Former Ninette Sanatorium patients recall abuse suffered at hands of staff

Alex Harris was kept at a tuberculosis sanatorium in Ninette along with George Pelletier in their youth. (Colin Corneau/The Brandon Sun)

While the experiences of indigenous patients in Manitoba’s racially segregated tuberculosis treatment centres are less well-known than those of residential school survivors, they share many disturbing similarities. After connecting with researchers from The University of Winnipeg, I wrote a series of articles for The Brandon Sun aimed at shedding light the abuse suffered at Manitoba’s sanitoria.

I heard first-hand accounts from former patients George Pelletier and Alex Harris — featured in the story after the jump — and Catherine Mason. Many other patients, family members and sanatoria employees contacted the paper after the series was published.

George Pelletier and Alex Harris refer to themselves as the “forgotten children.”

Now in their 60s, the two Brandon residents have been trying to overcome the trauma they experienced as patients at the Ninette Sanatorium for most of their lives — experiences both men liken to that of residential school survivors.

“It was a robbery of our childhood because we were forced to be adults,” said Pelletier, who, along with his older brother and cousin, was sent to the sanatorium from his home near Minnedosa when he was five years old.

Harris, who is Swampy-Cree from Opaskwayak Cree Nation near The Pas, was 11 when he arrived in Ninette after being treated for tuberculosis at the Clearwater Lake Indian Hospital for an unknown length of time.

The infectious bacterial disease is something that has defined Harris’ family. Both of his parents were absent for nine years of his childhood while they underwent TB treatment.

Raised by his grandparents, Harris was diagnosed with the disease when he and his siblings were forced to attend a residential school.

“We were going to be transported to a residential school, (so) they took X-rays of us and that’s when they said I have TB,” Harris said, adding that two of his siblings and several cousins were also sent away for treatment. “They put us all on a bus and then we got transported all the way this way — I didn’t even know where we was going.”

During an emotional interview with The Brandon Sun, Harris and Pelletier described sexual and physical abuse at the hands of sanatorium staff members.

While at Clearwater Lake — which was a military barrack turned hospital near The Pas — Harris says he was molested by a male caretaker.

“I couldn’t tell anybody after that, the abuse I had to keep to myself,” he said. “I remember the cologne he was wearing and every time I meet someone with that cologne it just gives me a flashback right away.”

Harris also remembers an Inuit boy who passed away in the bed beside him following a medical procedure.

“They brought him back and his eyes were wide open and they were still open in the morning,” he said. “I had nightmares, nightmares have been part of me for years.”

At the Ninette Sanatorium, which was an hour’s drive south of Brandon, boys and girls were kept in separate wings and the adult patients stayed in a different building.

George Pelletier was kept at a tuberculosis sanatorium during his youth. (Colin Corneau/Brandon Sun)

Pelletier, who is Métis, recently connected with several former adult patients online who said they had no idea there was a children’s ward on the grounds.

“They didn’t know that there was abuse like this going on, where us children were,” he said. “They said they were treated so well in Ninette.”

One of Pelletier’s most vivid memories is of a male staff member who would line the boys up in a row and hit them one at a time.

“He used to hit us right on the head with his knuckles … We’d almost get knocked out,” he said.

Pelletier, whose epilepsy was undiagnosed at the time, blames the regular abuse for his seizures worsening while he was in treatment.

One of his happier memories is of a teacher in Minnedosa who would send Pelletier and his brother packages every time a holiday rolled around.

“It felt really good — especially for somebody not to forget from the outside,” he said.

Neither men know what medication they were given at the sanatorium, only that it was a cocktail of daily pills and needles.

“It seemed like it was just a test to see if it would work on tuberculosis or not,” Pelletier said, adding that he has tried to find his personal medical records from the sanatorium files with no luck.

Harris says he was forced to undergo a procedure to drain his lungs of built-up fluid without anesthesia.

“They tied me to a chair … and there was a tube there attached to a bottle, I remember that, and then I passed out,” he said.

Pelletier spent 18 months at the sanatorium, while Harris was interned there for nearly three years.

The men reunited recently when Harris moved into the same Brandon apartment complex that Pelletier was living in.

“I still remember the names of all the kids that were there,” Pelletier said. “Last fall, Alex moved in here and I started to think back and remembered there was an Alex Harris in Ninette with me, I wondered if it’s the same person.”

Harris says it took a while for the connection to sink in: “He started telling stories and I figured it out, because I used to see him getting hit.”

The two men — who both struggled with drug and alcohol addiction throughout their lives — have found solace in one another more than 50 years after being discharged from the sanatorium.

They’ve also decided to share their stories to bring awareness to the trauma experienced by indigenous children in sanatoria, which Pelletier says has been largely left out of the narrative of residential schools.

“The more you talk about it, the less it hurts because you’re sharing it with people who need to know, who did not know about it before,” he said.

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