Phoebe Josephine McDonnell (KCL) - 2022-23 Students

Exchanges of medical knowledge in Canada between Native communities and church missionaries in the nineteenth century.

Histories of Canadian First Nations communities have warranted headlines in recent years, bringing attention to the uncovering of high death rates in residential schools. Alongside this, the Covid-19 crisis has showcased health disparities between Indigenous and Settler communities.

The first aim of my project will be an attempt to help explain current health disparities between these communities by tracing transfers of health and medical knowledge throughout the nineteenth century. Whilst it tries not to take on a teleological approach to the explanation of the present-day, this study will help to explain attitudes which are clear throughout the first-hand accounts from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries which associated disease outbreaks with Native reserves. As health histories of Indigenous communities remain little-explored in secondary literature, this project attempts to fill in this gap. My project, therefore, takes on an urgency in contemporary debates.

In the historical context, we can use health education as a lens through which we can view the top-down control that was imposed on Native communities. Increasingly, this view of First Nations reserves as places where disease ran rampant was used as a justification for measures such as residential schools. In order to analyse this, we must first understand how the concept of health was defined and used differently by varying groups. I then use this as a springboard to comment on these debates.

Churches provided some of the means through which governments, British and Canadian, operated in, and exercised control over Native communities. The particular church which will be examined in this study is the Church of England in Canada. This role of the church, in turn, offers some background to the complex relationship that exists today between Native communities and Christian churches.

It will look at initiatives on reserves and in schools established for Native education. The schools expanded from informal programmes into systematic day schools, then into residential schools, in the last quarter of the century. Important studies of residential schools lay the groundwork for this research, alongside several key studies form a grounding for study of missionary works of the Church of England, such as the work of Eric Taylor Woods or Jonathan Lofft and Thomas Power. However, a particular emphasis on the spread of medical knowledge is absent from the literature, despite health education being a component of education in residential schools.

Neither Indigenous groups nor church missionaries saw a stark epistemological difference between physical and spiritual health. However, the nature of this spiritual health differed, and church missionaries, as part of a drive within the broad remit of health education, sought to change interpretations of what it meant to be ‘healthy’ on a spiritual, but also on a physical level. The project will reconstruct views of ‘health’ and ‘healing’ from its primary sources, drawing attention to differences in the interpretations of what constituted good health or adequate medical care. In order to decolonise these narratives of healthcare, it is important that the project does not solely take into account European interpretations of what ‘health’ and ‘healing’ constituted. The project will address issues such as assimilation, conversion, removal of traditional Native healthcare practices, and the subsequent colonial legacies. These debates can be viewed in historical sources which view residential schools, recently labelled ‘cultural genocide’, as sites of healing and learning. Amendments to the Indian Act which determined the legal relationship between Native peoples and the government made Native healthcare practices illegal, fundamentally altering the relationship between Native peoples and health information.

Primary supervisor: Dr Caitjan Gainty, KCL
Secondary supervisor: Dr Angel-Luke O’Donnell, KCL

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