Part of The Way to Move Forward is to

Arrive at a Joint Understanding of What Has Occurred in The Past:

Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail In Conversation with Shawn Selway

Photo credit: Khantavy Sayavong

Photo credit: Khantavy Sayavong

Shawn Selway’s writing has appeared in literary journals and on Raise the Hammer, a civic affairs blog in Hamilton, Ontario, where he lives. Nobody Here Will Harm You (Wolsak & Wynn, 2016) his first book, delves into the history of Hamilton’s Mountain Sanatorium. In it, he asks how and why the Canadian government moved more than one thousand Inuit and Cree tuberculosis patients from the Eastern Arctic to “the San” between 1950 and 1965. 

Shawn Selway.  Nobody Here Will Harm You.  Wolsak & Wynn. $25.00, 280 pp., ISBN: 9781928088097

Shawn Selway. Nobody Here Will Harm You. Wolsak & Wynn. $25.00, 280 pp., ISBN: 9781928088097

DANIELLE METCALFE-CHENAIL: You’re based in Hamilton, Ontario, where the Mountain Sanatorium was located. What prompted you to write a book about it?

SHAWN SELWAY: My mother was a nurse at the Holbrook, the children’s pavilion at the San (as it was known). She looked after the Inuit and Euro-Canadian patients being treated there. She would mention that I should write something about it from time to time. But then the question becomes, is there enough material to actually write it? I was taking a course in anthropology to do with Ontario Aboriginal societies and while I was doing that I thought I might be able to find something out about the San. Around 2007 I went to the archives at McMaster Health Sciences — they hold the San records for the entire TB era — and looked around in those. Then a few years later I went back, and then visited Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa. There was a lot of material there. But I always ask myself: what is the question? What is the historical problem this might be about? Otherwise it might be an interesting memorial volume, but not advance anything.

DMC: What research question did you end up posing for Nobody Here Will Harm You?

SS: I read a book by Pat Grygier, A Long Way from Home, that was published in 1994. It was good — had lots of numbers. Her criticism was that the Canadian government ought to have treated people in the North rather than bring them out, because it was so disruptive. My historical question became: is that so?

DMC: And what answer did you come up with through your research?

SS:  In short, that they had to bring them out and treat them, but the way it was done, especially in the first three to four years, was quite harmful. It could have been organized better.

DMC: Can you explain more why they had to do this?

SS:  After the Second World War, Canada was trying to exert its authority in the North against the Americans. Ultimately — a claim to territory is effective occupation. And the effective occupiers were the Inuit. If the government wanted to claim Inuit as Canadians, it needed to treat the North as another part of Canada. It did this with its concentration policies, bringing people together into centralized settlements. At the same time it had to extend into the North the same types of services they were doing in the South. And, it was then that they really began to address the tuberculosis problem in the North. They decided to bring people out of the Eastern Arctic for treatment and concentrate people in one hospital — Mountain Sanatorium.

It was a 700 bed hospital, of which many beds were open, since the advent of antibiotic treatments for TB had drastically reduced the number of Euro-Canadians in these sanatoria. It also had a big endowment and local groups did annual fundraisers. So aside from the sovereignty and treatment question, the government had to figure out what to do with all this money and property.

DMC: And how did the government manage this “Mass Medical Evacuation”, as you call it in the subtitle of the book?

SS: Mostly with the C.D. Howe, an ice-strengthened boat — and on the boat they had a helicopter, which allowed the medical personnel to go out to the nomadic groups on the land. The creation of portable X-Ray equipment allowed them to figure out how much disease was in the patient’s lung. (Some might ask, how accurate was that technology? It seems to have been pretty accurate, but that could certainly be the subject of a future scholarly paper).

Once the doctors had something effective against TB, once the Canadian state decided to assume the responsibility for people in the North, they were obliged to deliver that treatment. There were three drugs in general use and the doctors were still sorting out responses to the medication, which is idiosyncratic. There were differences in age — child versus adult — and racial differences. They were very afraid of the development of a resistant strain. Also, there could often be an unpredictable amount of surgery in some cases. So they felt it was impossible to establish a hospital and staff it in the North using those new chemotherapeutic means that they had. They were correct in bringing people out.

DMC: But you mention the way it was carried out could have been handled differently. In what ways?

SS: During the first few years there was a poor understanding on the part of medical staff of what’s involved when you take a few members out of a close-knit community, where economic and kinship ties are basically one and the same. People were not allowed time to prepare to leave before they were sent south on the Howe. In addition to the dislocation, there was a gap in parental skills and knowledge — they weren’t being transferred.

But in 1951 there were 10,000 Inuit and in 1981 there were 23,000. During that period, immense changes occurred. People were going out and coming back. There were various attempts to create a new economic system — other than the pre-war subsistence economy.

I’m a technological determinist. Technology is very important, and I think is quite underestimated in society. And if my conclusion is incorrect, someone will say so and that’s how we move History forward. Particularly because of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), all these issues are coming back.

DMC: It’s been two years since the TRC wrapped up its statement gathering process, and these questions are discussed in mainstream Canadian society more. In the last year two books (Dr. Maureen Lux’s Separate Beds and Gary Geddes’ Unbundled Medicine) have appeared on Indian Hospitals in Canada and now yours.

SS: The Mountain Sanatorium was actually never one of the Indian Hospitals, per se. The situation was different there than, say, at the Charles Camsell Hospital in Edmonton. Here the Aboriginal patients were mostly Inuit from Eastern Arctic and and James Bay Cree from Nunavik. But there were always Euro-Canadian patients at the same time. There were only a total of 1200 patients from the Arctic over the entire 15-year period. During the peak years of ’55 and ’56 there were 270 Aboriginal patients at a given time.

And I started researching and writing the book in 2007 [before the TRC began collecting statements]. Then it took five years to go through the publishing process, so it’s been a long time in the making.

DMC: On the back of your book, it says you’re a cultural historian. What was your approach to this kind of story?

SS: First off my training was in religion, so that hardly qualifies me as a historian. I did my apprenticeship in a steel company — a portable trade — so I could write and do other things as well. I started out making films and writing plays, actually. But I do a little bit of archival work with my consultancy and we offer historic machinery reports to museums. I also spoke to nurses here and a couple of Inuit people who passed through town; I had no financing so couldn’t pay for trips to Iqaluit. The Inuit side of the story is not really explored other than Mini Aodla Freeman’s book [Life Among the Qallunaat, University of Manitoba Press, 2015] and some oral history that has been done by a woman here at McMaster who was looking at St. Luke’s Hospital in Pangnirtung.

I also made an attempt to find the transcripts of the Inuit investigation into the sled dog killings by the Mounties. But I couldn’t actually go up there. It’s not clear to me why anyone would be that interested in speaking with me, either. It doesn’t benefit anyone there in the short term, but hopefully in the long term it will.

DMC: How do you hope it might benefit the Inuit – or all of Canada – in the long run?

SS: We’re kind of stuck as a country. We have tons of unresolved issues with the Aboriginal people. Part of the way to move forward is to arrive at a joint understanding of what has occurred in the past. Or if we can’t, some recognition of the fact that Euro-Canadians have a fair bit of resistance to Aboriginal accounts of the past.

The reconciliation part is difficult because the truth part is difficult. Truth doesn’t matter as much as it should. Figuring out why that is, is difficult. A lot of things are more complicated than people want to take the time to sort out. But they do need to get sorted out.

DMC: On that note of complex truth and difficult reconciliation, how does the Hamilton community understand the Mountain Sanatorium?

SS: It’s very fragmented. The San is very well known but there is not a general understanding of a collective experience.

From time to time I give a talk on the book, for example, and the people who attend will be a nurse or a family member of someone who was a patient there. All the nurses I spoke with enjoyed it there — it was more collegial and more respectful than at some other hospitals. And many of the nurses lived there on the grounds. And there are very few Inuit here in town — sometimes they’ll come down and visit the Woodland Cemetery where patients were buried. The Inuit who were there and survived, they’re all in the North, and for those who have since died, it’s not too clear how much of that experience was actually communicated to their descendants.

The Art Gallery of Hamilton is doing an exhibition in June of Inuit Art held by Hamilton Health Sciences. With the disposal of the Mountain Sanatorium buildings, the art from the San was removed. I’m supposed to go provide background and context to the docents and guides.

I did a piece in Raise the Hammer and suggested the San should be a national historic site for its importance in Inuit and Euro-Canadian history. And it’s important to the city of Hamilton too — a people’s monument. Almost every service club, industry, women’s group, and public school class — did something for the San at some point. It was there for about 100 years — quite important in the history of the city.

DMC: You seem to have a variety of interests, trades, and skills. What’s next for you?

SS: I always have a list of things to choose between. I’m going to try and write something about historic machinery and millwrighting — the current situation and the past. I was at the Firestone Tire plant and they closed that down. It was quite common for someone to have an uncle or a dad getting a decent living working there for thirty years. That all went away in the space of three to five years. I want to look at the transition — the digital revolution that occurred in industry before it reached the consumer.

Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail is a Canadian writer who specializes in telling hidden histories. She is the author of two books of aviation history and the editor of In This Together: Fifteen Stories of Truth and Reconciliation (Brindle & Glass, 2016).  She is currently based in Houston, Texas. @Danielle_Author