Fighting for a Hand to Hold: Confronting Medical Colonialism against Indigenous Children in Canada. Samir Shaheen-Hussain. McGill-Queen's University Press. 360 pages. Kindle Price: Rs 1,868.91. Hardcover Rs 2582.
Imagine your child is separated from you and put in a residential school so that the child could be 'civilised'. Then imagine that one day you receive a curt telegram informing you that your child has died of tuberculosis.
After many years, imagine that come to know that the death could have occurred because the residential school was using your child as a 'guinea pig' in a massive experiment and that the schools to which you were made to send your children actually doubled up as laboratories conducting experiments on children.
Now read this:
Residential schools became social and scientific “laboratories” with the children serving as “experimental materials”. In 1948, with the full support of the Department of Indian Affairs and Dr Percy Moore at Indian Health Service (in the Department of National Health and Welfare), Pett sought to assess the impacts of malnutrition firsthand and initiated a series of experiments based on the diets of almost one thousand Indigenous students at six residential schools across the country.
This is from Fighting for a Hand to Hold: Confronting medical colonialism against Indigenous children in Canada, (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2020) written by paediatrician Samir Shaheen-Hussain, who is also an activist for the rights of native Indians of Canada. Given the fact that between the last decades of 19th century and till 1990s, the number of children removed from their parents and placed in the residential schools in Canada run mostly by the Catholic Church is officially 1,50,000, this might be one of humanity’s longest and most unethical experiments done on children. And the world chose not to hear the screams, most probably because they were native Indians.
One of the major killers in the residential schools for indigenous children in Canada was tuberculosis. In the book mentioned above, the author narrates briefly how mostly American whalers, greedy explorers of minerals, Christian missionaries (both Roman Catholic and Anglican), Canadian 'Northwest Mounted Police (NWMP)' all converged in attacking the native Indian community of the Arctic, the Inuits. They were taking over their vast lands while justifying their mission as one to 'civilize the wild, barbaric heathen Indians' and carrying out the mission by aggressive racist officers.
'These invaders and colonizers introduced a variety of ills as they invaded, occupied, and exploited Inuit Land. Tuberculosis was certainly one of them' (p.288): with these words Samir takes us through the systemic discrimination aggravated by institutional networks and the governmental enforcement that made tuberculosis a sustained and traumatic experience for children.
All of this was justified with a cold remark that ultimately, it was medical science that benefitted.
A 1976 hospital policy review submission suggests that the IHS actually boasted about being “one of the first hospitals to experiment with the use of streptomycin and to achieve a breakthrough in tuberculosis treatment” in the late 1940s. In 1956, it undertook a trial using different forms of the common antituberculosis drug para-aminosalicylic acid (PAS) on Indigenous patients.p.210
Extensive blood work was derived from Inuit patients and without their consent they were made into subjects of experimentation. The medical facilities they were receiving treatment in operated more like labs with guinea pigs than like hospitals curing human patients. We read:
In 1953, the Ojibway girl from Rolling River First Nation was being treated for tuberculosis at the Brandon Sanatorium in Manitoba, where “doctors bound her to a gurney, pumped her body with electric currents and then took notes as her fingers curled, her arms shook and her neck strained backwards.” Genaille was at a loss to explain why the medical team would have performed such tests but recalled that her “fingers were beginning to twist sideways, it was so incredibly painful.”(pp. 210-211)
It does not end here.
Samir points out in his interview to New Scientist magazine that while the captive indigenous children in particular, and the native Indian population in general, were used by the Canadian medical establishment for creating antibiotics treatment, the benefits of the treatment were given to the wider Canadian population in such a way that the indigenous people had to wait for years before the tuberculosis treatment reached them. (New Scientist, 7-Aug-2021)
Eugenics also played its role. While we know that it was a world trend and the scientific-fashion statement till the end of colonial period – around 1950s, for the indigenous populations of Canada, it went right into the 1970s. The book informs us that 'hundreds to thousands of indigenous women were nonetheless coercively sterilized up until the 1970s outside of Alberta and British Columbia.’ (p.224)
It is depressingly chilling to read through the book and learn how the native Indians of Canada were subjected to a cultural and ethnic genocide which continued even after the death of many of them.
Samir Shaheen-Hussain writes how the bodies of the children were mostly not given to the parents for their ritual burial but were used for autopsy and further studies without the consent of the families. For example, the Indian Health Services (IHS) would not cover the cost of returning the bodies of the children to their families. This policy made the reclaiming of the bodies of children by their families tougher. Right from the 1940s to ‘at least the 1960s’ this policy ‘provided IHS with access to bodies for autopsy without having to secure the family’s consent.’ (p.275)
What is shocking is that Samir gives an instance of the same phenomenon getting repeated in 2018 to an Atikamekw mother. An autopsy was performed on the mortal remains of her son, despite the explicit expression of disapproval by the family. The fact that an autopsy was actually performed was gathered by the mother not from the medical authorities but from one of the staff members. The body had been handed over with the brain removed and the mother not being told about it. She had to wait months before she could retrieve the brain and give it a decent burial.
In June 2019, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) categorically stated that 'Canada’s long history of colonial acts, including the docile response of Canadian governments and institutions to the dramatic rates of violence against and disappearance of Indigenous girls and women, was genocide'. [emphasis added].
This means genocide (and holocaust) need not be explicitly and openly dramatic events in history but can also be sustained and slow processes. That is a point to be remembered when we look at India's neighbourhood.
The book is an eye-opener to what really is the foundational principle of modern nation-state in the West. Jews, Gypsies, African communities, Native American communities, Australian and New Zealand aborigines – it is on all their destruction that the shining marvels of the West were built. The Soviet Union too did the same to ethnic minorities. China continues to do it.
What is of importance in this book to for us is the fact that the institutions of genocide which colonialism built are still active in India.
Fighting for a Hand to Hold is both the memory of a painful past and a dire warning to all who hold power in the present – make sure the future sees you as just and humane or as we say in India, Dharmic.
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