Documentary to chronicle abuse at Camsell Indian Hospital

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A segregated hospital that treated Northern Indigenous patients for tuberculosis is the subject of a new documentary, and part of a $1-billion class action for widespread abuse and malpractice against Indigenous patients between 1945 and 1981.

Ann Hardy at the Charles Camsell Indian Hospital in Edmonton. The treatment of Hardy and fellow patients at Camsell and 29 other segregated hospitals is the subject of a $1-billion class action. photo courtesy of Ann Hardy

Documentarian Raymond Yakeleya, originally of Tulita, has been awarded a research grant for a documentary on Charles Camsell Indian Hospital, one of 29 segregated hospitals opened in 1945 that fall under the class action suit, filed Jan. 25.

“I’ve heard it coming out in whispers. It’s following the same pattern,” Yakeleya said, comparing Camsell to residential schools.

Yakeleya is researching allegations of experimental surgeries without anaesthetic, forced sterilizations, beatings, sexual assault, forced confinement, electroshock treatment, and unmarked burials of residential school students in plots and potters fields around Edmonton.

As part of that research, Yakeleya will visit Yellowknife, Fort Providence and communities in the south Mackenzie to hear testimony of survivors and family members of those Northerners sent to Camsell from the North, even if that means obscuring their identities and voices in the documentary.

“We need to reach out because it’s like residential schools when they first came out. They didn’t want to talk about it. How many people in Charles Camsell fell to suicide or drinking to self medicate to cope with the pain of what happened there?”

“We’re looking at tens of thousands of people who could have gone to those hospitals over a 40 year period,” said Hassan Ahmed, a lawyer with Koskie Minsky LLP and co-counsel for the class action, which seeks damages and a court declaration that the government was negligent in its operation of the “Indian hospitals.”

“This was done to children as young as four years old, as old as teenagers and adults as well that we’ll never know their stories because they’re not alive today,” Ahmed said.

“For me, it’s personal as I had my grandfather, uncles, relatives and Tulita people who went there for treatment,” Yakeleya wrote in an e-mail.

Many treatments likely “happened without their consent because of verbal and literary barriers.”

Ann Hardy, 59, is the representative plaintiff in the class action suit, who was sent from Fort Smith to Camsell in 1969 at age 10. Later medical tests suggest she may have never contracted tuberculosis, she said.

While a patient at Camsell, she said she was subjected to sexual abuse, witnessed staff members “groom” and eventually sexual assault a neighbouring patient and others.

“We would go for certain medical procedures and be groped. We were just young children,” Hardy said. “We would talk amongst ourselves but we ultimately had nobody to go to and say, ‘This is happening.'”

Full-body casts were used at Camsell and often left victims incapacitated, Hardy said, adding she was nearly forced into the procedure until a family member intervened and she was brought home to recover successfully with only antibiotics.

“I’m hoping that by me being out there, it will come to light. I know that there are a lot of other people that have been affected by this,” Hardy said. “Because we were Indigenous and we were separated by so many hundreds of miles from our parents, we were at the mercy of adults and staff at the hospital.”

There are reports of people who went to Charles Camsell who never made it back home and families received no information from the then-Department of Indian Affairs about where their relatives bodies were buried, Yakeleya said.

One such woman was sent to Camsell for treatment but no body returned, he said.

“She was not a no-nothing. It caused a lot of problems with the kids who thought she’d abandoned them. They just never sent her body back.”

“I had stories of people left for dead in the morgue when they weren’t dead,” said Gary Geddes, author of Medicine Unbundled: A Journey through the Minefields of Indigenous Health Care. A nurse in Camsell “checked the bedside charts and found that there were a lot of bedside sterilizations,” said Geddes.

“Residential schools provided a full complement for the hospitals. They were really in cahoots in an unholy marriage,” Geddes said, adding that traumatized victims of residential schools were sent to sanatoriums.

“The assumption was that if you were sent there it was because you had TB. But if you didn’t like being sexual abused, taken from your family, and losing your language, watch out you might end up on the colonial conveyor belt to the Indian hospital,” Geddes said.

“I want full disclosure from Charles Camsell and for experimental (crap) like this to never happen to our people again,” Yakeleya said. “I hope our work with this documentary can help people that are going through the lawsuit.”