Medicine Un­bun­dled: A Jour­ney through the Mine­fields of Indige­nous Health Care

Canada's History - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Danielle Met­calfe-Chenail, the former his­to­rian lau­re­ate of Ed­mon­ton and the au­thor and ed­i­tor of sev­eral books, in­clud­ing In This To­gether: Fif­teen Sto­ries of Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

by Gary Ged­des

Her­itage House, 319 pages, $22.95

When Gary Ged­des re­turned from his re­search for his book Drink the Bit­ter Root: A Writer’s Search for Re­demp­tion and Heal­ing in Africa, he at­tended the 2012 Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion hear­ings in Vic­to­ria. There he met a Songhees el­der, named Joan Mor­ris, who had a story that would, in his words, “change my life and de­ter­mine my path for sev­eral years.” That path led to Medicine Un­bun­dled: A Jour­ney through the Mine­fields of Indige­nous Health Care.

The nu­cleus of the book is Mor­ris’s ac­count of her mother’s in­sti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion for seven­teen years at Bri­tish Columbia’s Nanaimo In­dian Hos­pi­tal, as well as Mor­ris’s own ex­pe­ri­ences of racism in the Cana­dian health sys­tem. After hear­ing her story, Ged­des trav­elled from his home on Thetis Is­land off the coast of Van­cou­ver Is­land to Vic­to­ria, Ed­mon­ton, White­horse, Yukon, Regina, and Ot­tawa to meet with other Indige­nous el­ders. The el­ders shared their ex­pe­ri­ences of var­i­ous In­dian hos­pi­tals in the coun­try as well as con­tem­po­rary

en­coun­ters with Cana­dian medicine.

In Medicine Un­bun­dled, Ged­des re­flects on his chang­ing un­der­stand­ing of Cana­dian iden­tity and his­tory, as well as his priv­i­lege and po­si­tion­al­ity. He crit­i­cally ex­am­ines the po­ets he ad­mired grow­ing up, such as Dun­can Camp­bell Scott, now rec­og­nized as the chief ar­chi­tect of the res­i­den­tial school sys­tem, and Earle Bir­ney, who said Canada had no “ghosts.” Ged­des also un­packs what he sees as some of Mar­garet At­wood’s era­sures of Indige­nous peo­ples and his­to­ries in her ear­lier works.

Ged­des con­nects these parts of main­stream Cana­dian cul­ture and lit­er­a­ture with seg­re­gated health care, the Six­ties Scoop, res­i­den­tial schools, and the re­set­tle­ment of the West. As he ar­gues, world views from the mid-1800s gave birth to the pa­ter­nal­is­tic poli­cies of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, and they con­tinue to im­pact both govern­ment ac­tions and what hap­pens in emer­gency rooms.

In Medicine Un­bun­dled, Ged­des notes that our na­tional nar­ra­tive doesn’t jive with geno­cide and racism, so ev­i­dence of this “is ei­ther ig­nored or dis­missed as the work of a few bad ap­ples.” But, as he and oth­ers are show­ing through this type of work, our his­tory in­volved not only rot­ten fruit but sys­temic racism.

An award-win­ning au­thor of po­etry, mem­oirs, trav­el­ogues, and lit­er­ary crit­i­cism, Ged­des weaves all these gen­res into a se­ries of “dis­patches,” as he calls them. The chap­ters zigzag through dif­fer­ent styles and forms, but the reader is re­warded with an im­pres­sion of hav­ing trav­elled a long dis­tance with­out hav­ing worked too hard. Ged­des’ ac­ces­si­ble style and thought­ful ru­mi­na­tions keep the nar­ra­tive flow­ing like a ca­noe pointed down­stream, even as it ed­dies in side pools from time to time.

New­com­ers to these top­ics — es­pe­cially ca­sual read­ers — will dis­cover a wel­come over­view, while sea­soned re­searchers will find am­ple food for thought, a thor­ough bib­li­og­ra­phy and notes, and an in­dex.

The oral his­to­ries from Indige­nous el­ders take up a smaller per­cent­age of the book than ex­pected, but they are still in­cred­i­bly pow­er­ful — and, at times, damn­ing — as they call out abuse, ne­glect, and cover-ups within church and govern­ment.

Even so, Ged­des moves be­yond ex­posé and polemic to self-re­flec­tion and a deeper un­der­stand­ing of him­self and Canada. As he says in his in­tro­duc­tion, these his­to­ries are like the sa­cred items found in a medicine bun­dle, and shar­ing them “pro­vides a way of re­leas­ing that hope and its heal­ing pow­ers.” Like Ged­des in this book, we all need to re­ceive these long-buried truths, let them chal­lenge us and our ideas, and find ways to heal through rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

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