Indigenous groups throughout the Americas experienced severe population loss after contact with Europeans. Depopulation was caused by a number of related factors such as the importation of diseases, interference with Indigenous lifestyle by missionaries and traders, and the colonial policies of governments that aimed to change Indigenous people through assimilation.

On the Prairies, in the late 18th and 19th centuries epidemics of smallpox, measles, and influenza erupted along fur-trade routes. After about 1880, with the destruction of the bison herds and the consequent loss of food, shelter, and clothing, there was a severe population decline.

Treaties with the Canadian government in the 1870s had failed to meet basic human needs. Housing on reserves was severely overcrowded, often with fifteen people living in small one-room, mud-roofed shacks. Nutrition was likewise inadequate. The government provided rations of bacon and flour to some reserve residents, but only to those who performed farm work. The colonial policy of assimilation and abandonment of Indigenous language, culture and spirituality was held out as the solution to the economic problems on the reserves, but also as the path to good health; thus “work for rations” not only saved money, but taught valuable civilizing lessons such as industry. Two contradictory impulses—assimilation and civilization to save Native people from themselves on the one hand, and isolation to protect Native people from civilization on the other hand—led to increasingly coercive and repressive policies. In practice, the clearest manifestation of such policies was the erosion of health.

Insidious poverty continued, and chronic diseases became entrenched on Saskatchewan reserves. The most destructive diseases were red measles and whooping cough in children, and pulmonary tuberculosis in adults. On the File Hills and Crooked Lakes reserves, population decreased an average of 46% in the first two decades after the treaties were signed. From 1884 to 1892, the child mortality rate, one of the clearest indicators of community health, exceeded the birth rate: for 355 infants born on these reserves, 420 children died.

Industrial and Residential Schools, the government’s primary vehicle for assimilation, were an important vector for the spread of disease, especially tuberculosis. The schools were funded on a per capita basis, therefore to send a sick child home meant a loss of money. It was reasoned that since there was so much tuberculosis in the school already, one more sick child would not make much difference. However, when death seemed imminent the school would send the child home, thus spreading the disease to the reserve. In 1907, the Department of Indian Affairs medical officer, Dr. Peter Bryce, reported that 69% of all ex-pupils at the File Hills school were dead, most of them from tuberculosis.

In the post-World War II period, antibiotic treatment for tuberculosis emptied sanatorium beds across the country, but for Indigenous people high rates of disease and death continued and were seen as a function of their “race” rather than as a symptom of their social and economic position.

Maureen Lux


Further Reading

Lux, M.K. 2001. Medicine that Walks: Disease, Medicine and Canadian Plains Native People, 1880–1940. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.