25th Trillium Award

On Writing, with Allan Sherwin

 
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Allan Sherwin

It is difficult enough to get a medical degree in the best circumstances, but for Peter E. Jones, who in 1866 was one of the first status Indians to get such a degree in Canada, the odds against success must have seemed immense. Now Allan Sherwin has brought much-deserved attention to this story with his new book, Bridging Two Peoples: Chief Peter E. Jones, 1843–1909 (WLU Press). Today, Allan talks to Open Book about Jones, and how he was not just a breaker of barriers, but also a builder of bridges, who used his medical skill to heal wounds far deeper than the skin.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Bridging Two Peoples.

Allan Sherwin:

Bridging Two Peoples tells the story of Canada’s first licensed Aboriginal physician. In 1869 he opened a clinic in the non-Native community of Hagersville, Ontario. He was then appointed head chief and band doctor of the nearby Ojibwe reserve. Elected secretary to the Grand Indian Council of Ontario Jones became a bridge between peoples, conveying the chiefs’ concerns to his political mentor Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, most importantly during consultations on the Indian Act. When Prime Minister Macdonald granted First Nations voting rights Jones supported his efforts by publishing Canada’s first Aboriginal newspaper.
 
The third son of an Ojibwe missionary and his English wife, Jones overcame poliomyelitis to pursue his education. Appointed a Federal Indian Agent, a post hitherto reserved for non-Natives, Jones promoted education and enforced public health measures on his reserve. But there was little he could do to stem the ravages of tuberculosis that cemetery records show claimed upwards of forty per cent of the band.
 
The Jones family included Native and non-Native members who treated each other equally. Jones’s Ojibwe grandmother is now honoured for helping survey the province of Ontario, his mother published prizewinning books and his wife was an early feminist. The appendix describes how Aboriginal grandmothers used herbal medicines and crafted surgical appliances from birchbark.

OB:

What audience are you hoping to reach with this book?

AS:

The life of Dr. Jones is an interesting and inspiring story of a polio victim who through hard work and determination overcame his disability and racial prejudice to become a physician, writer, political leader, a wonderful son and husband. His story will attract the general public, especially indigenous peoples and students of Native studies, Canadian history and the history of medicine. The First Nations courageously adjusted their lifestyles to deal with the massive influx of European newcomers who took over their lands. During the decade required to complete my book, I witnessed the continued progress of the First Nations and admired their efforts to encourage students by means of mentoring programs and achievement awards.

OB:

What was the most inspiring thing you learned in your research for Bridging Two Peoples?

AS:

The unexpected arrival of the first three Native physicians engendered new hope in the disillusioned band chiefs attending a Grand Indian Council called so they could discuss the 1876 Indian Act which stripped chiefs of their traditional powers. The delegates rose to cheer doctors Jones, Oronhyatekha and Bomberry, and Jones was elected permanent secretary to the Council. I want Aboriginal students to realize the pride and excitement they will also generate among their communities by completing their education. All three physicians described in my book were available whenever they were needed, returning frequently to their reserves. They offered support for education, encouraging building schools and teaching Native languages.

OB:

Tell us about your experience working in a First Nations clinic. How did it compare with other clinics you’ve worked at?

AS:

In the 1980s our hospital’s family physicians staffed an emergency clinic at a nearby First Nations Reserve and referred neurological patients to my twice-weekly clinic. The majority of these were seniors who, like other Canadians, had developed common often age-related illnesses. To my dismay I found that diabetes was much more common in patients from the reserve and I was kept busy diagnosing and treating patients with peripheral neuropathy, which produces numbness and pain in the lower extremities. In researching my book I was surprised to learn that the First Nations were free of diabetes when the Europeans first arrived; in fact I only found one diabetic, a 35-year-old woman among Dr. Jones’s patients. In the 19th century his band supplemented their diet of corn bread and pork with fish, game, wild rice, roots and berries. Rather suddenly, however, just prior to the Second World War, diabetes made its appearance and in time became ever more prevalent to become a major health problem. University researchers then partnered with our First Nations clinic and developed improved methods of prevention and treatment.

OB:

The health conditions on many First Nations reserves are still far below acceptable standards. Do you have any ideas about how we can address this problem?

AS:

There is another bridge in my book, the one over which federal government funds are supposed to cross so they can be used to provide adequate housing on reserves. The virtual epidemic of tuberculosis on Jones’s reserve was aggravated by extended families living in single-room, poorly ventilated cabins heated by a wood stove that exposed the inhabitants, especially women and children, to toxic fumes. The tragedy is that even today similar appalling housing conditions exist on many northern reserves. The incidence of tuberculosis is nine times higher in First Nations than in the total population, with higher rates for on-reserve as opposed to off-reserve populations. Despite the enormous cost, government and Aboriginal leaders and officials must work together to address this problem.

OB:

How does the process of writing a book compare to the process of working in a research laboratory? Did anything you learned as a medical researcher help you as a writer?

AS:

Writing an application for a research grant resembles writing a book, but there are interesting differences. Researchers know what they expect to find after reviewing the literature and by designing appropriate experiments are often able to predict the outcome. Writers of non-fiction, however, depend on their characters to reveal motives and actions and thus are less likely to be able to predict future events in advance. Writing non-fiction is an exciting journey revealing many unexpected angles.

OB:

What‘s next for you?

AS:

I was honoured by an invitation to present Bridging Two Peoples to a cultural conference entitled “Who are the Mississaugas?” It was held in the auditorium of the reserve’s modern elementary school. When I realized there were students seated in the front rows, I threw away my prepared text and sat down in front of the children and announced that I was going to speak to them rather than the adults. I would tell them about a little boy named Peter who had weak legs and walked with crutches. He exercised every day and when he was able to walk unaided decided to become a doctor and travelled on his own to Toronto and attended university. The principal called for questions and a seventh-grader rose, standing as tall as possible. She asked, “how old was Peter when he decided to become a doctor?” Tears came to my eyes as I answered, “I can truthfully say, just about your age.”
 
My reference material includes the records of early Aboriginal physicians, chiefs and women healers who knew how to take charge. I plan to organize my files and make them available to younger authors. The newly appointed editor and advisory board of the Indigenous Study Series of Wilfred Laurier University Press welcome manuscripts by Aboriginal scholars who are able to draw upon their own Indigenous intellectual traditions.

Allan Sherwin is a professor emeritus of neurology at McGill University, where he taught and practised clinical neurology. His research laboratory helped develop techniques to measure anticonvulsant drugs that greatly improved the therapy of epilepsy. Allan Sherwin’s clinical practice included work at a clinic responsible for the health of a First Nations community, which led to an appreciation of Indigenous traditions.

For more information about Bridging Two Peoples please visit the Wilfrid Laurier University Press website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

1 comment

I find it curious that it is Peter E's grandmother given credit for surveying Ontario - rather than her husband - Augustus George Jones who was chief surveyor for Lord Simcoe. While your article does not preclude this, it is curious that this fact is left out.

as for the health of First Nations peoples - perhaps the allocation of lard to the bands had something to do with their health problems - I saw my first can of lard out at Small Boy Camp - and just looking at it sickened my stomach - it was their staple food at the time and I think to this day.

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