Immigrants who arrived in Canada before 1900 faced many health risks, both in transit and upon arrival. Epidemics on crowded vessels caused thousands of deaths in quarantine stations that were expressly set up to handle huge inflows of refugees fleeing famine, unemployment or poverty overseas.* Once here, their occupations in farming, logging, mining, fishing, labouring, manufacturing and domestic service were often hazardous or debilitating. Moreover, the country's capacity to treat illness and injuries was primitive.
People relied more on home remedies and folk medicine than on doctors or nurses. Countless turned to patent medicines, quack cures or miraculous healers.** Scientific healing was gaining ground, but slowly. Fatalism, the ingrained belief that suffering and early death were inevitable, particularly among the uneducated and poorer classes, denied greatly needed support to reformers seeking state intervention in the realm of public health. Still, in 1910-1912, Toronto's water supply was chlorinated, and the annual mortality rate from typhus dropped from 44 per 100,000 to 15. This prompted pasteurization of milk, which led to another dramatic decrease. The picture was becoming clearer. Vaccination, the cause of a Montreal riot in 1889, was now used to combat smallpox and other common scourges.
Action was needed to destroy overcrowded and disease-ridden slums in the large cities. Clergy and social workers focused attention on the inhabitants' plight, especially immigrants who did not speak Canada's languages, and were trapped without education or an income.*** Post-war epidemics and thousands of disabled veterans added to the pressures on the country's hospitals and health workers. A massive financial investment was vital to build clinics, and train both doctors and nurses. The Depression of the 1930s and the Second World War forestalled such initiatives, but during the prosperous and scientifically advanced decades of 1950 to 1980, there was tremendous progress in medicine and community health across Canada.**** Today's immigrants, like all citizens, enjoy universal health care through legislation and taxpayer funding. Fatalistic views have been replaced by optimism and a sense of entitlement to a full, healthy life.
Medicine in New France
It is interesting to compare the main differences between medicine as practiced in New France and in Canada today. In 1667, half a century after the founding of Quebec, there were 19 practicing professionals in New France. By 1778, the number had grown to 104, of which 41 were French, 31 claimed to be British and 29 had come from Germany. However, over the course of those 111 years, the ratio of 49 doctors or surgeons for every 10,000 inhabitants fell to 7.2, a drastic decline.
Among those providing care and treatment were doctors, surgeons, nurses, apothecaries, midwives, bone setters, tooth pullers, miracle workers and sorcerers.***** Very early on, nuns opened a number of hôtels-Dieu to attend to the bodies and souls of those who were not expected to live long. Iroquois wars, poor harvests and epidemics spurred the rise of general hospitals in Quebec City, Montreal and Trois-Rivières. Administratively, the health system of earliest Canada was not too different from today's. Naturally, the science and technologies of medicine are vastly different today. Canadian health professionals can treat and cure, or ease, even the worst illnesses and injuries. Ironically, the nation has not resolved the problem of declining numbers of professionals vis-à-vis inhabitants.
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