The Devil at the Door

Prior to European contact, Indigenous people suffered from a range of illnesses and infectious diseases. These included bacterial infections and rare incidents of tuberculosis. Spiritual healers had an extensive knowledge of medicinal plants, which were part of an holistic approach to treatment. It wasn’t until the Europeans arrived with new viruses and infections that catastrophe was unleashed on the continent. Even the best natural cures could not give the First Nations the anti-bodies they needed to face the invaders.

In Quebec in 1535, Jacques Cartier realized that some Iroquois were falling ill. It was likely smallpox, which did not affect Cartier’s own men. Other diseases were introduced to Canada over the next 300 years, including typhus in 1659, yellow fever in 1710, and cholera in 1832. In 1864 roughly 1200 indigenous people in the Saskatchewan district were killed by scarlet fever and measles.

Some accounts of inoculation against smallpox come from China as early as the 1500s. They also practiced variolation, by smearing material from smallpox sores on a cut or scratch in the skin or inhaling it to make the subject immune. Although the first smallpox vaccine was developed by Edward Jenner in England in 1798, the wilderness of Canada did not make it easy to share vaccine or even to inoculate from one person to another.

The Chinese Laundry Riot

In the summer of 1892, fear and racism resulted in unrest in Calgary.

“Reports regarding the existence of small pox in Calgary have been much exaggerated. The disease broke out some time ago in a Chinese laundry. When its existence was known the authorities took active measures, at once, burned the laundry and quarantined the sick Chinamen outside the town, north of the Bow, under police guard.”
–Edmonton Bulletin – July 14, 1892

Accusing the Chinese of keeping the disease a secret, a mob of over 300 men attacked all the laundries in town. They smashed windows, destroyed property and looted the businesses. The mob also assaulted some of the Chinese residents, causing the community to turn to the Northwest Mounted Police and church leaders for protection. At the end of August, after the anger had subsided, several members of the clergy wrote a joint letter to the mayor and council asking if anyone would be held accountable for the raid. The Chinese community was left wondering too.