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Healing Histories: Stories from Canada’s Indian Hospitals

By Laurie Meijer Drees

Review By Leah Wiener

March 6, 2014

BC Studies no. 183 Autumn 2014  | p. 161-63

Histories of Aboriginal health form a field that has captured significant public interest after Ian Mosby’s recent revelation of experiments performed on Aboriginal children in residential schools and hospitals. Laurie Meijer Drees gives an accessible and personal perspective to these histories in her evocative work that centres on the sharing of stories. Meijer Drees sees stories as more than an oral history; they are also, she argues, a form of healing. The stories she presents are not merely vignettes, but the central element of each chapter. After introducing storytelling as her methodology, Meijer Drees begins the core of her book by presenting an overview of the history and epidemiology of tuberculosis, the predominant disease addressed in the hospitals and thus the focus of her stories. She follows this by presenting a sketch of the history of Indian Health Services and stories from IHS employees. Each chapter begins with an introduction to contextualize the stories surrounding a theme, followed by two to five stories, often illustrated with photographs from the hospitals. While Indian Health Services addressed a range of health concerns, Meijer Drees emphasizes the treatment of tuberculosis, which was apparently responsible for the most hospital admissions.

Meijer Drees’s chapter on hospitals and field nursing is primarily focused on western Canada, with three of the four largest hospitals located in British Columbia. The stories, however, are from Alberta’s Charles Camsell Indian Hospital, juxtaposed with stories from British Columbian hospitals as well as the Camsell in her subsequent chapter on patient and family life in hospitals. A story by Laura Cranmer is exceptionally powerful, particularly when read alongside the excerpt from her play, Cold Needles, which bridges the introduction and the subsequent chapters of Meijer Drees’s work. Meijer Drees’s study of snuwuyulth, local Indigenous medicine, arguably forms her most compelling chapter. Building on work by Kathryn McPherson and Mary-Ellen Kelm, Meijer Drees shows how local Indigenous healing was interwoven with the hospital system, giving patients a sense of power and dignity and access to more diverse treatments than their doctors were aware of. Readers can also see the coping strategies of patients living within a strict, paternalistic, and impersonal health system in stories that interweave hardship and humour.

Meijer Drees ends with a consideration of Aboriginal hospital workers, showing the blurring between Aboriginal and Euro-Canadian public health systems. The final story, by Evelyn Voyageur, gives a brief autobiography that culminates in Voyageur’s role as vice president of the Aboriginal Nurses Association of Canada and her work on building culturally aware relationships as an educator of nursing students. Voyageur’s story reiterates many central threads from previous stories, including the interplay of the health and residential school systems, the challenges of Aboriginal people wishing to attain medical qualifications, and the incongruity between policy goals for Aboriginal health and the resources available to Aboriginal communities.

By foregrounding stories, Meijer Drees elucidates the circumstances of their telling; peculiarly, she has erased her presence from the transcripts, so it is unclear to what degree the stories were a narrative, and to what degree a conversation. Nonetheless, her focus on lived experience makes this book complementary to that of historians who use stories as evidence in their work. As Meijer Drees does not provide each chapter with a conclusion, which would give stories the final word, readers must read between the lines to see both connections and incongruities: for example, staff had a more optimistic portrayal than patients of hospital life. Another thread of analysis that is muted in this work is a consideration of gendered intersections in health care. This element would be particularly welcome, for example when she presents the story of a male Aboriginal nurse without considering the implications of a racialized man entering a feminized profession. Similarly, an analysis of the role of obstetrics or psychiatry could provide an engaging parallel to Meijer Drees’s study of tuberculosis.



Kelm, Mary-Ellen, 1998. Colonizing Bodies: Aboriginal Health and Healing in British Columbia, 1900-50. Vancouver: UBC Press.

McPherson, Kathryn, 2003. “Nursing and Colonization: The Work of Indian Health Service Nurses in Manitoba, 1945-1970.” In Women, Health, and Nation: Canada and the United States Since 1945, eds. Georgina Feldberg, Molly Ladd-Taylor, Alison Li, and Kathryn McPherson, 223-46. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Mosby, Ian. 2013. “Administering Colonial Science: Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools, 1942-1952.” Histoire sociale/Social history 46: 91: 145-72.

Healing Histories: Stories from Canada’s Indian Hospitals
Laurie Meijer Drees
Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2013. 296 pp. $29.95 paper