The Pas, Manitoba - Ottawa is being urged to investigate the growing tales of horror from former patients regarding three tuberculosis sanitariums which were operating in Manitoba up until 30 years ago. Activities at one particular facility, the Clearwater Lake Sanitarium near The Pas, are the main concern for the province's First Nation chiefs and New Democrat MLA Eric Robinson. "Some stories the Elders report are that their people went there and never came back," said Robinson, a member of the Cross Lake First Nation and the provincial Indian Affairs critic. He has already heard from numerous people who said their siblings were taken away in the 40s, 50s or 60s and just never came home.
As well as the suspicious disappearances, there have also been stories of abuse and neglect at the hands of nurses working at the facility. Recently, he said, a burial site containing 15 bodies was unearthed a few miles from where the Clearwater Sanitarium stood. Many people think the bodies are those of people whose deaths were never reported by the sanitarium. If the bodies are those of former patients, he fears there may be more bodies out there. "It's dozens for the time being, but there could be hundreds as far as I know," he said. Arlene Gibson, the executive director of the Sanitarium Board of Manitoba said past history of the board and of the facilities has long been filed away in the provincial archives, making any immediate answers difficult to come by. She was certain, however, that the Clearwater Sanitarium had nothing to do with the bodies recently found. "We didn't bury people. We had no burials. Someone took the bodies away," she said. "We certainly had no burial sites."
Since the early 1900s, when the Clearwater facility opened, she said, many people, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, were sent to the facility, and while medical treatments may have been primitive and many people did die from the disease, she was not aware of any direct complaints sent to the board in it's 60 years of operation. A letter written in 1949 to an Indian Agent from the Clearwater area indicates, however, that there were many problems at the sanitarium which may have been ignored by facility officials and never passed on to the board level. "The Indians feel so bad about the management that they begin to believe that they are being brought to this place to die," wrote Chief Cornelius Bignell, then chief of the Le Pas Indian Band (now the Opaskwayak Cree Nation) in a letter to "Mr. E. Low, Indian Agent," on July 4, 1949.
The letter contained a list of seven concerns the band had received from the Clearwater patients. The issues included a need for more fresh air and time outside the facility, the use of excessive force when needles were administered and the higher than normal rates of death. "Too many persons have died and are dying too fast in such a short time. Very few leave the San (sanitarium) alive," read the letter. Gibson said she too would like to see the results of an inquiry into the role the sanitariums played. The inquiry could also identify who operated the tuberculosis facilities, as Gibson said she was not aware of who was in charge. She said the board worked at arm's length to the medical treatment of the disease.
Ask William Tagoona who was in charge and he'll tell you it was the staff, especially the nurses. "They were the ultimate bosses. They could do anything with you whenever they wanted," said the 46-year -old former patient. In the mid-1950s, Tagoona, who now lives in Kuujjuaq in northern Quebec, was a patient at Clearwater. He stayed there for 18 months from the age of five. In that time, his life belonged to the nurses. "You were a nothing they could play with. It was scary," he said. For a year and a half, Tagoona said he was kept from his parents and never allowed outside the building. He stayed with other Native patients in the ward "and never really did anything." Most of the children were afraid he said, because if they stepped out of line, they were beaten with thick, leather belts.
He told of nights where the nurses would read bedtime stories and the children were told to keep their eyes on the nurse's face. If they looked away and were caught, "she'd take her belt off and hit you with it," he said. The goodnight kiss was another strictly enforced duty. If a child turned his head away from the nurse, then you'd get it again," said Tagoona, who now works for the CBC in northern Quebec. One of the most vivid and scarring memories Tagoona grudgingly recalls took place during meal time. He said the macaroni he was to eat was something he had never tasted before and after tasting some, he threw up in his plate. "The nurse got really angry and mixed up the macaroni and vomit and force fed it to me," he said. Forty years later, Tagoona said he still cannot eat macaroni or spaghetti.
"Maybe Canadians would like to know the history of how the Native people were treated in the 1950s," he said, adding that it might show people that Native people aren't "just like that," but that "maybe they were made to be like that by the white people in the past." Tagoona was also a residential school student after his time at the Clearwater Sanitarium. He looks back on his years at the Churchill residential school as good ones. He looks back to his 18 months at Clearwater with a lump in his throat. "I remember many fond memories at residential school, but at Clearwater Lake, I don't even remember one fond memory," he said. "Maybe that's why residential school was so easy for me. I was already pretty tough by then."
The 26 chiefs represented in the Manitoba Keewatinow Okimakanak (MKO) in northern Manitoba, recently passed a resolution calling for an immediate investigation into the Clearwater Lake Sanitarium operations, as well as two other facilities in southern Manitoba. "We can no longer remain silent as we have too many health problems that may be related to the treatment our people received in these places," said Red Sucker Lake Chief Fred Harper. MKO Grand Chief Francis Flett agreed. "The rest of Canadian society must know what happened to our people, to learn about the pain and anguish we suffered at the hands of people who were charged with healing us," said Flett.
"The residential schools, congregating hundreds of children from different reserves with different diseases, were contagion centers. The children died by the dozens or contracted diseases which spread easily through the unsanitary buildings. When they went home, they took the diseases with them. The schools were frequently swept by epidemics. Tuberculosis was out of control by 1936. The government did not know how many Indians had it, or how many died from it. Lack of money was the reason for lack of treatment.
"Sanatarium treatment for Indians was not authorized in Manitoba by Indian Affairs until 1938. In that year, the Indian death rate was 25 times the Canadian rate. One-third of the total TB deaths in Manitoba occurred among two per cent of the population. The old Indian sanatoria have, for the most part, been closed. They were terrible places. All the patients were desperately sick and many died. The buildings were old and run down, wards were crowded, and a new patient immediately filled a bed vacated by a corpse. In Manitoba, the Dynevor Indian hospital was set up in a 19th century stone building.
"Of sixty-seven patients admitted in 1940, 59 per cent had extremely advanced TB, and 42 per cent were children under 15. The hospital suffered from a shortage of beds and a shortage of nursing staff. 'If more beds are not soon provided, the benefit of case findings will be dissipated,' the hospital director wrote in 1946. Of 88 patients admitted in 1946, 90 per cent had advanced TB of the lungs, and 21 patients died that year. Indians received segregated hospital treatment until the number of patients dwindled so markedly that the Indians could be fitted into the white people's sanitoria."
- From Reservations are for Indians, by Heather Robertson, Toronto: James Lorimer & Co., pp. 131-133
"In 1941, a team of doctors, out of professional curiosity, began a scientific study of health conditions among the Indians of Northern Manitoba, particularly in Norway House, The Pas and Cross Lake. Indian Affairs contributed to their expenses. Their study lasted until 1944:
"'The majority of the Indians we saw, according to our present medical standards, were sick. They were not sick according to lay opinion, but when we examined them carefully from the medical standpoint, they had so many obvious evidences of malnutrition that if you or I were in the same condition, we would demand hospitalization at once. We were struck, particularly, with the inertia, the lack of initiative, the indolence of these people. Physically they shuffled about; they moved slowly. Even though we had to speak to many of them through an interpreter, it was obvious their mental processes were going on at a very slow pace.
"'We found, in that particular band, the TB death rate was just fifty times the tuberculosis death rate among the white population of Manitoba. This raises a problem far beyond the Indians because there is a focus of infection which is of concern to you and me. We can never prevent tuberculosis among the white population of Canada when we have a focus of fifty times that among those Indians.
"'In trying to find out what was at the bottom of this situation we studied the food which the Indians had. We found, according to our present day standards, the Indians received a diet which could not possibly result in good health. The Indian of today at Norway House is a smaller Indian than forty years ago. This statement is not based on guesswork, but on facts obtained from the post manager of the Hudson Bay post, Mr. Laramont, who happened to be there forty years ago. He says the Indian of today is buying a smaller shirt and smaller pants compared with those articles he bought forty years ago... severe dietary inadequacies have made people angry, submissive, listless, disease ridden and incapable of productive work, resistance, or finally, of continuing to live. Entire population groups reduced to the listless stage have subsisted for generations with chronic dietary inadequacies sufficient to lower progressively their work output, which, with high fecundity, results in a constantly diminishing food supply.' Dr. Frederick Tisdall, Testimony before Senate Commons Committee on Indian Affairs, 1947, vol 1. p.8."
- ibid, p, 134
"Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
a) Killing members of the group;
b) Causing serious bocily or mental harm to members of the group;
c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its destruction, in whole or in part;
d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."
- Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, 1948
More information on the internment of indigenous children in Canadian