What would you sell – or trade - if you needed to pay for your own (or your loved one’s) health care? Chickens, eggs, milk, cattle – or maybe even precious farmland?
How would your life change if we didn’t have the health care system we have now?
Saskatchewan launched Canada’s first health care program in 1957 – thanks to Tommy Douglas – but my own home province of Manitoba did not follow suit until 1969*. That was a full twelve years later, and decades after my family might have benefited, since both of my paternal Galician grandparents suffered from serious medical conditions at the end of their lives.
Canadians needing medical care had to pay for it themselves.
Similarly, most doctors went unpaid (or underpaid), and practiced under difficult conditions, travelling by horse and buggy/sleigh on poor roads and often terrible weather.
I love reading first-person accounts of early Canadians and in the book, “Life Before Medicare: Canadian Experiences” (1995), the authors recorded many first-hand experiences of Canadians affected by lack of healthcare. Many stories were shocking but the core messages were always consistent – no money to pay usually meant no care.
Typically, Canadians were asked on the hospital steps how they expected to pay before they (or their loved ones) were admitted for care.
Ukrainians almost never visited doctors before coming to Canada, instead they relied on traditional medicines and home remedies passed down for generations. Community care providers within most Ukrainian villages included bonesetters (who could also pull teeth), midwives, and spiritual healers.
The first time most Ukrainians were examined by a trained doctor would have occurred during immigration inspection after they crossed the Atlantic. Did those inspections seem odd or uncomfortable? Entry into Canada required immigrants to be free of major health problems: anyone deemed unfit would be sent back to Eastern Europe on the next ship back.
After Ukrainians settled in Canada, they continued to use traditional treatments since many simply did not have access to doctors (ie. due to distance from villages or towns), or they couldn’t afford to pay. Doctors were consulted as a last resort.
Michael Mucz’s book “Baba’s Kitchen Remedies,” (2012) outlines many traditional Ukrainian remedies, his research taking place primarily in east central Alberta. Mucz interviewed more than 200 Ukrainians for his incredible book.
My father was born at home on the farm in spring 1930, his birth registered a few weeks later. Did a relative or neighbor assist with his birth? He sometimes spoke of my grandmother’s use of home remedies such as mustard plasters and garlic worn around the neck to cure colds. And of course, she made home brew in her kitchen, an important Ukrainian medicinal used for a wide variety of afflictions.
Sometimes, traditional remedies even worked where conventional medicine did not (Mucz, 2012).
My grandfather, Wasyl Nykoluk, suffered from stomach and oral cancer for many years until he finally succumbed to his illnesses in 1947 (at age 57), after experiencing many years of physical pain. His death certificate states that his last 23 days on this earth were spent in the St. Rose Hospital.
I suspect that my grandfather’s illnesses were aggravated by the nine-year separation my grandparents endured during and after WWI. Those years must have been highly stressful.
How much had his lengthy hospital stay cost my grandparents?
My grandmother, Anne Nykoluk, developed diabetes in her later years and spent her last three months in Portage La Prairie, were she received medical attention in her final days. She died in 1957 at age 65.
My father often talked about those difficult years, and the need to sell farmland to pay for medical services.
My grandmother needed to assume many of the heavy farm chores, along with my father (then in his early teens), after my grandfather became too ill to work on their farm. My father attained Grade 8, after which he needed to quit school to help his family operate the farm.
They'd all felt that they’d no other choice.
Lack of basic Medicare meant loss of education opportunities for my father, and loss of hard-earned farm assets, sold to pay for health care. I am certain that one of Tommy Douglas’ arguments for Medicare was that it would reduce hardship and suffering for families and improve economic productivity on the prairies and Canada. It would also improve the livelihoods of doctors and other health care providers.
“The inescapable fact is that when we build a society based on greed, selfishness, and ruthless competition, the fruits we can expect to reap are economic insecurity at home and international discord abroad.”
My family’s situation certainly was not unique. What losses had other Canadian families endured because of lack of basic health care, as we know it today?
What would you sell or trade to ease the pain of your loved ones?
For more stories about my grandparents’ early life and Ukrainian remedies, you can read my historical fiction novel Heart Stones: A Ukrainian Immigration Story of Love and Hope, it is based on my grandparent’s prolonged and difficult immigration to Manitoba during and after WWI. It was published in early 2023.
Visit my website for more details about Heart Stones, read reviews and check out my Bookstore page, listen to recent CBC radio interviews, read about my offerings for book clubs, and check out my other blog posts. While there, you can download Chapter One from my book, it’s absolutely free!
Follow my author journey and read about other books on my Facebook account:
Heeney, Helen. 1995. Life Before Medicare: Canadian Experiences. The Stories Project. Ontario Coalition of Senior Citizens Organizations. Toronto, Ontario.
*Manitoba Medical Service Foundation History. Downloaded October 22nd , 2023 from: http://www.mmsf.ca/about_us.html
Mucz, M. 2012. Baba’s Kitchen Medicines – Folk Remedies of Ukrainian Settlers in Western Canada. Edmonton, Alberta. The University of Alberta Press.