Manitoba History: Northern Manitoba Treaty Party, 1949
by Bruce Noton
It was well known that Native Indian people were very susceptible to tuberculosis. But prior to 1948 little had been done to look for and treat this disease among these people in the remote areas of northern Manitoba. This was about to change.
During the Second World War, the United States armed forces built an airstrip and hospital at Clearwater Lake, 20 miles northeast of The Pas. After the war, the airstrip was taken over by Transport Canada. The hospital was acquired by the Manitoba Sanatorium Board for use as an Indian hospital. This was the forerunner of a more vigorous program to find and treat tuberculosis among the Indian population of the region.
Dr. John Ridge was appointed superintendent of the Clearwater Lake Hospital, and his X-ray technologist was Mr. Tony Samoleski. It was arranged that in 1948, for the first time, portable X-ray equipment with technologists headed by Mr. Samoleski would accompany the Indian treaty party on its annual summer visit to Indian reserves in northern Manitoba. Chest X-rays would be taken of all residents on the reserves mainly, to discover cases of tuberculosis. People deemed in need of treatment would be accommodated at the Clearwater Lake Hospital. Hospitalization of infectious cases would prevent these people from infecting other family and community members, an additional benefit.
I was well acquainted with Dr. Ridge and Mr. Samoleski and through them learned of this new X-ray and treatment program. Early in 1949 when talking to Dr. Ridge, I asked if X-ray personnel and equipment would again be accompanying the treaty party, and if I might be considered as an X-ray helper for a month of the work. He said there was such a possibility, and he would let me know. At this time, I was employed as an X-ray technologist at a general hospital in Flin Flon.
In the summer of 1949 the treaty party, with X-ray equipment, was scheduled to go out in northern Manitoba during June and July. I was advised that my services could be of use to relieve Mr. Samolesky for the month of July. I arranged holiday time from my work in Flin Flon, and at the appointed time, with my sleeping bag, took the train to The Pas. There, I transferred to the “muskeg special,” the CNR train to Churchill on the Hudson Bay line. My destination was Gillam where I would rendezvous with the treaty party.
The coach I boarded was occupied by Indian people. When the conductor came to check my ticket, he leaned down and told me there were no Indians in the next coach and I could move to it if I wished. I declined the offer. I did not mention that for the next month I would be living among and X-raying these people.
At Gillam I met the members of the treaty party and worked with the X-ray crew for the day. Indian Agent Jack Staunton, his clerk Alex Hutcheon and interpreter Elie Neckoway, all from Ilford, headed the group. An RCMP officer in red serge was always present when treaty money was paid—in this case Constable Cliff Kool from the Churchill detachment. Jerry Fidler of The Pas cooked for the whole party.
Dr. Yule of The Pas headed the medical group. He was assisted by Dr. Jerry Olin, a fourth year medical student from Winnipeg, nurse Nora Raynor and Beth Huttey, both of Nelson House. Beth, raised on the reserve at Nelson House and a lady in every sense of the word, interpreted and clerked for the medical group. Three X-ray technologists completed the complement: Tony Samoleski from Clearwater Lake Hospital, Ken Wilson and Ed Hutney from Winnipeg.
The X-ray machine was a fifty milliampere Picker field unit such as had been used by the army during the Second World War. It was rugged, reliable and could be dismantled into handy modules for transport. The unit was powered by a Delco 110 Volt gasoline generator, the heaviest piece of equipment that had to be carried.
Treaty time is celebration time when the people come together. Vital statistics are recorded such as births, deaths and marriages. The treaty money of five dollars to each treaty person is paid. The Crown provides Chiefs and Councillors with gold trimmed blue serge uniforms. This is an occasion to don these uniforms while making speeches and airing grievances that are heard and addressed by the Indian Agent, the representative of the Indian Affairs Department and the Crown.
Treaties included provision for a medicine chest for the peoples’ health needs. As time went on, this symbolic chest evolved into health care for the people. Part of this health care has been provided by medical people accompanying the Indian Agent on his annual visit to the reservations. Sick people have been seen and treatment prescribed, babies examined, and teeth pulled by the doctor when necessary. In 1948 a chest X-ray for each person was added to the health services.
One evening at Gillam, several of us walked over to the railway station where the agent’s wife was doing her ironing in the waiting room. A Mr. Baker took us on a gas car down the line for a look at mighty Kettle Rapids on the Nelson River. At this point the railway crossed the river and years later became the site of a major hydroelectric generator for Manitoba Hydro.
I dropped in at the store in Gillam and found some of the children indulging in treats brought in for treaty day. There were soft drinks, chocolate bars and oranges. The soft drinks were 35 cents each, which seemed an astronomical price in those days. The children bought treats, but I noticed one of the first things the women bought was lard. Lard is needed for bannock and provides warmth.
Prior to the Gillam visit, the party had travelled by float plane to reserves mostly south of the Hudson Bay railway line. Because there was no place to land a float plane at Gillam, a landing had to be made at Ilford and the party came from there to Gillam by train.
Two hundred and twelve people were X-rayed at Gillam, making a total of 4,873 films taken on the trip to this point. From Gillam, Mr. Samoleski took these films and returned by train to Clearwater Lake Hospital to start processing them, while I took his place with the X-ray crew for the balance of the trip.
Finished at Gillam, we journeyed back to Ilford and loaded the cooking and X-ray equipment onto the plane. The Balanca, a high wing monoplane, was big as bush planes go, with a 750-horsepower radial engine and three-bladed propeller that stuck out in front like a cigar. I learned from the pilot Ted Coates, it was one of only two still in service. Two struts on each side connected the wing to the floats and the floats to the fuselage. These struts were wide and shaped like airfoils, evidently designed to provide some lift. As Coates and his mechanic waited on the float, I asked, “How much lift do you get from those struts in comparison to the wing? “Coates studied the struts a moment and drawled, “Well, I don’t really know; we’ve never tried flying her without the wing.” The mechanic nearly fell off the float laughing at me.
It took two trips for the plane to move the whole party. The cook and X-ray personnel always went on the first trip and set up ready for work, while the plane went back for the other people. From Ilford, we flew 140 miles almost due east to Shamatawa at the junction of the God’s and Echoing Rivers. It was late in the day when we arrived, and the second flight did not come in until the following morning.
One hundred and seventy-six people were X-rayed at Shamatawa. Dr. Yule did three tooth extractions for ladies who sat on blocks of wood with a bucket between their feet to spit in. They cried but barely murmured.
The people had all their sleigh dogs leashed and staked out for the summer. Apparently, before the dogs were tied, they had hurt some children. I was to learn that being serenaded by howling sleigh dogs was a nightly occurrence.
Constable Kool and Mr. Staunton, who was a magistrate, held court and tried and convicted one of the people for catching beaver illegally. One pelt was presented as evidence and a small fine was levied.
Dr. A. McLeod and Blake Nash, biologists from the University of Manitoba, were in the community at this time. They were doing research on disease among the beaver and muskrats of the area.
We noticed that the Hudson’s Bay Company Factor here, quite a young man, used some rather coarse language in the presence of his wife. We were surprised at this until we learned that his wife was stone deaf.
A soccer game was held in the evening—natives against whites. The field was a bit of dried out muskeg with none of the humps and hollows levelled. The ball bounced every which way, and running was treacherous. During the match, Chief Beardy stood on the sidelines and chattered in Cree to the natives. We thought he was urging them on, but later learned, he was telling his boys to go easy on us. Thank goodness, for they still nearly ran us to death!
The flight to our next stop at York Factory took us over the flat, wet Hudson Bay lowlands with winding streams and polygon shapes in the muskeg. We landed on the Hayes River near its confluence with Hudson Bay and the site of York Factory. Although there were empty buildings here, we were not allowed to sleep in them, so we set up our tents. The mosquitoes were thick and thirsty, but fortunately, we had netting to erect over our bed rolls.
We revelled in the history of York Factory. Established in 1684 by the Hudson’s Bay Company, it was the first permanent European settlement in Manitoba. A cannon pointed out at the river, there were remains of a concrete powder house and cannon balls and York boat oars lay on the beach. Built in 1821, the warehouse, or factory, was a huge two and three storey frame building built in a square with an open court in its centre. Only a small part of it was now in use, but we were informed that in times past it had been stacked to the ceilings with furs awaiting shipment overseas. The medical party worked on the second floor of this building. Here, the interior walls were finished with vertical tongue and groove wood to which no paint or varnish had ever been applied. When a hand was passed over it, it felt like satin, probably the result of over a hundred years of seasoning. Some of the fittings in the building had come out of sailing ships that visited the Bay.
One evening, Dr. Olin, a local Métis gentleman and I were walking along the shore of the river when we noticed the open end of a rough box protruding from the cut bank above our heads. Our Métis friend said this was the site of an old grave yard that had been partly eroded by the river. He would not go near this box. Dr. Olin and I, however, had no such qualms. We clambered up the bank and reached into the box finding only three remaining bones, a femur, a fibula and a radius. Nothing appeared above ground to mark the site of this grave. The Factor had a case of artifacts, so we took these bones back to add to his collection. A skull in the collection, also, had been picked up on the river bank. Dr. McLeod, the biologist, had arrived at York. He rolled this skull around in his hands like a bowling ball and informed us the person had been a Caucasian in his twenties who probably died from a blow that caused the evident depressed fracture of the cranium.
At this time, the Hudson’s Bay Company ship, The Fort Severn, was anchored out in the river at York. The local men were acting as longshoremen, barging supplies ashore for the Company. But there was unrest; the men did not think they were receiving adequate pay, and the Chief called the men out on strike. This held the ship up for two days while a settlement was negotiated.
Quite a number of non-treaty people were X-rayed at York bringing the film count to 183. With this and other business taken care of, we headed off up the coast toward Churchill.
The Nelson River enters Hudson Bay not far from the mouth of the Hayes. We flew over the Nelson’s broad, shallow estuary of silt and could see the huge dock that had been built as a terminus for the Hudson Bay railway but later abandoned in favor of Churchill. A small vessel, stranded and abandoned many years ago on the mud of the estuary, gave evidence of the folly of ever considering this as a sea port.
Between York Factory and Churchill, the coast is barren of trees due to the cold influence of the Bay. The yellow-green of muskeg stretches inland, laced with many darker streams flowing to the Bay. Again, there are the polygons caused by expansion and contraction of the earth due to freezing and thawing, saturation and drying out.
I did not find Churchill very hospitable, which is unusual in the North, and racism was encountered. A large air base, built here during the war, still was used by the RCAF and others. The mouth of the Churchill River provides a deep water harbor on which sits a prominent landmark, the Government Grain Elevator at the terminus of the Hudson Bay railway. We did not visit old Prince of Wales Fort on the other side of the harbor, but our pilot gave us a good look as he flew low over it. It is a massive stone structure guarding the harbor mouth; little wonder over forty years were spent on its construction in the 1700s. Our low flight over the harbor also gave us a good view of the white Beluga whales surfacing and diving.
We X-rayed only 109 people here including Cree and Chipewyan Indians plus two Eskimos. A local Indian lady interpreted for the medical party. Remarkably, she spoke four languages—Cree, Chipewyan, French and English.
The next stop was at the Hudson’s Bay Company post of Duck Lake on the Barrens, 140 miles northwest of Churchill. We flew north up the coast to the Seal River and then followed it west and inland to Duck Lake. Going west, we crossed eskers, gravel ridges running north and south. The pilot, Ted Coates, said the eskers occurred so regularly every twenty miles a pilot could measure distances by them. A few stunted spruce grew in places beside streams, but otherwise, the rolling land was stony and treeless.
The four or five buildings of the trading post were the only ones in sight. The Indian people were all in tents gathered along the shore of the lake. Where and how they lived during winter remained a mystery to me. These were the most impoverished people encountered on the trip. Some years later, I learned the people were relocated and the trading post abandoned.
We had arrived late in the day and set up the X-ray machine in a small fur warehouse. It was not long before Jerry had supper on, and the smell of bacon and eggs attracted one Ragnar Jonsson, a white trapper. Although Jerry was not particularly pleased, I invited Jonsson for supper. He had spent the year trapping on the Barrens, and mopped up those fresh eggs and bread in short order. Jonsson had come to meet the treaty party with his year’s catch of furs, which included twelve timber wolf pelts. He wanted to collect the twelve dollar bounty for each wolf from the Mounted Policeman. His furs were hanging in the Hudson’s Bay Company warehouse, but he had no intention of selling them to the Company; he was shipping them to Norway for sale. The previous year, he met the party at Brochet on the other side of the province. Apparently, crossing the whole width of Manitoba on the Barrens presented no problem for him.
Jonsson had a beautiful team of well fed sleigh dogs plus three pups. He did not need the pups but would not give them to the Indians; he gave them to our cook, Jerry Fidler, to take back to The Pas. He said he fed himself and his dogs on caribou, and he had to put up sixty to see him through the year. Some meat was lost to wolves, foxes and ravens getting into his caches. He used only a .25/20 calibre rifle and said shooting the caribou was not sport; for him, it was necessary work.
Some of the people were seen with large gray trout, which aroused the curiosity of Ed Hutney and the fish were caught, and he arranged for two fellows to take us there first thing in the morning, before the rest of the party arrived from Churchill. We bought gasoline for our guides’ outboard motor at the shocking price of $1.45 a gallon and set out across the lake. From the water, we could see an above-ground Indian burial in some scrubby trees, but respectfully stayed away from it. From the lake, we went up the Wolverine River to its source at Nejanilini Lake, still ice covered. Nejanilini lies between the 59th and 60th parallels and extends north almost to the North West Territories. The river pours out of it in a great rapid, and here the Indians pulled into shore. They looked curiously at our rods and reels, fingered our fine lines skeptically, then waited for us to start fishing. We had no conversation, we spoke no Chipewyan, they spoke no English.
I did not think the rapids looked like the right place for lake trout, but doubts were soon dispelled. On Ed’s first cast a trout, he couldn’t hold, and took the bait and was brought in only when it tangled in a shrub near the shore and was gaffed by one of the Indians. It weighed seventeen and one quarter pounds. The fish continued to bite and gave us a real tussle in the fast water. The wind came up and once blew my cast off course; the line did not go out. Looking around, I saw my hook sitting on top of Ed’s hat, but when I tried to lift it off it would not come; the hook had nailed Ed’s hat to his scalp. Fortunately, I was able to care fully back the hook out without tearing his scalp.
After giving some of the trout to our guides and the Factor, we still had enough for a meal for our entire crew. The Factor put his fish in his food cache, a pit about seven feet deep dug in the permafrost. Here, he had quarters of caribou frozen solid in the middle of July.
The second plane load arrived later than expected. We learned this was because, after they were in the air, Constable Kool could not find the treaty money and realized he left it at the detachment in Churchill. So back they had to go.
Only eighty-seven people were X-rayed at Duck Lake, all Chipewyans; then, it was south to Cree country again. This entailed a 225 mile flight almost due south to Split Lake on the Nelson River system. Coates had not flown this country before, but he simply spread a topographical map across his knees and read it as he flew. The land, lakes and rivers below looked exactly like the map, and we unerringly arrived at our destination.
At Split Lake the children were all out to greet us and were yelling, “Skatamow, skatamow!” This was the Cree word we used to ask them to hold their breath for their chest X-rays. They had been X-rayed the previous summer and knew what to expect. We were the “skatamow people”. This was a bigger Reserve; we examined 286 people here. The substantial log and frame homes of the people were a contrast to the tiny tents of the Duck Lake people. Many trees and bushes grew here that usually were seen in more southerly regions, among them, Manitoba maples and ash. These must have grown from seed carried north by the Nelson River.
For one meal, we were served sturgeon, not in season at the time. As we were sitting down to eat, Dr. Yule said, “Now don’t embarrass the Mountie; refer to this fish as trout.” Presently the Mountie came in accompanied by the Factor’s ten year old boy. The boy promptly asked someone to, “Please pass the sturgeon.” Dr. Yule scowled at him and said, “That’s not sturgeon; it’s trout!” The boy studied it closely and replied, “It sure looks like sturgeon to me.” The Mountie stared down at his plate but was unable to suppress a smile.
There was an Anglican Mission at Split Lake, and the Priest’s wife, a rather heavy lady, had fallen and injured her ankle. It was very swollen. We could X-ray it but did not carry any chemicals for developing film. Dr. Yule debated if the lady should be flown out for examination. I volunteered to fluoroscope the ankle to see if a fracture could be detected. Our cassettes (film holders) had fluorescent screens in them that lit up when exposed to X-ray. We removed and stored the film from a cassette and then removed all film from our black darkroom tent. The X-ray tube was lowered as far as possible, pointed straight up and extended into the tent. The patient sat on a low stool in the darkened tent while I waited until my eyes were accommodated to the dark. With the lady’s ankle over the X-ray tube and the cassette over her ankle, I called for X-ray. The cassette screens give off a blue-violet light which is more difficult to see than the yellow-green of the usual fluoroscope screen. However, the outline of the ankle bones could be seen on the screen, and rotation of the leg indicated nothing was displaced or out of alignment. A hairline crack would not be visible, but in any case, such could heal without any disability. On the strength of what I was able to see, Dr. Yule treated the injury and allowed the lady to remain at home. Fluoroscoping in this way, I had no radiation protection such as a lead apron, gloves or shield for my eyes, but in those days we did not have the concern about radiation that we learned later.
The husky pups brought from Duck Lake were a nuisance; one even relieved himself on my sleeping bag. We made a rough enclosure to put them in for the night, but it did not exclude a hungry local dog, of which there were many, and in the morning we discovered one pup had been killed and eaten. The remaining two, then, were kept inside with us at night and survived the trip.
We were storm-bound for an extra day at Split Lake. Waves on the lake were rolling so high they were hitting the propeller of the plane and nearly stalling the engine. It was a pleasant place, and we did not mind the stay.
The next reserve was Nelson House, 108 miles to the southwest on Foot Print Lake, part of the Burntwood River system. This was a beautiful location. Beth Huttey’s father was a free trader here, and she and nurse Nora Raynor, when not out with the Treaty Party, worked at the local nursing station. This was a large band—we X-rayed 491—and the people were scattered over much of the reserve.
Some of the party’s personnel changed here. Coates, his mechanic and their big Balanca aircraft returned to their base at Lac du Bonnet. On route, they returned Jack Staunton, Alex Hutcheon, Elie Neckoway and Constable Kool to Ilford. Mr. Eric Law, Indian Agent from The Pas, now took over. With Mr. Law were his clerk Alex Bowman and RCMP Constable Dave Keele. Pilot Bob Ferguson and his mechanic Bud Wood would be moving us with a Norseman aircraft. The Norseman, being smaller than the Balanca, would take three trips to move the whole group and gear.
Canoe loads of people began arriving at the Nelson House settlement from all over the reserve, and a tent town rapidly mushroomed. Some brought mountains of gear including stoves and steel double beds. Soon the place was swarming with children running and playing everywhere.
One evening after work we had a fastball game, and one afternoon work was suspended for a sports day. A collection was taken up among the whites for prize money. There were foot races for children and adults, an egg and spoon race for the ladies and a pack race for the men. The men, also, had a contest to see who could pack or carry the most flour. Then on the lake, two-man canoe teams raced out to an island and back. Not to be outdone, the ladies had a short canoe race across the bay and back. This was hilarious! On the turn, they got all tangled up and were pushing, shoving, shouting, and screaming at each other. At the same time, the men on shore were shouting instructions and roaring with laughter.
A large platform had been built outdoors, and an outdoor dance was held in the evening to wind up the festivities. We fired up our generator and strung up a couple of electric lights for the dance. A fiddler always seemed to be around for such occasions.
With the work completed at Nelson House, we made a short hop of seventy miles north to the community of South Indian Lake situated on Southern Indian Lake. The lake is large and part of the Churchill River system. Commercial fishing was a mainstay of the people here, many of whom were Métis. A number of years later, Manitoba Hydro built a control dam on the Churchill River below Southern Indian Lake. This raised the water level, so that some of it could be diverted through the Burntwood River into the Nelson and used to generate more power on the Nelson. The high water flooded large areas of muskeg around Southern Indian Lake, leaching out mercury and raising the mercury content of the lake above acceptable levels for commercial fishing. I do not know what happened to this community as a result.
The X-ray crew was always the first of our party into these communities, and the local people always knew where we should set up and were always ready to move our equipment for us. I never learned what prior arrangements might have been made for us.
The people certainly knew well in advance when treaty would be paid and were on hand for the occasion. The paying of treaty money and visit by the doctor were very significant traditions. At one location two men, who were working away from their reserve, chartered a plane to fly them in to receive their five dollars each and fly them back again. This, of course, provided an opportunity to see family and friends at the same time.
After examining 222 people at South Indian, we moved on up river to Pukatawagan, 116 miles to the southwest. It was a cloudy day, and pilot Ferguson followed the river at fairly low altitude giving us a good view of Granville Falls on the Churchill. Father Emile Desormeaux and a Brother looked after the Catholic Mission at Pukatawagan, and they fed and housed the X-ray crew on our first night there. Our cook and his supplies would not be in until the next morning because the Norseman did not have room for all of us in one load. We dined on canned moose meat and slept on a bed, both of which were a nice change. The Brother had enough canned moose meat to see them through until fall with some to spare.
Father Desormeaux had been at this Mission for many years. He had travelled to The Pas and back by both canoe and dog team, a round trip of probably 400 miles. When the railway was extended to Flin Flon in 1930, his trip out to the railhead was cut in half. At the time of our visit, a rail line to Lynn Lake was about to be built that would pass within five miles of his Mission. He may have doubted that the results of this would be beneficial for the community. Later, I learned Father Desormeaux spent 52 years at Pukatawagan.
Father Desormeaux and Chief Solomon Colomb had this community well organized, and our work went very smoothly. Another 280 people were examined, and we then moved on to our next and last visit of the trip.
The afternoon was bright, warm and perfectly calm as we started the take off from the Churchill River at Pukatawagan. The water was like glass, and without a ripple to get some air under the pontoons they clung to the water not wanting to come up onto the step. It seemed we ran for miles before finally lifting off and heading north to Brochet on the northeast corner of Reindeer Lake.
We passed over a large burned-over area on route that looked as if it might have burned twice. Practically nothing was left on the rock of the shield, not even soil, never mind any charred tree trunks or roots. It made one wonder if growth could ever return to the barren rock.
The air was smooth, and Ed, Ken and I were dozing on top of our sleeping bags when suddenly—the engine stopped—silence, except for the rushing wind! The plane was heavily loaded, and the nose instantly dropped into a steep dive. Arms and legs flailed in consternation on top of the luggage. Pilot Ferguson calmly reached over his head and turned on his second gas tank; the engine caught immediately; the plane pulled up out of the dive, and we continued on our way. Ferguson looked back over his shoulder and smiled. No one dozed for the rest of the trip.
The people at Brochet were mostly Chipewyan, but some Cree were present also. The priest at the Catholic Mission was Father Joseph Egenolf who was to spend 50 years at Brochet. At the time of our visit he was quite old and was assisted by a younger man. Their large church was new; a smaller, older church had been built in 1875, twice remodelled and now served as a community hall. The lumber for the new church had all been hand sawn on the site, no small feat considering that timber did not grow very large at this latitude. The Department of Transport maintained a weather station at Brochet, manned by three Army Signal Core soldiers. The station, its living quarters and electrical appliances were luxurious compared to the living conditions of the native people in the surrounding community.
Shortly after sunup on our first morning at Brochet, we were awakened by gunfire. Rifles were cracking here and there in the community. We were not alarmed thinking a moose or some caribou might have wandered too close. However, we learned later there was to be a wedding that day, and the shots were just the opening salvo of the celebrations. What better time than treaty day when all the people were gathered together?
A picture show was run in the hall one night, and on the last night of our stay a dance was held. One of the Army Signal Men was an expert old time fiddler, and his playing made for a very lively dance. The ladies, rather subdued as always, were the last to get up, but the men were up and hopping immediately as the music began. Here, as elsewhere, jigs seemed to be the favorites, and how some of them could jig!
The following morning we left Brochet at 6:00 a.m. and arrived back at The Pas three and one half hours later, mission completed for another year. In this month of July, the treaty party had zig-zagged up and down across the northern part of Manitoba from Hudson Bay to the Saskatchewan border. For me, it had been an interesting but one time experience; for most others on the trip, it was an annual occurrence. My home was in Flin Flon, the largest community in northern Manitoba at the time, but nowhere on the trip did I hear mention of Flin Hon. The hub of the North, from whence everything came and where everyone went when they “went out,” was The Pas. It had been that way as long as anyone could remember.
But what about the chest X-rays of all the people; what might they reveal? Including the 393 people X-rayed at Brochet, the total number X-rayed on this leg of the trip was 2,367. In the previous month of June, 4,671 chest X-rays had been taken making a grand total of 7,038.
I returned to my work in Flin Flon, and it was not until October of that year 1949 that I again encountered Dr. John Ridge of the Indian Hospital at Clearwater Lake. I asked him about the results of the chest survey, and he replied, “Well, we don’t know all the results because not all of the films have been read yet.” I was astonished and asked the reason. He said, “We found so many cases of tuberculosis that we just ran out of beds for them.” Of course, the first survey done in this area the previous year had produced similar results.
This was the time that mass chest X-ray surveys were being done on whole communities in the southern part of the province, and, although the ratio of positive cases there was much lower, still many new cases were being discovered. Statistics kept by the Manitoba Sanatorium Board show that in the late 1940s, when surveys were being conducted both north and south, there were more known cases of tuberculosis in Manitoba than at any other time. Previously, tuberculosis had been there, but it had not been discovered.
The high incidence of the disease among the native population was partly due their lack of immunity to this new disease introduced to them by Europeans, and partly due to their living conditions, which had changed. Confined to reserves now, they often lived in very crowded conditions where an infectious case had every opportunity of infecting other family members and friends. Disease resistance might also be impaired at times due to inadequate diet.
Up to this time, the only cure for tuberculosis was good nourishment, fresh air and rest, with emphasis on rest. This helped the body to heal itself. Resting the diseased portion of a lung was often induced by collapsing that part of the lung by various means including surgery. But healing was a slow process that might take months or years causing a great demand for hospital beds.
Then, in the 1950s, a great change took place—streptomycin had been discovered. This antibiotic, and others that were developed, were effective against tuberculosis. It was nothing short of a miracle. During the 1950s tuberculosis declined rapidly. Due to mass chest X-ray surveys, infectious cases were found and isolated. This reduced spread of the disease. Positive cases were treated with antibiotics and cured or arrested in a much shorter time than previously. Ten years after the trip of 1949, tuberculosis among the Indians of northern Manitoba was under control.
It would be wonderful if that were the end of the story, but unfortunately, it is not. Tuberculosis cases are appearing again. When patients on antibiotics start to feel better, they often discontinue the medication before the disease has been completely cured. This allows remaining, more resistant, bacilli to survive, multiply and possibly spread. As a result, new resistant strains of tuberculosis have developed that do not respond to treatment.
Now, the optimism of the 1950s and 1960s is tempered somewhat. Let us hope not all the gain is lost.
We thank Edna R. Beardy for identifying her grandfather Chief Zaccheus Beardy in a photograph accompanying this article, who had been mistakenly identified as Abraham Beardy in the print version. (14 November 2011)
We thank Diane Powderhorn for identifying her family members in a photograph accompanying this article. (11 December 2018)
Page revised: 11 December 2018Back to top of page