For Canadians who imagine that the multi-generational horrors of residential schools have now been boxed up and that this “sad chapter” in our history has been closed in ways that demand only institutional gestures of reconciliation, Gary Geddes has written an important and exemplary book.
In Medicine Unbundled Geddes responds to that misplaced desire at two levels. First, he insists that Canadians are not finished accounting for the past. His immediate subject is the history of segregated hospitals, such as the Charles Camsell in Edmonton, which figures so centrally in the family stories of Indigenous people. These hospitals are remembered mostly as places of long separations but also as places of abuse, forced sterilization and experimentation—sometimes in tandem with residential schools, which kept the facilities supplied with children in poor health. Second, Geddes makes it personal. He is a writer, a poet of international stature, whose craft “involves a moral imperative that requires facing the darkest of issues.” He takes seriously the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s injunction that the work of changed relationships belongs to all Canadians. The journey to which the title refers is his own.
This journey, like most, begins at home. At a TRC hearing in Victoria, Geddes befriends a woman who invites him to write the story of segregated health care. Her mother had spent almost two decades at the Nanaimo Indian Hospital, apparently healthy when admitted and unrecognizably frail when discharged into her community. The woman had also spent time there as a child before being delivered to the residential school that once stood across the water from where Geddes lives on Thetis Island. He can walk across at low tide—the story is as close as that.
In his travels Geddes is guided by the well-documented recent research of scholars such as James Daschuk (Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation and the Loss of Aboriginal Life) and Maureen Lux (Separate Beds: A History of Indian Hospitals in Canada), though his method is relational. From Vancouver Island, Geddes moves across the country slowly, relying on introductions, trust and serendipity to meet those willing to talk about their time in places such as Fort Qu’Appelle, Fort William or the Camsell (1946–1968), which treated tuberculosis patients from across the North. At his most high-minded, the author thinks what’s really at stake is the possibility of “friendship and mutual liberation.” Along the way, though, Geddes is made increasingly aware of his own ignorance and privilege in a world others experience as racist. He wrestles with the responsibility of being “entrusted with the testimonies” he is given.
Sometimes the journey is inconclusive. Geddes is absorbed, for example, by what he learns about rogue experiments with contaminated polio vaccines administered at a reserve day school in northern Alberta in the early 1960s. Almost all 38 students developed cancers. His archival search for incriminating evidence or bureaucratic cover-ups yields nothing. Clearly something happened here, but the reader is unsure what to make of it.
Medicine Unbundled impresses most with its humility and accessibility. If it is not the “shocking exposé” promised by one bookseller, it has an important national story to tell. Geddes means to be hopeful. But he is also unafraid of hard words like colonialism and racism, or claims about the long-term health effects that follow from them. Nor is he interested in safe distances. His account of his own journey will help to nudge Canadians into the difficult in-between spaces where a different Canada can be made in the decades to come.
—Roger Epp is a professor of political science at the University of Alberta. His most recent book is Only Leave A Trace (UAP, 2017).