Medicine Unbundled

A Journey through the Minefields of Indigenous Health Care

Book reviewed by Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail

July 27, 2017

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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