The Sunday Magazine·The Sunday Edition

The story of a separate and unequal Canadian health care system

The history of so-called "Indian hospitals" that operated in Canada through the 1970s is little known to most Canadians. It was a racially segregated, parallel health care system that kept Aboriginal Canadians out of mainstream Canadian hospitals; some former patients say they were the victims of abuse and medical experimentation. Brock University professor Maureen Lux's new book "Separate Beds: A History of Indian Hospitals in Canada, 1920s-1980s," looks at this dark chapter in Canadian health care policy.
Former residential school students who were sent to the Fort William Indian Hospital Sanatorium, seen here around 1960, want to be compensated for their time there through the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. (Thunder Bay Museum)

Canada is still coming to grips with several painful chapters in its history of relations with Aboriginal people. Canadians are finally becoming broadly acquainted with the shameful history of residential schools, and the issue of murdered and missing indigenous women is now officially the subject of a national inquiry.

Less well-known is the history of racially segregated hospitals in Canada. So-called "Indian hospitals," as they were known at the time, operated in Canada until the 1970s. 

[Residential schools and Indian hospitals] are rather like nodes in a larger web of incarceration, segregation, marginalization.- Maureen Lux

Born out of a mixture of paternalism, prejudice, and fear, Indian hospitals were created to isolate Indigenous tuberculosis patients — but they soon became a way to ensure settler Canadians could reap the benefits of modernizing hospitals without having to share them with Indigenous patients. 

They were under-staffed and over-crowded, and some former patients say they were the victims of abuse and medical experimentation. 

They rarely judged the Indian hospitals against other hospital standards. Instead, they judged the Indian hospitals against the perceived inadequate homes on reserves. So regardless of the conditions in the hospitals, the bureaucrats always understood that patients were better off in hospital than they would have been at home. It was very much the same justification that was used to take children from their homes and put them in residential school.- Maureen Lux

Maureen Lux is a professor of history at Brock University. She spoke to guest host Kevin Sylvester about her new book, Separate Beds: A History of Indian Hospitals in Canada, 1920s-1980s, which explores the history of Indian hospitals and the many contradictions at the heart of healthcare for Indigenous Canadians in the 20th century. 

Click the 'play' button above to listen to the interview.