Sir John A. and a Life-saving Policy

Good Medicine: the 19th Century Indigenous Policy Success Story We’ve Forgotten

National Post, Friday, March 29, 2019

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.

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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 Edward Jenner

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

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.

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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

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.

— Peter Shawn Taylor is a contributing editor at Maclean’s magazine. Greg Piasetzki is an intellectual property lawyer with an interest in Canadian history.


A Tale of Cold Cities

A Tale of Cold Cities

This winter has been one of the coldest in memory — one of the snowiest as well. Nowhere is the cold more biting than on the cities of the plains. On Sunday, February 10, both Saskatoon and Calgary celebrated their fifth annual Great Canadian Kilt Skate. Not necessarily with “bare knees and ice” — not this year. But with customary Scottish fortitude and sense of fun.

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Montreal rescheduled -- for a second year

Montreal rescheduled -- for a second year

Hosting a kilt skate outdoors leaves it vulnerable to the vagaries of weather. For the second year in a row, extreme weather warnings in Montreal have forced the St. Andrew’s Society to postpone for a week. The Great Canadian Kilt Skate is rescheduled for Saturday, January 26, 2-4 p.m.

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Winnipeg: early reports on a great skate date

Winnipeg: early reports on a great skate date

It’s estimated that 40-50 kilted skaters joined in the fun. The day’s entertainment included a skating piper and the Kids in Kilts Highland dance troupe. The event was covered by CBC Radio, CTV, City TV, and Global News — all of which augers well for future kilt skates as more Manitobans learn about this uniquely Canadian way to celebrate Scottish heritage.

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SJAM, Thou shouldst be living at this hour...

SJAM, Thou shouldst be living at this hour...

We can surmise what a man with Macdonald’s intelligence, charm and wily pragmatism might do with the current pipeline issues. He was not a man of ideology and visions.  His strength came from his ability to work with others, bring out the best in others, and take the many small steps that it takes to cover a vast distance over time.  And today, on his birthday, we can use his example. As the old slogan goes:  “You’ll never die, Sir John A!”

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Skateway Opens

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After weeks of preparation, the Rideau Canal Skateway will open for it 49th season this morning at 8:00 a.m. The section from Bank Street……to Pretoria Bridge will be open. This section contains many favourite locations on the Skateway, including Fifth Avenue…Patterson Creek…And Pig Island. For up-to-date information on the Rideau Canal Skateway including ice conditions, including web cams, check the National Capital Commission website.

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Niagara-on-the-Lake -- heritage skating

Niagara-on-the-Lake -- heritage skating

An outdoor ice rink at Fort George makes an ideal location for a kilt skate, and the suggestion was put to the Friends of Fort George. The mandate of the Friends and of Parks Canada doesn’t encompass celebrating Scotland’s contribution to Canada with bare knees and ice, but they have certainly come forward with a wonderful event, to be inaugurated on January 5, 2019: a Regency Skating Party.

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Kilt Skate Goes to the Big Apple

Kilt Skate Goes to the Big Apple

The kilt skate phenomenon has made a quantum leap with the announcement that the event has migrated beyond Canada’s borders. The first annual “Tartan Kilt Skate NYC” will be held in Manhattan’s Bryant Park on Saturday, February 2, 2019.

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And the 2018 Kilt Skate Capital of Canada is...

And the 2018 Kilt Skate Capital of Canada is...

So how, from among these successful events, do we choose the city that will join Ottawa (2015), Saskatoon (2016), and Montreal (2017) as the Kilt Skate Capital of Canada? There are many considerations that come into play. The total number of kilted and tartaned skaters certainly counts. We’re especially impressed if the numbers show a significant increase from last year — in the order of 1000% in this case! We like it when the event captures the essence of the annual theme. For 2018 it was: “Year of Young People.” The opening ceremonies bring together representatives from the community and from various levels of government. The media comes out to cover the event. There’s ample opportunity to showcase Scottish culture. A Kilt Skate Capital draws on the strength of its volunteers who come out and set up the hospitality tents.

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Scottish Month plans for a Third Big Event

Scottish Month plans for a Third Big Event

In the nation’s capital, Scottish Month is about to get even bigger with the traditional Rabbie Burns dinner expanding to become a full fledged charity gala, with a ceilidh added for good measure. Mark your calendars for January 19, 2019.

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Kingston considers Sir John A.'s Legacy

Kingston considers Sir John A.'s Legacy

In an effort to get ahead of the issue and provide a forum where different versions of his history can be discussed, the City of Kingston today launched a consultation through its "Get Involved" website. Residents are also invited to bring their comments and suggestions to City Hall. The City’s website includes a very good summary of the issues involved.

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