The Limits of Healing

  • Bev Sellars
    They Called Me Number One: Secrets and Survival in an Indian Residential School. Talonbooks (purchase at
  • Darrell Racine and Dale Lakevold
    Misty Lake. Loon Books (purchase at
  • Laurie Meijer Drees
    Healing Histories: Stories from Canada's Indian Hospitals. University of Alberta Press (purchase at
Reviewed by Christina Turner

The Indian Residential School (IRS) system, operational in Canada for over a century, was far more than a set of individual schools. The tentacles of the system reached well beyond the walls of each institution, impacting lives on reserves, in hospitals, and across generations. The reach of the IRS system is a thread connecting three recent works on intergenerational trauma and healing in First Nations communities.

Laurie Meijer Drees’s Healing Histories is a history of Canada’s Indian Health Services (IHS) based on oral accounts from former patients and staff. Developed after the Second World War, partially in response to tuberculosis epidemics in Western and Northern Indigenous communities, the IHS operated 18 hospitals at its peak before health services were devolved to communities in the 1970s. Drees’s work seeks to address a gap in archival and statistical information on IHS by presenting individual narratives collected through traditional Indigenous storytelling practices. Through interviews with former hospital staff and elders from the Cowichan, Haida, and Snuneymuxw nations (among others), Drees covers hospital conditions, patient experiences and the persistence of traditional healing practices (Snuwuyulth) within institutional contexts.

As a social history of Indian Health Services, Healing Histories covers a surprisingly broad range of topics. This makes it informative for the general reader, yet, methodologically, it means that some threads introduced by Drees or her interviewees remain inconclusive, such as multiple speculations about the prevalence of medical experiments on tuberculosis patients. Yet the stories collected in Healing Histories also prove the inadequacy of the archive: for instance, several of Drees’s interviewees recall a vocational training program for patients who were too debilitated by tuberculosis to return to their remote home communities, but no official record of such a program exists. The stories of such former nurses and patients as Evelyn Voyageur and Violet Clark demonstrate how the IHS and IRS systems functioned as symbiotic arms of colonial policy, since poor conditions in the schools increased the prevalence of tuberculosis, supplying hospitals with patients, and as hospital staff were often recruited directly from the schools. Drees’s social history will be useful for scholars and readers working in the fields of Indigenous storytelling, healthcare, and the history of residential schools.

For Bev Sellars, treatment for tuberculosis at Coqualeetza Indian Hospital was a dark precursor of the isolation to come at St. Joseph’s Mission in Williams Lake. They Called Me Number One tells the story of Sellars’s childhood, her five years at residential school, and the long journey to recovery from destroyed confidence and alcoholism brought on by her school experiences. Sellars (who is now chief of Xat’sull First Nation in BC’s Cariboo region) tells a story of programming and deprogramming, of being engrained with the powerful myth of white superiority at home and school, and of the years-long process of unspooling that myth though self-help books, university education and political activism. Like other residential school memoirs, Sellars’s story explicitly connects the IRS system with contemporary issues of alcoholism and violence in Indigenous communities-but unlike earlier works such as Basil H. Johnston’s Indian School Days, Sellars has no time for the limited benefits conferred by her education, nor for government-initiated discourses of reconciliation. “There can be no forgiveness for evil done in the guise of religion,” Sellars writes. “There can be no forgiveness for racism.” While Sellars’s memoir celebrates the triumph of returning from the brink, it is also a stark condemnation of historical and extant paternalistic policies and the personal tragedies these policies continue to breed.

The limits of reconciliation is similarly a theme of Misty Lake, the play by Dale Lakevold and Darrell Racine about a reporter who visits a remote Dene community to conduct interviews with residential school survivors. Based on interviews with Elizabeth Samuel, a survivor of Guy Hill Indian Residential School, the play opens with Patty, an outsider bent on exporting an empathetic story to audiences in the South, as antagonist to Mary, the elusive former student who refuses to adhere to Patty’s standards of reportage. This binary dissolves nearly as soon as it emerges, however, when Patty, a Métis woman, reveals that her grandmother attended residential school and that she, too, suffers from intergenerational trauma. Over the course of seven scenes delivered in short, rhythmic dialogue, Mary transforms from interview subject to healer, telling Patty: “You came out of that system/two generations later.” As in They Called Me Number One, here reconciliation does not occur in government halls, but at the level of individual dialogue, as when Mary reminds Patty that “healing is about learning how to suffer.”

Taken together, these texts sit at the intersection of reconciliation discourse and what Jo-Ann Archibald terms “Indigenous storywork.” While prior histories like J.R. Miller’s Shingwauk’s Vision have provided comprehensive overviews of the IRS system, Drees, Sellars, Lakevold and Racine represent a turn toward more interpersonal and intimate depictions of healing.

This review “The Limits of Healing” originally appeared in Tracking CanLit. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 220 (Spring 2014): 155-157.

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