The 19th-century Indigenous policy success story we’ve forgotten

By Peter Shawn Taylor and Greg Piasetzki

Thus far in March, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has apologized for Ottawa’s mistreatment of Inuit tuberculosis victims and announced a $200-million fund for former students of the Indian Day School system, which operated as an alternative to the dutifully apologized for Residential Schools.

Considering the federal Liberals’ vast capacity for apology regarding historical injustices perpetrated by past governments, March was just another month. But given this propensity for official self-mortification, here’s a novel idea. What if in addition to expressing deep regret for the many sins of our forefathers, we also acknowledged some of the things our predecessors got right?

Smallpox was once the most dreaded of all communicable diseases

Smallpox was once the most dreaded of all communicable diseases. Known as “red death,” it could lie dormant for days on clothing or corpses and then extract a massive death toll. Smallpox’s dark footprint helps explain the tragic destruction of Indigenous populations throughout the Americas. During an epidemic in the early 1780s more than half the Indigenous people living along the Saskatchewan River system are estimated to have died. A later outbreak in British Columbia killed nearly two-thirds of the province’s native population.

The development of a smallpox vaccine in 1796 by English physician Edward Jenner offered the means to combat this deadly threat, but doing so required governments capable of comprehensive vaccination programs. While it wasn’t until 1980 that the disease was declared eradicated globally, throughout the 19th century Canadian authorities had considerable success fighting the disease within Indigenous populations, particularly on the Prairies. It’s one of our country’s most impressive, if least-acknowledged, public-health achievements.

The smallpox vaccine was developed in 1796 by English physician Edward Jenner, pictured in an 18th-century pastel by John Raphael Smith. Wellcome Library, London

The first comprehensive vaccinations in the Canadian West were carried out by the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). Well aware of the damage smallpox had done to the fur trade during the 1780s epidemic, the firm instructed its employees to “introduce vaccination generally among the natives.” This proved an astute move when the disease reappeared in the 1830s; while the American West was devastated once again, the death toll was minimal on HBC territory.

“It was really amazing what the HBC was able to do,” says University of Saskatchewan medical geographer Paul Hackett. “As a fur trade company, they managed to vaccinate much of the native and white population across Western Canada in a rather short period of time. And compared to the American government, they were far more successful.” Hackett admits this was a public-health intervention born of the profit-motive, but it had the happy consequence of saving many lives.

The first comprehensive vaccinations in the Canadian West were carried out by the Hudson’s Bay Company

When Canada purchased the HBC’s western territories in 1870, the firm’s vaccination efforts had slackened considerably and Gimli, Man., suffered a smallpox outbreak in 1876 among Icelandic settlers and nearby natives. This reappearance posed an existential threat to plans for opening the West to widespread settlement, and Ottawa swiftly appointed Dr. D.W.J. Hagarty as medical superintendent for the region with the monumental task of vaccinating the entire Indigenous population. Annual Indian Affairs reports describe in detail the seriousness with which this task was engaged, as some communities actually achieved the desired 100 per cent vaccination rate. When a batch of vaccine proved faulty near Edmonton in 1886, the entire district was re-vaccinated. As a result of this concerted effort, there was never again another major outbreak of smallpox on the Prairies.

Mindful of the devastation wrought by earlier epidemics, the native community appeared to greatly appreciate the federal government’s commitment. On learning his tribe was to be vaccinated, an aged chief in The Pas, Man., declared: “Now I know that our Great Mother, the Queen, regards us, and that her chief councillor in Canada, wishes us to live. The Great Spirit has heard the cries of our afflicted people, and has given them good medicine.” It bears noting that Queen Victoria’s “chief councillor in Canada” at the time was prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald.

The Great Spirit has heard the cries of our afflicted people, and has given them good medicine

19th-century chief in The Pas, Man.

Macdonald, of course, is now widely condemned for being cruelly parsimonious in his native policy. But even his many critics grudgingly acknowledge his government’s efforts in fighting smallpox. Brock University historian Maureen Lux is stridently critical of Macdonald in her book “Medicine that Walks: Disease, Medicine and Canadian Plains Native People 1880-1940,” but casually admits Ottawa ran a “vigorous campaign to vaccinate all Native people.” And while the fact treaty annuities were sometimes withheld until a reserve’s children were fully vaccinated is now seen as proof of disreputable and paternalistic colonialism, how different is such a policy from present-day demands that all schoolchildren provide proof of vaccination? Surely outcomes matter. And Ottawa’s smallpox policy saved countless lives.

Perhaps the best evidence of Ottawa’s effectiveness in fighting smallpox within native communities can be seen in Montreal’s deadly epidemic of 1885. Over 3,000 Montrealers died, but across the river at the Mohawk reserve of Kahnawake there were “but very few cases,” according to official reports. Ottawa’s Indigenous vaccinations program across the country was thus demonstrably more reliable than the haphazard efforts of some provincial and municipal public-health authorities.

Smallpox tents are seen on Porter’s Island in Ottawa in a photo believed to date from 1876. The island was used to keep typhoid and smallpox patients isolated from the rest of the city. National Archive

“We should certainly celebrate the success we’ve had with smallpox in Canada,” says Hackett, giving credit where it’s due. “It was a genuinely wonderful accomplishment.” The commonly-accepted narrative that colonial-era Canada showed only indifference or malign intent towards the native population clearly fails on contact with the evidence of its smallpox policy. (So, too, the calumny that there were official plans to deliberately infect natives with smallpox via disease-ridden blankets.) If the Canadian government truly wished to empty the Prairies, the simplest solution would have been to stand aside and let smallpox do its deadly business. Instead, Ottawa strove mightily to vaccinate every Indigenous person within its reach.

We ought to recognize this as a proud and notable public-health achievement

Given how society still struggles with vaccination rates, we ought to recognize this as a proud and notable public-health achievement. Put rather crudely, without the federal government’s smallpox vaccination efforts there’d be no need to apologize for the mismanagement of Inuit tuberculosis treatment or the native school system today — because so few Indigenous people would have survived the 19th century.

This isn’t to suggest Canadian native policy was wholly benevolent. Or, as Hackett points out, there aren’t still major public-health issues left to conquer among Indigenous populations. But it should still be possible to recognize the Canadian government’s smallpox vaccination campaign for what it was — a true colonial-era native policy success story.




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