The Colonial Legacy of Disease on Turtle Island


Whilst our normal lives are kept in a near-eternal standstill and the punditry rages about the continued threat of Covid-19, there is a deep and uncomfortable national tragedy often neglected from this discussion. Since the early European colonial powers assaulted the Atlantic coast, the sovereign Indigenous Nations across Turtle Island have faced an onslaught of continental health crises that have decimated sovereign Indigenous Nations. While the unintentional spread of disease is often widely understood by Canadians, many are unaware of the brutal weaponization of disease and institutional neglect by past and contemporary Canadian governments.

In the early years of European colonization, the spread of disease began as an unintented consequence of a biological clash between, in many ways, two distant worlds. This often referred to as the “Colombian Exchange,” which saw infectious diseases like smallpox, syphilis, and measles cross the vast Atlantic Ocean. From the eastern shores of North America and across the continent, these diseases would spread and kill millions of Indigenous peoples. Colonial officials recognized the ferocity of disease upon Indigenous Nations and utilized it for their imperial ambitions. In James Daschuk’s seminal Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Indigenous Life, he delves into this often-overlooked malicious colonial strategy. In addition to facilitating the transmission of disease within the Indigenous Nations and actively neglecting their responsibility of addressing these public health crises, governments amplified the death toll by launching an ecological war on traditional food sources and imposed forced migration upon Indigenous peoples.

Jeffery Amherst, Commander-In-Chief for British North America, was famously known for advocating the use of blankets to transmit smallpox during the Pontiac’s War. Smallpox had already impacted Indigenous populations a century prior, but Amherst’s correspondence directly tied the understanding of biological warfare as a potential British colonial strategy. Among historians, it is contested whether this idea widely came to fruition, however, smallpox did sweep across Indigenous Nations during this time. In the late 19th century,  “Years of hunger and despair that coincided with extermination of bison and relocation of groups to reserves, exacerbated by inadequate food aid from the Dominion government, created ecological conditions in which the disease exploded” resulting in tuberculosis ravaging sovereign Indigenous Nations across the plains, (Daschuk, pg. 100). Clearly, the Canadian governments’ colonial institutions were creating the conditions for the spreading of disease.

As what is now known as “Canada” marched into the 20th century, the continued occupation of Turtle Island and the institutional oppression of Indigenous peoples was reflected in the Canadian Residential School system, bans on sovereign Indigenous Nations’ cultural practices, and the emergence of segregated medical facilities known as “Indian hospitals.” These segregated medical facilities lacked the Indigenous medicines that had been in practice for thousands of years, were riddled with abuse such as the starvation of children and were used to conduct grotesque experiments, further isolating patients from families and communities. In the latter half of the 20th century, these segregated medical facilities, which had long been underfunded, would gradually close. Instead of providing sovereign Indigenous Nations with these funds to strengthen their health services, most funds were diverted back to health services for settler communities, leaving Indigenous Nations chronically under-resourced to this day. This history provides some context to the outrage felt by Indigenous peoples back in September 2009, when in the fullswing of the swine flu pandemic, Ottawa sent body bags to Manitoban reserves instead of the crucial medical supplies and support necessary to combat the public crisis. Ottawa swiftly met this PR nightmare with the lackluster apology that Indigenous peoples have come to expect from a government chronically suffering from amnesia.

While it appears to many settler Canadians that this tragic past is behind us, Indigenous Nations continue to face disproportionate and unique public health crises. There are few examples that are truly telling of this disparity between non-Indigenous and  Indigenous peoples. HIV rates are three times higher for on-reserve Indigenous peoples compared to the general population. Similarly, the suicide rate for Indigenous people is also three times higher. For northern Indigenous Nations, due to crowded housing and poor access to health services, tuberculous rates are 290 times higher for Inuit people than non-Indigenous people. This widening gap will become more apparent as COVID-19 continues to put further pressure on these Nations and communities. But there exists an additional concern, which is related to the advancement of Indigenous rights.

It’s important to keep in mind that up until the “founding” of Canada, this was sovereign Indigenous land, and this land was systematically taken through force, disease, and outright killing. Back in January (which seems like eons ago), we saw a renewed attack on the unceded lands of the Wet’suwet’en Nation. The standoff between the RCMP and the Wet’suwet’en land protectors pushed activists to mobilize for Indigenous rights. From the legislative assembly in Victoria to Ontario railroads, more people took notice of the unrest, but momentum waned as COVID-19 curbed the potential for further resistance to curb the corporate expansion of energy infrastructure through the Wet’suwet’en Nation’s unceded homelands (and which stood as a blatant state-sanctioned assault of sovereign Indigenous territory) or southern B.C. (like the TMX expansion). Instead, Sonya Savage, Alberta’s Minister of Energy, has even heralded the limits on public gathering as a “great time” to push through pipeline construction. But in case demonstrators find opposition to pipelines to be worth expressing despite these restrictions, the provincial government has made sure that they will be excessively fined and jailed through the passage of Bill 1. Today’s situation facing Indigenous peoples is not unlike the full-blown assault inflicted upon them over the past several centuries. Moving forward, we need to recognize the historical legacy of disease on sovereign Indigenous Nations and the colonial nature of the current public health travesty impacting Indigenous Nations. That recognition needs to be met with widespread efforts towards decolonization by Canada and its people, but more specifically, through a public health strategy designed by Indigenous peoples with the full backing of the federal and provincial governments, a real commitment to return stolen lands, and a complete end to the arbitrary arrest of Indigenous land and water defenders.


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Written and researched by team members and advisors of Balanced Leadership