Prior to European contact, Indigenous people suffered from a range of illnesses and infectious diseases. These included bacterial infections and rare incidents of tuberculosis. Spiritual healers had an extensive knowledge of medicinal plants, which were part of an holistic approach to treatment. It wasn’t until the Europeans arrived with new viruses and infections that catastrophe was unleashed on the continent. Even the best natural cures could not give the First Nations the anti-bodies they needed to face the invaders.
In Quebec in 1535, Jacques Cartier realized that some Iroquois were falling ill. It was likely smallpox, which did not affect Cartier’s own men. Other diseases were introduced to Canada over the next 300 years, including typhus in 1659, yellow fever in 1710, and cholera in 1832. In 1864 roughly 1200 indigenous people in the Saskatchewan district were killed by scarlet fever and measles.
Some accounts of inoculation against smallpox come from China as early as the 1500s. They also practiced variolation, by smearing material from smallpox sores on a cut or scratch in the skin or inhaling it to make the subject immune. Although the first smallpox vaccine was developed by Edward Jenner in England in 1798, the wilderness of Canada did not make it easy to share vaccine or even to inoculate from one person to another.