For the last few years, Tania Cameron has been trying to get the government to recognize the Fort William Indian Sanatorium recognized as a residential school.
“Aboriginal children were sent there because they had TB (tuberculosis) but they were also students,” Cameron explained. “The whole aim of the project is to try to get the sanatorium recognized as a Indian residential school under the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.”
According to an APTN story, the Fort William Indian Hospital Sanatorium was opened in 1935.
In 1940 the sanatorium started to admit Aboriginal children from residential schools who had TB. The federal department of Indian Affairs started to pay for 20 beds in the sanatorium for Treaty Indians in 1941, and eventually began a day school at the sanatorium in 1950.
Cameron first heard of the sanatorium through her aunt who was placed at the sanatorium, though she is not sure of the year. She said that she read a few of her family members’ names on archived documents relating to the sanatorium that were sent to her, including her own father.
“It was a residential school,” Cameron said. “A couple of the survivors told me that hospital rooms were converted into classrooms for students who could move around. Other students, like my dad, couldn’t move – he couldn’t get out of bed so they had a bedside teacher. We figured, there’s gotta be a claim there.”
“I saw the bills to Indian Affairs,” Cameron said.
Cameron isn’t alone in her quest; former student Saul Day also joins her.
Day said that he has been trying to have the sanatorium recognized as a residential school for “about a year.”
“There was a pretty substantial amount of people who went to Fort William Sanatorium,” Day said. “I think the majority of us came from residential school because that’s where we got infected with TB. That’s why we came.”
“There was a lot of concern about that particular event,” Day said. “Not only for financial compensation, but there was also a lot of abuses there.”
Both Day and Cameron have been working with Ed Sadowski, a researcher and a member of the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association, in order to have the sanatorium recognized as a residential school.
“People like myself spent a few years there, all of us did experience some sort of schooling there. We had teachers, a classroom, and homework. I think it was as valid claim,” Day said.
Cameron said that there were other sanatoriums across Canada that had applied to be recognized as a residential school but were denied. Cameron also mentioned that the project required retainer fees for lawyers, and Day explained that it could cost in the hundred thousands of dollars to bring a case like this to court.
“A lot of our claimants are on fixed income,” Cameron said of the survivors of Fort William Sanatorium. “I am not sure the seniors would be able to pay a lawyer.”
Sadowski and lawyer Eric Hovius from the legal firm Ab-Law have filed a claim with Canada to have the costs of the legal proceedings covered.
“That’s the first hurdle,” Cameron said. “Canada may say no.”
Cameron said that if the legal costs are paid for, the process to have it recognized as a residential school could take long.
“Cristal Lake was approved to be a residential school that took a few years to get the legal support and to get recognized, but that’s the goal (with Fort William Indian sanatorium),” Cameron said.
Cristal Lake School, along with Stirland School, was added to the list of residential schools in 2011. Earlier in 2008, the schools were denied recognition as a residential school by the federal government.
Day explained that it is not only the fact that people were schooled while at the sanatorium, but that there were concerns over other incidences that took place while they were there.
“Our other concerns involve experimentation, surgeries,” Day said. “There were suspicious deaths involving seemingly healthy patients who looked as if they were over their infection with TB – then the next thing they disappear.”
“The story goes that they were given surgeries. Just exactly what kind? That’s not clear,” Day said. “Why would these seemingly healthy people die from surgery? All the hospital said was they died on the surgery table.”
Day said that it is alleged that some patients had their lungs removed, or the lungs collapsed, or even had ribs taken out.
“Stories like that, also medication. We were given different medication, either oral or by injection. So those are the major concerns were have,” Day said.
Day said that they have tried to gain access to records and information regarding the hospital but the government has blocked every attempt for them to access any information.
“Of course there’s no reason being given as to why. I think we as First Nations people deserve to ask questions and to receive answers as to why did our people die?” he said.
Day’s mother was one of the patients who died on the surgery table in a sanatorium in Brandon, Man.
“My mother died, seemingly healthy looking. She looked like she was ready to go home and then she disappeared. That was the last I heard of her. Of course I cannot find out what did happen,” Day said.
Day would like to have an investigation into his mother’s disappearance, but it is not financially possible at the moment.
“Investigations take a lot of money, which I don’t have. I am not a researcher,” Day said.
Sadowski said that they are currently awaiting a meeting with Canada on the issue for the sanatorium.
“They’ve been really reluctant to talk about this,” Sadowski said.
“Some survivors want to be compensated,” Day said. “I think that’s the main issue.”
Day said that in the future, when the group gets adequate names, he would try to have a personal interview with each claimant.
“I know there won’t be any funding with that but out of my own pocket. I would like to try to give them information, and to get any kind of written evidence on how these hospitals operated,” Day said.
“There were a lot of people that went, there some who went and did not go to school but got the same kind of treatment,” Day said. He explained that there are still survivors of the Fort William Sanatorium in the north who do not speak English.
He said he would interpret the information to the claimants so they could understand.
Cameron urges any survivors of the sanatorium, or their relatives or friends of survivors, to contact them about becoming a claimant in the case.
“The more people who get involved, the better,” Cameron said.
Anyone who wishes to come forward can email firstname.lastname@example.org. There is also a group on Facebook where Cameron can be contacted.
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