The White Plague

Thanks to a couple of thoughtful readers, I have some theories to follow up about those blank spaces in the list of names I talked about in the last post. In the meantime, I also thought I should learn more about what it was that killed most of the people who are buried in the Aboriginal Cemetery.

The cairn says “The majority died of Tuberculosis at the Charles Camsell Hospital between 1946 and 1966.”


It’s not a common disease in Canada these days, but in the old English lit books I’ve read, it’s referred to as consumption, for the way it consumed its victims. Often, it seemed, heroines would waste away until the imminent sign of tragedy came: the coughing up of blood.

When I searched online for tuberculosis – or TB as it’s commonly known – I also saw another European nickname for the disease: the White Plague. Apparently it had something to do with the pallor patients had when they were afflicted.

But in the case of the Inuit and First Nations patients at the Camsell Indian Hospital (some of whom ended up in that St. Albert cemetery), the nickname would have likely felt appropriate for other reasons.

In Healing Histories: Stories from Canada’s Indian Hospitals, author Laurie Meijer Drees spends a lot of time looking at TB. In fact, she has an entire chapter called “Tuberculosis.” In it, I found a useful overview of the disease – especially as it pertained to indigenous people here. I also found a poignant list of symptoms:

“Weight loss and fever. Wracking coughs. Blood in the sputum. Large, rubbery, swollen glands in the neck. Extreme fatigue.”

From this book, I learned that TB has been present in most societies around the world since antiquity, and for much of that history had a very high mortality rate. Meijer Drees notes that it really hit Europe and North America hard in the late 1800s and early 1900s – that 70 per cent of the population here was either a carrier or had an active form of the disease.

“Tuberculosis is caused by a tiny bacterium … and can affect people of any age or background. Although it was formerly believed tuberculosis bacteria survived on surfaces in an unclean environment, modern research demonstrates that air quality and quantity is a far greater factor in the spread of this disease….Tuberculosis is spread almost exclusively person-to-person through the air or by physical contact….Outside factors also play a role in how tuberculosis affects a person. Stress, malnutrition, and other illnesses play a large role in exacerbating the disease.”

You know where air quality, stress and malnutrition were bad? Residential schools. They were a breeding ground for TB and other communicable diseases. And parents increasingly moved off the land to communities to be near their kids at the residential schools.

There were also other huge social, economic and cultural changes happening in the North in the first half of the twentieth century. The fur trade collapse. Opportunities to work at military bases during the Cold War appeared. The rise of the Welfare State after the Depression, while good in many ways with its social safety net, wasn’t always implemented with much forethought. As some indigenous individuals have said, it encouraged northern people to congregate in often overcrowded and unsanitary places where nutritious country food was scarce.

The large-scale coming of qallunaat – what the Inuit call white people – coincided with TB, so as scholar Mary Ellen Kelm argues in Colonizing Bodies, many saw it as a qallunaat disease that required outside treatments. The White Plague, in other words. The indigenous patients Meijer Drees interviewed, and those who have talked or written about their experiences elsewhere, echo this idea.

They recognized the danger and wanted qallunaat treatments. But as I learned, the price for these treatments was often very high.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s