Building the System: Churches, Missionary Organizations, the Federal State, and Health Care in Southern Alberta Treaty 7 Communities, 1890-1930

By Burnett, Kristin | Journal of Canadian Studies, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Building the System: Churches, Missionary Organizations, the Federal State, and Health Care in Southern Alberta Treaty 7 Communities, 1890-1930


Burnett, Kristin, Journal of Canadian Studies


This essay looks at the evolution of institutional structures of western health care in First Nations communities in southern Alberta from 1880 to 1930. During the 1890s various churches and their missionary organizations built cottage hospitals, school infirmaries, and dispensaries in Blackfoot, Peigan, Blood, Stoney, and Tsuu T'ina communities. In order to pay for these facilities churches formed a partnership with the federal government, similar to the existing one around education. European-Canadian women, under the auspices of missions and later employed by the Department of Indian Affairs, were front line health-care workers in Native communities, and occupied a central role in the creation and operation of these institutions. Indeed, the churches and their female workers laid the foundations for the state-run apparatus that emerged in the years before and after the First World War.

Cet essai examine l'évolution des structures institutionnelles des soins de santé de l'Ouest au sein des communautés des Premières Nations, dans le sud de l'Alberta, de 1880 à 1930. Durant les années 1890, plusieurs églises et leurs organisations missionnaires construisirent des hôpitaux en zone rurale, des infirmeries dans les écoles et des dispensaires dans les communautés de Blackfoot, Peigan, Blood, Stoney et Tsuu T'ina. Dans le but de financer ces institutions, les églises créèrent un partenariat avec le gouvernement fédéral, semblable à celui qui existait en enseignement. Les Européennes-canadiennes, d'abord sous l'égide des missions, puis embauchées par le ministère des Affaires indiennes, furent des travailleuses de la santé de première ligne auprès des communautés autochtones et jouèrent un rôle majeur dans la création et le fonctionnement de ces institutions. Ce sont en effet les églises et leurs travailleuses qui ont jeté les fondations de l'appareil public qui vit le jour dans les années qui précédèrent et qui suivirent la Première Guerre mondiale.

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries marked a period of tremendous expansion in the state and church bureaucracies that managed First Nations people in western Canada. One area that witnessed particular growth was the apparatus intended to deal with Native health. Beginning in 1890, the Methodist, Anglican, and Roman Catholic churches and their missionary organizations established hospitals, school infirmaries, and dispensaries on the five reserves that comprised the Treaty 7 area in southern Alberta. These institutions were created to address both the ill-health prevalent in the Blood, Peigan, Blackfoot, Tsuu T'ina, and Stoney communities and to combat the continued use of Indigenous medical practices among First Nations people. Staffed primarily by female attendants, the western health-care institutions that emerged in Treaty 7 during this period were piecemeal and lacked both a clear direction and a central organization. As a result, the character, size, quality, staffing, and longevity of church-run institutions varied considerably between reserves, and often depended upon the success of individual missionaries. None the less, this mission-based system formed the foundation for an emerging colonial healthcare regime in southern Alberta, and was eventually responsible for compelling the federal government to adopt a more active role in the provision of medical and nursing care for First Nations people.

An examination of health-care institutions created by missions and the nursing care and medical work of female missionaries among Treaty 7 peoples not only illustrates the genesis of the colonial health-care system in southern Alberta, but also offers an explanation as to the form and shape that Indian Health Services assumed during the first half of the twentieth century. Under the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA), the hospitals, school infirmaries, and dispensaries, first established by mission organizations, formed the foundations of Indian Health Services (IHS), and the affordable and available labour of female workers remained essential to the maintenance of this system.

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