A PhD student at the McGill International TB Centre in Montreal, Lena Faust, and the manager of the Tuberculosis Programme Evaluation and Research Unit at the University of Alberta, Courtney Heffernan, wrote in an op-ed in The Globe and Mail on 12 July that it’s not known how many of the children whose remains were discovered in unmarked graves over the last two months died from TB.
In late June, members of an indigenous nation found 751 unmarked graves where a residential school in Saskatchewan previously stood, just weeks after the remains of 215 children were found at a similar school in British Columbia.
The chief medical officer of the Department of Indian Affairs, Peter Henderson Bryce, identified schools as an ideal location for spreading TB as early as 1907. He died in 1932.
At one point, he is reported to have said that it was “almost as if the prime conditions for the outbreak of epidemics had been deliberately created,” Alberta Native News reported.
Ms Faust and Dr Heffernan emphasised that while there was an ongoing TB epidemic at the time, conditions in residential schools made it much worse.
“TB is a communicable infectious disease directly shaped by inequity at the individual and population level. It is well-established that social determinants of health, including malnutrition, overcrowding and poor ventilation, contribute to the development and spread of TB, and these conditions were common in residential schools,” they wrote.
Residential schools in Canada were sponsored by the government, run by churches, and their purpose was to educate and convert indigenous young people and to assimilate them into Canadian society.
Over 130 residential schools existed in Canada between 1831 and 1996. At most, 80 were operating at the same time, in 1931.
Dr Bryce discovered that the rate of deaths from TB in residential schools was much higher than that of children in the general Canadian population.
Deaths caused by TB in First Nations communities – groups of Canadian indigenous peoples – in the 1930s and 1940s were 700 per 100,000 individuals, according to the Canadian Public Health Association. These were some of the highest rates recorded. But the number of TB deaths in residential schools was a staggering 8,000 per 100,000 children.
Dr Bryce recommended improvements to the buildings and to have TB nurses on hand. The federal Canadian government ignored his guidance, saying the changes would be too expensive. But they also stopped Dr Bryce from researching the issue further and presenting his findings at academic conferences.
He slammed the government. writing in his 1922 book – The Story of a National Crime: Being an Appeal for Justice to the Indians of Canada – that “this trail of disease and death has gone on almost unchecked by any serious efforts on the part of the Department of Indian Affairs”.
In 2017, 1,796 cases of TB were reported in Canada. First Nations and Inuit communities were disproportionately affected. Ms Faust and Dr Heffernan said the number of active TB cases was 400 times higher among the Inuit population, in comparison to the non-Indigenous population.
“This staggering imbalance underlines the continuing consequences of colonial structural violence and a failure to address the social determinants of TB, such as equitable access to health care and adequate housing,” they wrote in The Globe and Mail.
“A genuine attempt at reconciliation involves not only recognising the truth of the suffering deliberately inflicted on Indigenous peoples by settlers, but also honouring Indigenous community mourning and calls to action with a comprehensive review, and addressing the harms that persist in our relations today,” they added.