Manitoba History: Review: Maureen K. Lux, Medicine that Walks: Disease, Medicine and Canadian Plains Native People, 1880-1940

by Paul Hackett

Number 43, Spring / Summer 2002

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Maureen K. Lux, Medicine that Walks: Disease, Medicine and Canadian Plains Native People, 1880-1940, Toronto, Buffalo and London: University of Toronto Press, 2001, ISBN 0802047289 $50.00

Most Canadians hold our health care system in high regard, believing it to be a model of equality, efficiency and efficacy. Universal access and the rights of all Canadians to equal levels of care are considered to be fundamental tenets of this system. Attempts to introduce privatized medicine and fee-based treatment are thus seen by the broader public as a betrayal of the principals upon which it was founded and a stepping-stone towards “tiered” health care. Few of these same people realize, however, that this egalitarian system has been anything but, and that it has failed, and continues to fail, a significant portion of the country’s population.

On the whole, Canada’s Aboriginal people suffer from far poorer levels of health than non-Natives, to the point where comparisons to conditions in the third world are not unwarranted. The origins of this inequality predate the nation’s modern health care system, and are rooted in the process whereby the Canadian government wrested control over the lives, and the health, of these formerly independent people. On the plains this process began in the late nineteenth century with a series of numbered treaties, and its origins and course until 1940 are the subject of Maureen Lux’s fine book, Medicine that Walks.

Lux argues that the plains Indians were set up to fail by the government, which met the initial hunger crises of the 1870s and 1880s, caused by the disappearance of the bison, with inadequate resources and harmful policies. Despite Canada’s treaty and humanitarian obligations, officials routinely provided insufficient supplies of food and inadequate clothing and shelter, leading to economic destitution, starvation and continual health crises. Tuberculosis quickly became rampant among people who were settled on the plains reserves, and soaring death rates were the result. Indeed, the population figures presented in the opening chapter for the period 1884-94 provide evidence of staggering mortality among the plains bands. Ignoring their own role in the matter, these government officials instead placed the blame for the Indians’ hardships on their supposed racial and cultural inferiority.

In turn, this doctrine of inherent weakness was used to justify the destructive policies of assimilation and medical interference that followed. Residential schools that were developed as vehicles for religious and cultural assimilation provided ideal conditions for the spread of tuberculosis, with death a common outcome of attendance. Hospitals that emerged as offshoots of the school system did little to alleviate the situation, but also played a role in attempts at assimilation. Medical care was largely ineffective and provided to the Indians based on the needs of non-Natives. The legacy of this doctrine’s impact on the health of the Aboriginal people of Canada is to be seen today.

Despite the bleak history that it describes, Medicine that Walks is not without hope, and this may be one of its most valuable legacies. The author argues convincingly that traditional health care practices that were contextually suited to treating indigenous diseases and complaints also proved flexible enough to adapt to changing social and economic circumstances and to new health threats, in the face of policies meant to silence and discredit them. Indeed, as Lux points out in her conclusion, Aboriginal healing practices have gained new relevance in today’s world. When combined with western medicine, such practices may offer part of the present-day solution to the legacy of yesterday’s disastrous policies if the perpetual poverty and hopelessness experienced by many of Canada’s Aboriginal people can also be addressed.

Overall, this book is compelling, although the discussion of pre-treaty patterns of health raises some questions in my mind, particularly with respect to the effectiveness of traditional remedies in treating crowd diseases such as smallpox, and the capacity of the plains populations to rebound from some of the devastating epidemics of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. On a minor note, on page 16 the author mistakes variolation, or inoculation, for vaccination in the case of Isaac Cowie during the 1869-70 smallpox epidemic. These do little to detract from the overall quality of the book, however.

Lux’s exhaustive research is one of the book’s strongest aspects. The author has drawn upon diverse records from archival holdings across Canada for her analysis. At the same time, she has also strived to present the viewpoint of the Indian people through the use of interviews and by examining the written documents with a highly critical eye. In this, Medicine that Walks has much in common with other recent works that examine the sensitive history of Native-non Native relations. It, too, is a damning indictment of the treatment of Canada’s Aboriginal people. Consequently, the overall tone of the book, with its emphasis on the government’s indifference to the economic and physical devastation of the Indian people and the corporate and individual racism that has been endemic in the Canadian government and in its partners in crime, the medical community and the Christian churches, will be unsettling to some readers. This is particularly the case in that the book rarely delves far into the complex motivations of the non-Native actors, who for the most part appear as unsympathetic agents blinded by their racist beliefs. It is likely that some, in particular those interested in medical and church history, may take issue with the way in which these people and entities are portrayed, and thus may be tempted to dismiss the book, and Lux’s thesis, outright. While understandable, this is unfortunate.

This is an important work that provides critical insights into the collapse of the health of the Indians of the Canadian plains from the 1880s to the 1940s. As such, it should be a valuable asset for students of western Canadian and Native history, and it joins a burgeoning literature focused upon the historical decline of the health of the country’s Aboriginal people. At the same time, however, its findings carry important implications for the present, and it deserves a larger readership. The historical process outlined by Lux also has much to say about the current poor state of health of the descendants of those same people, and about how we might address this shameful situation. In this respect, Medicine that Walks can provide some guidance for the current health policy makers who might seek to avoid, and indeed who might correct, the mistakes of those who preceded them.

Page revised: 14 October 2012