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The History of Indian Hospitals in Alberta

In honour of Indigenous History Month, it is essential to reflect on the historical injustices faced by Indigenous Peoples in Canada, particularly in the area of health care. The Indian hospital system, notably in Treaty areas 6, 7 and 8 and Métis homelands within Alberta, represents a dark chapter in history, characterized by systemic racism and segregation that continues to impact Indigenous communities today.

Establishment and Purpose

Though formally established in the 1930s, the Canadian government opened and funded Indian hospitals post-World War II ostensibly to address tuberculosis and other health issues in Indigenous communities. According to the Minister of National Health and Welfare, Brooke Claxton, in 1946, these hospitals, were needed for “humanitarian reasons”, and intended to provide specialized care as well as “act as a necessary protection to the rest of the population of Canada”. In reality, Indian hospitals often served as a means to segregate Indigenous patients from the general population, perpetuating a system of racial discrimination. As a result, 29 segregated Indian hospitals were operated across Canada from 1945 until the mid-1980s, with seven of these hospitals located in Alberta – the largest number of all the Canadian provinces. 

Conditions and Treatment

The conditions within Indian hospitals were notoriously poor. In addition to being transported to these facilities without their consent, patients faced overcrowded wards, inadequate medical supplies and substandard treatment. Testimonies from former patients and health care workers reveal a pattern of neglect and abuse. Indigenous patients were often used as subjects for medical experiments without their consent, sterilized by force, and operated on without the use of anaesthesia – further exacerbating their mistrust in the health care system.

Systemic Racism and Segregation

The Indian hospital system was a stark manifestation of systemic racism. Indigenous patients were segregated from non-Indigenous patients and received inferior care. This segregation was not only physical but also reflected in the quality of treatment and the dismissive attitudes of health care professionals toward Indigenous patients.

Closure and Legacy

The closure of Indian hospitals began in the late 1960s, with many being shut down by the 1980s. However, the legacy of these institutions endures, leaving deep scars in Indigenous communities. The historical trauma and mistrust in the health care system persist, contributing to ongoing disparities in health outcomes for Indigenous Peoples.

If you would like to learn more about Indian hospitals and their impacts, you can watch these short informational videos: