical Review 98, no. 1 (March 2017): 96–113.

McCallum, Mary Jane Logan, and Adele Perry. Structures of Indifference: An Indigenous Life and Death in a Canadian City. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2019.

Mosby, Ian. “Administering Colonial Science: Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools, 1942–1952.” Histoire sociale/Social History 46, no.1 (2013): 145–72.

Mosby, Ian. “Of History and Headlines: Reflections of an Accidental Public Historian.” Active History, April 29, 2014.

Perry, Adele. Aqueduct: Colonialism, Resources, and the Histories We Remember. Winnipeg: ARP, 2016.

Tobias, John L. “Canada’s Subjugation of the Plains Cree, 1879–1885.” Canadian Historical Review 64, no. 4 (1983): 519–48.

  1. Mary Jane Logan McCallum, “Starvation, Experimentation, Segregation, and Trauma: Words for Reading Indigenous Health History,” Canadian Historical Review 98, no. 1 (March 2017): 96–113.
  2. Lynne D. Fitzhugh, The Labradorians: Voices from the Land of Cain (St. John’s, NF: Breakwater, 1999), 261–263.
  3. On this topic, see Joan Sangster, “Criminalizing the Colonized: Ontario Native Women Confront the Criminal Justice System, 1920–60,” Canadian Historical Review 80, no.1 (March 1999): 32–60.
  4. Noni E. MacDonald, Richard Stanwick, and Andrew Lynk, “Canada’s Shameful History of Nutrition Research on Residential School Children: The Need for Strong Medical Ethics in Aboriginal Health Research,” Paediatrics and Child Health 19, no. 2 (February 2014): 64.
  5. Adele Perry, “The Aqueduct and Colonialism,” in John Douglas Belshaw, Canadian History: Post Confederation (Vancouver: BCcampus, 2016), section 11.9.


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Histories of Indigenous Peoples and Canada Copyright © by John Douglas Belshaw; Sarah Nickel; and Dr. Chelsea Horton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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