Decades after Ontario’s 'Indian hospitals' closed, survivors are still fighting to be heard

Those who were forced to attend residential schools are entitled to financial compensation for the abuse they suffered. So why aren’t former patients of so-called Indian hospitals?
By Chantal Braganza - Published on April 18, 2018
archive photo of Fort William Sanitorium
Survivors argue that Fort William Indian Hospital Sanatorium was effectively a residential school. (Thunder Bay Museum)



​In 1956, Saul Day boarded a train alone with a letter strung around his neck. The document confirmed that the 10-year-old was a student from McIntosh Residential School in Vermillion Bay, Ontario, and an active tuberculosis patient. He was heading from Sioux Lookout Indian Hospital to a sanatorium facility in the city of Fort William, which now forms parts of Thunder Bay.

He didn’t fully understand what was happening. He’d been told he had tuberculosis and had to go to the hospital — he wasn’t the first from his school to be sent away after getting sick. But he didn’t know what kind of medical treatment would be involved; he didn’t know his trip to Fort William Indian Hospital Sanatorium would result in a 14-month stay. “I wasn’t aware of the nature of TB. Nothing was ever explained to me. I just went along,” he says. “I was always scared.”  

Day, who first arrived at McIntosh Residential School when he was six and left when he was 16, in some ways saw his time at Fort William as a break. The food was better — he ate three meals a day — and much less time was spent in prayer. But he was deeply lonely and often bored: his coursework was restricted while he underwent treatment, and weekly injections meant he was often unable to leave his bed for days at a time. “Sometimes I couldn’t even walk after I got those needles,” he says. In their free time, students coloured and watched TV. “There wasn’t very much in terms of good teaching.”

And there was abuse, he remembers. “Sexual abuse coming from the orderlies, and the younger ones like ourselves were abused by the older boys that were there. We didn’t say anything, because we were already conditioned not to say anything if something happened to us, just like in school.”

Day believes that Fort William was effectively a residential school — functionally indistinguishable from the network of federal institutions now nationally understood to have been places of cultural genocide and horrific abuse.

For many members of the public, a major chapter in the residential-schools story seemingly ended with the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) in 2007. But survivors of places that fall outside the legal definition of “residential schools” are still fighting, with minimal legal resources, to have their abuse recognized.

* * *

One day in January 2012, Ed Sadowski, a politics professor and researcher at Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie, came across Day’s name while combing through hospital records. As the two were colleagues at the school’s Shinwauk Residential Schools Centre — an archive and educational resource for Shinwauk alumni — Sadowski called Day to ask him about it.

“He told me about the TB issues he’d had, how he was at the sanatorium for over a year, how he was transferred, and how he was sent back,” he says. Since archival research for school survivors was part of his work, Sadowski pulled together files on Fort William for Day, just as he had for many residential school survivors looking for proof of their time at an institution to register as class members of the IRSSA.

Canada’s largest class-action lawsuit to date, the IRSSA has five components, including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose full report was published in the summer of 2015.  Survivors of residential schools were guaranteed a portion of a lump sum (called the Common Experience Payment) and a settlement tailored to their individual experience (the Independent Assessment Program).

The school run out of Fort William Indian Hospital Sanatorium didn’t appear on the IRSSA’s list, so in February 2012, Day and Sadowski submitted what’s known as an Article 12 application to the Settlement Agreement. While time-consuming, the process was straightforward and open to anyone in the country: collect supporting evidence, fill out a form, and mail it to a third-party agency. Indian (now Indigenous) and Northern Affairs Canada would then conduct its own research and determine whether the institution met two criteria: the students at the institution were placed there, away from their homes, primarily for the purpose of education; and the federal government was responsible for the operation of the residence and the care of its students.   

Applications for more than 1,500 institutions across Canada were submitted before the September 2012 deadline. To date, only seven have been successful.

Many federally run programs that historically worked to assimilate Indigenous children don’t pass this test and have never been part of the agreement — day schools, for example. Some schools, such as those run by Newfoundland before it joined Confederation in 1949, fell outside the jurisdiction of the federal government. Others became student residences as the federal government moved to isolate housing and teaching functions in separate institutions.

Day’s application argued that Fort William didn’t qualify as such an exception and that it did, in fact, satisfy Article 12’s criteria. Students who attended classes there had been placed away from home; federal funds had paid for tuition and medical treatment.

Three months later, he got a response from INAC: “The research performed by Canada revealed that the Proposed Institution was a hospital day school,” the letter read. The application had been rejected.

* * *

Mike Cachagee, a member of Chapleau Cree First Nation who attended three separate residential schools over the course of 12 years, sees the institutions Indigenous children were moved through — from residential schools to day schools to sanatoria — as different in name only.

He and his brother, Charles, were both students at the Bishop Horden Residential School in Moose Factory the late 1940s. He says Charles contracted tuberculosis after scavenging for food scraps at the garbage bins at the Moose Factory Indian Hospital — recently opened a quarter-mile’s walk away from Bishop Horden — which housed a sanatorium. “Kids in [that] school weren’t fed,” he says. “He and quite a few of his classmates contracted the disease that way.” For the next few years, Cachagee and his brother were shipped to a series of different institutions — Mike to residential schools, Charles to two sanatoria — until they were eventually reunited at the Shinwauk Indian Residential School. 

As director of Ontario Indian Residential School Support Services, Cachagee was involved in the early push to get the Fort William application to court. “The argument [Canada] gave was based on mortar and bricks. You can go back and make a distinct separation, but the policy was interlocking,” says Cachagee. “A building can sit there for years and years, but if you move people in and out of them, it’s the people that identify its purpose.”

Ian Mosby, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Guelph who researches food, public health, and colonial policy, says Canada’s residential schools promoted the spread of a disease that was ravaging Indigenous communities at the same time that medical advances were causing it to decline among Canada’s white populations.

“Hunger makes one more susceptible to developing TB,” he says. “So do overcrowding, poor clothing, lack of heat … all of these things that were true of many residential schools combined to create these conditions to spread the disease. Many schools were hesitant to turn away children showing signs of active TB because their funding was per capita.” Federal reports had identified the effects of such poor living conditions as early as 1907, when public health official Peter Henderson Bryce reported death rates of 15 to 24 per cent in residential schools.

So-called Indian hospitals — which a recent CBC investigation described as having been “built on a combination of government policy and widespread racism” — fostered the same types of physical and psychological abuses that the federal government has now formally acknowledged were common in residential schools.

“With Indian hospitals, the original intent was to treat tuberculosis in particular. But why just TB?” says Maureen Lux, a professor of history at Brock University and author of the 2016 book Separate Beds, a historical analysis of these segregated institutions. “It wasn’t, as government bureaucrats always liked to say, so much their humanitarianism at work, but a concern that the national health was at risk because of Indigenous people.”

“I think one might look at Indian hospitals as one more node in this web of institutions that affected First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people in Canada in profound ways.”

* * *

The group amended and refiled the application and received a second rejection letter in early 2013. Sadowski then started looking for legal representation, hoping to bring the case to the Ontario Superior Court. For two years, he called lawyers and got turned down — in all, Sadowski approached 18 firms between 2012 and early 2015.

He calls the Article 12 process “a mini class-action within a larger one” with one crucial difference: counsel representing survivors of already-listed institutions can expect compensation, either through automatically awarded costs from the Common Experience Payments, or, in some cases, through the Independent Assessment Process, but those appealing an Article 12 decision are simply working to get an institution on a list.

“The lawyers realized that unless you have money out of your own pocket or a judge awards costs in your favour, there’s no way your legal counsel will get any compensation,” he says.

After being diagnosed with cancer in 2013, Day was forced to bow out as the Fort William application’s main representative. Ruth Anne Henry, an 84-year-old member of the Ochiichagwe'Babigo'Ining Ojibway (Dalles) First Nation, volunteered to take his place.

a young boy posing in his hockey uniform

In early 2015, the group finally found legal representation on the condition that they could secure funding through what’s known as an advance costs award. Through Sadowski, Henry applied for and was awarded $70,000 to pay for legal fees, expert fees, and taxes.

Ontario Superior Court Justice Paul Perell called the circumstances surrounding getting this appeal to court “bizarre” and “lamentable.” In his written decision to award the advance costs, Perell wrote, “In a problem which has become pandemic in class actions, class counsel are not much interested in small-value cases … Support for the individual issues part of a class action is also becoming an access-to-justice problem.”

Tuberculosis has been a pervasive presence in Henry’s life. Her parents died of the disease when she was little; she and her siblings, Tommy Charles and William John Beardy, were separated as children and didn’t see each other again until they were young adults. “They were split up in different places in Ontario, but had all been at Fort William without even knowing it,” says Tania Cameron, a Kenora-based coordinator at the Aboriginal Sports and Wellness Council of Ontario and daughter of Tommy Charles. “All three passed through the same institution.”

Cameron’s father, who died last year, had told her stories about Fort William. “He told me there was a lot of crying because there were a lot of young children who were homesick or treated roughly. It was a very lonely time.” Her father was bedridden for much of his time there. “Long days in the bed every day. It was very rare to get up and get out.”

“The young ones, if they were feeling mischievous, would sneak out of their beds and play. If they were caught, they’d get tied down to their beds.”

Henry attended Pelican Lake Residential School in Sioux Lookout until she was 16, but she was sent to Fort William twice — once in 1941, when she was eight years old and first diagnosed with tuberculosis, and again from 1945 to 1948.

She declined to speak to for this story, saying the application contains all the details of her time at Fort William that she’s planning to give.

According to the factum, “During her time at Fort William, Ruth could not go home. An English education was forced upon her just like at her Indian Residential School. She was not just receiving medical treatment.”

“Fort William was simply a different kind of cage, but still a prison and a place of forced assimilation, precisely what the Settlement Agreement was intended to compensate for.”

Her son Larry Henry says that during her second stay there, doctors cut away a portion of her left lung and removed pieces of the surrounding ribs — a treatment known as lung resection, which was then favoured by Canadian doctors treating tuberculosis.

“She left the residential-school system and moved on,” he says, “but she was affected by it for the rest of her life.” For decades afterwards, he says, his mother’s health remained poor. He remembers her being hospitalized for long stretches during his childhood; his father wasn’t always able to take care of him and his four siblings on his own. “We should have been a family unit, but we were torn. We ended up in care at different times.”

* * *

In 2017, Henry’s lawyers filed the Article 12 appeal to the Ontario Superior Court. The argument, that Fort William qualified as a residential school and should be treated as such under the class action, remained the same.

A series of written responses and cross-examinations suggest that the parties agreed on some things. Opened in 1935 and provincially owned, the Fort William Sanatorium began accepting patients — both Indigenous and non-Indigenous — immediately. By 1942, it had a specific section of 20 beds funded by Indian Affairs for Indigenous use only, and by 1950, it had opened a dedicated “Indian” wing for 60 to 75 patients. A full-time teacher was added to the staff in the early 1940s to take over the education of students.

But much remains disputed: whether the presence of the teacher qualified as federally provided education, and if so, when; whether the Ontario school board established for Fort William specifically constituted a federal responsibility, since Indigenous students’ tuition was paid for by Canada; whether the few years its educational program operated as a day school actually counted as such, since students were still boarded at the hospital. Henry’s application provided documents showing that Indian Affairs had been sending school supplies for the Indigenous children at Fort William.

Early last January, Ontario Superior Court Justice Perell issued a ruling on this case: while it was provable that some Indigenous students had received an education during their stay at Fort William, education hadn’t been the primary purpose of the institution — therefore, it didn’t fulfill Article 12’s criteria.

In his decision, Perell both acknowledged that residential-school students had been taken from their homes and shuttled from one institution to another and pointed to the structural limits of a class-action settlement that was never designed to include everyone.

“I sympathize with the situation of those who were transferred from [residential schools] to Fort William,” he wrote. “The task of the Supervising Judges is to interpret the IRSSA by applying the principles of contractual interpretation to determine what the parties to the IRSSA objectively intended … not all residential placements were intended to be encompassed.” 

* * *

Larry Henry says his mother isn’t sure what steps she would like, or be willing, to take next — there is, for example, the option of starting a class-action lawsuit of her own or joining an existing one. “After the waiting period of having this whole process investigated, heard, and ruled on, it’s a bit of a shock,” he says. While sanatoria and Indian hospital survivors have recently launched a class action lawsuit — a $1.1 billion suit that involves almost 30 institutions — Henry says it doesn’t go far enough. “At the moment the list is filed, but it goes to 1945 … we’d like to include beyond 1945, back to probably the early 1920s, when residential schools and Indian hospitals became an operational place to treat our young people,” he says.

If anything good came out of her father’s time at Fort William, says Cameron, it’s that he learned to play the guitar. “That’s something he did until his final days, play guitar in church.”

“It’s always been my regret that my dad didn’t get any kind of answer,” she says.

“Some were there as young as four and didn’t leave until they were teenagers. That’s a whole childhood,” says Cameron. “How can they say it wasn’t a residential school?”

Correction: This article originally stated that Ian Mosby is a postdoctoral fellow at McMaster University. In fact, he is now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Guelph. regrets the error.

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