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Hospitals, Healthcare & Social Welfare

In the 19th century, health care was still rudimentary in the Canadian Northwest. Aboriginal Peoples made use of traditional techniques involving ceremonies, and medical extracts from plants and animals. Missionaries also provided some basic health care to Aboriginal Peoples and, for them, it was both a religious duty and a means of successful conversion. When the Oblates first arrived in the West, they could provide first aid and, on rare occasions, dispense drugs and perform simple surgery.

The Oblates’ skill at providing health care was tested by a series of epidemics in the Northwest. Influenza, scarlet fever, whooping-cough, tuberculosis, measles and smallpox hit Aboriginal and Métis populations especially hard since they were unaccustomed to them. Smallpox killed more than a third of the population of the Métis settlement at St. Albert in the 1870s, while the Mackenzie and Athabasca missions were ravaged by tuberculosis in the early 20th century. There were numerous epidemics in the 1860s and 1870s, and still more in the 1880s with the coming of White settlers to the West. The medicine provided by Medicine Men and Oblates were inadequate in the face of these epidemics. Oblates provided homeopathic medicines in medical kits that were accompanied with booklets describing remedies for common illnesses. In addition, the Oblates helped the Hudson’s Bay Company hand out vaccines against smallpox. Generally, however, the Oblates’ primary responsibilities during these epidemics were to try to make the dying comfortable, to administer last rites, and bury the dead.

Much of the actual care of the sick was not done by Oblates but by female religious congregations, particularly the Sisters of Charity of Montreal (the Grey Nuns). The Grey Nuns were brought West to provide education, but also to improve health care. They provided care for the sick and the elderly and opened makeshift hospitals. The Sisters worked throughout the Northwest (many at Oblate missions) to allow the Oblate fathers to concentrate on religious matters. Not only did the Sisters provide health care for the missions, they also provided health care for students at residential schools, and at government-funded hospitals.

The year 1874 represented a turning point for health care for Aboriginal Peoples in the Northwest Territories. The Indian Act gave responsibility for health care to the Dominion Government and, more specifically, to the Indian Agents employed by the government. In addition, Treaty 6 being enacted at the time of the smallpox epidemics included a “medicine chest” provision. However, proper health care for Aboriginal Peoples was slow in coming, particularly in the more Northern regions. Throughout the first part of the 20th century, the government’s policy towards health care in the Northwest Territories was to partially fund hospitals that churches would then run. Each hospital would hire a physician on government salary. These hospitals were largely staffed by nuns.

In the Vicariate Apostolic of Mackenzie, Bishop Gabriel Breynat, O.M.I., was instrumental in securing hospitals. He helped found six hospitals – at Fort Simpson (1914), Fort Smith (1916), Aklavik (late 1920s), Fort Rae (1938), Fort Resolution (1938) and Fort McMurray (1943). But it was the women’s religious orders that took on the role of hospital management and health care. In many parts of Alberta and the NWT, the role of the Oblates in hospitals tended to be minimal.  Sometimes the Oblates were not involved in the running of the hospitals (for example, Edmonton) and, if they were, it was under the direction of the Bishop.  In some cases, they were in charge of administration and in others they might only have provided a chaplaincy service. The relationship between the Dioceses and the Oblates was complex though, if the Bishop was an Oblate, their activities were more closely related.

The various communities of women religious were the key to the establishment and staffing of hospitals in Alberta and the Northwest Territories. Grey Nuns’ Mother Vicar Agnes Carroll established the Holy Cross Hospital in Calgary in 1891, and Provincial Superior Mother Saint-Grégoire established St. Thérèse Hospital in St. Paul in 1926. The small hospital annex at the Mission of St. Albert, run by the Grey Nuns, became the Edmonton General Hospital in 1895. In addition, when the Grey Nuns Hospital was founded in Edmonton in 1988, the Grey Nuns took ownership of it. The Sisters of Providence were involved in some hospitals, especially in Northwestern Alberta. 

Despite government subsidies and free labour provided by nuns, the hospitals operated at a deficit, largely because of the costs of transporting supplies to the far North. These hospitals had to contend with large patient loads due to an epidemic of tuberculosis.  Bishop Breynat recorded that 90% of Aboriginal deaths at the Catholic hospitals were due to tuberculosis. That was until the late 1920s, when the Indian Affairs Medical Director determined that tuberculosis was not a medical disorder and, therefore, admission of Aboriginal tuberculosis patients to the hospitals was prohibited. After the implementation of this policy, the hospitals began to empty and suffer financial difficulties, while Aboriginal Peoples continued to die. By the 1940s, Aboriginal Peoples in the North were continuing to die from tuberculosis in large numbers, and Mgr Breynat accused the Federal Government of implementing health care policies that were genocidal towards the Aboriginal populations.  

In 1943, a Commission of Enquiry on Health Condition in the North, funded by the American Rockefeller Foundation, found that the state of Aboriginal health care in the region was appalling.  The Report concluded that hospitals were inadequately funded and the physicians were badly trained. After World War Two, these church-run hospitals were phased out, and the government began to provide more direct health care services.


Huel, Raymond. Proclaiming the Gospel to the Indians and the Métis. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press and Western Canadian Publishers, 1996.

McCarthy, Martha. From the Great River to the Ends of the Earth: Oblate Missions to the Dene, 1847-1921. University of Alberta Press and Western Canadian Publishers, 1995.

Lemire, Marie, s.g.m. Regards sur les soins de santé dans les Territoires du Nord-Ouest, 1867-1967. In Raymond Huel (Ed.). Western Oblate Studies 3: Proceedings of the Third Symposium on the History of the Oblates in Western and Northern Canada. Edmonton: Western Canadian Publishers, 1994.

Vanast, Walter. “Compassion, Cost and Competition: Factors in the Evolution of Oblate Medical Activities in the Canadian North.” In Raymond Huel (Ed.). Western Oblate Studies 2/Etudes Oblates De L'Ouest 2: Proceedings of the Second Symposium on the History of the Oblates in Western and Northern Canada. Edwin Mellen Press, 1992

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