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The Small Pox Pandemic That Devastated Canada

Small pox was another virus that affected Canada from coast to coast over the first centuries beginning in the 17th century.  Indigenous people had no immunity to small pox resulting in devastating infection spreads and death rates.  The indigenous people from every corner of Canada were affected.  History in Canada would have been written totally differently for the First Nations people if small pox had not affected populations in the first centuries of European settlement.    

Small pox is an infectious disease caused by the variola major virus.  Its symptoms include fever, headaches, vomiting, mouth sores and an extensive skin rash.  The disease was introduced to Eastern Canada and spread slowly west ward and wiped out large portions of the Indigenous populations over the next 200 years. 

There is too much history to cover to understand the devastating affect of the Small Pox pandemic upon the Indigenous populations,  which were decimated and reduced to a fraction of what they were prior to the pandemic.  The pandemic was often accompanied by famine and starvation.   There were advances in medicine such as quarantine and inoculation treatment but there was understandably superstition among many of the Indigenous populations against anything the white men proposed.  Many chose rather to use their traditional treatments for the sick and dying which actually further spread the disease by gathering around the sick and dying.  Most people  did not understand  the effective principles of quarantine that was learned from the Black Plague in Europe the century prior yet some  bands did and benefited greatly as I will reference later. 

Samuel Hearn’s diary and his story “A Journey to the Northern Ocean” have been transferred by Farley Mowatt into the book “The Coppermine Journey” which reveals some very interesting facts about early Canadian history and what the small pox plague did to the Indigenous populations of northern Canada during the late 1700’s.  The major fur trade station was then York Factory built in 1685 and Churchill trading post built in 1717 to accommodate the Hudson Bay fur trade with First Nations people of the North West at southern tip of the Hudson Bay.  When the First Nation people would come from all over the North West they would gather with people at the trading post who were carriers of the virus.   Samuel Hearn refers the Indigenous people of Canada’s northwest as the “Northern Indians” which are primarily the Dene or Chipewyan  people who dominated the northern tree area of Canada from the Hudson Bay to Rocky Mountain range.  Samuel Hearn reveals in his records that at least 90 percent of the “Northern Indian” population were wiped out by the Small Pox plague during his time of recording their history. 

There were some challenges having the Cree of the southern bush country of central Canada come to the same Fort to trade furs as the Northern Dene and Cree were enemies. They finally were able to achieve temporary peace agreements to accommodate the fur trade only to discover that this  further spread the deadly virus from band to band, both northern and southern groups of Indigenous populations suffered greatly for the next century from the plague. If you have any interest in this particular Canadian time of history I would urge you to obtain a copy of the “Copper Mine Journey” by Farley Mowatt.  It reveals  what intersting insights to those beginning days of Canada’s during the 1700’s.  Most Canadians do not realize that the Fur Trade was advancing swiftly across the North West during the 1700’s and did so for 150 years before any serious settlements started in the West. The fur trade and the many missionaries who came with them is the reason we are here today. 

The part of the Small Pox pandemic that is very interesting is it also provided great opportunities for gospel preaching missionaries to bring the message of hope and salvation to thousands of Indigenous people when there was devastation and death everywhere.  The Catholic missionaries were the first group to come with the European fur trade movement.  Following them were the Methodist circuit riding missionaries or also known as the “Saddle Bag Preachers’ who would not live in the Forts but actually live among the Indigenous people and brought significant reforms for good between the tribes.   They instructed them in the principles of “quarantine” and were able to bring the advancement of medical discoveries to the Indigenous populations.  The Presbyterian and Baptist missionaries followed the example of the Methodists and were also effective in reaching out to the Indigenous populations with the gospel but also to bring them quarantine principles and the vaccines for small pox as they were discovered and developed in the 1800’s.  

One example of this was in Prince Albert with Presbyterian missionary and founder of the town of Prince Albert, Reverend James Nesbit.  Nesbit brought the small pox vaccine which saved many lives through his medical vaccine kits. While tribes were getting wiped out in the 1870’s wherever a tribe was able to have a missionary bring the vaccine they would miraculously be spared.  This act of charity toward the  people by the missionaries won them respect and admiration from the local bands.  Chief Mistawasis (Big Child) and his band were most helped by the missionary Nesbit with his vaccine program.  Reverend Nesbit would make the vaccine inventory last longer and help more people by something he did with the vaccine to increase the quantity.  A secret he took with him to his grave. He never shared it as far as is known but all the Indigenous people in the area knew it was helping them and it increased their love, respect and loyalty for Rev. Nesbit.  

The other band of  people in our area who were really helped during the Small Pox pandemic was the Sandy Lake band under the leadership of Chief Ahtahkakoop (Star Blanket).  Both Chief Mistawasis and Chief Ahtahkakoop were close friends and had made the difficult choice to learn and follow the principles of Christianity from the white men who were teaching it.  Both of the Chiefs tried to adhere and follow these new principles of Christian leadership after both of them made personal decisions to accept, believe and learn the Bible.    They knew the way they had known was forever changed and  to survive needed to adjust to a new way of life.  The love and sincerity of the missionaries had an impact along with the vaccine they received proved to  spare them from the devastating consequences so many of the other bands were suffering.  

The lesson we learn from History: 

The native people were devastated by the little virus known as Small Pox that the White man brought with them. The population demographic today would be totally different if there had been no small pox in the equation. Small pox also devastated large portions of the White populations but most of them had built up immunity from the virus over time.  However, when new outbreaks would occur groups of white settlers would be devastated again and again until vaccine was available.  

Second, we learn there are times in life we need to have the wisdom to know it is time to adjust the way we do things like Chief Ahtakoohkoop and Chief Mistawasis did.  It paid off in huge dividends for them and their respective bands.   We can also learn from these two wise Chiefs  that they saw the wisdom in following Christ and encouraged their people to do the same.   The wisdom book of the Bible makes this statement, Proverbs 9:10  The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding.  

In the days ahead for us facing our own pandemic challenges is going to require some changes and adjustments  to the way we do things.  I hope we will learn and follow the example of these two wise Chiefs  to embrace and adjust to a the better way of life.   Small pox was eventually was declared  totally eradicated in the 1970’s  by the World Health Organization through global vaccinations programs.  It gives us hope that someday we will also have the same good news with a vaccine for Covid 19 when it is totally eradicated. 

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