An Error in Judgement: The Politics of Medical Care in an Indian / White Community


281 pages
Contains Photos, Bibliography
ISBN 0-88922-246-0
DDC 362





Reviewed by James S. Frideres

J.S. Frideres is Associate Dean (Research) of the Faculty of Social
Sciences at the University of Calgary and co-author of Prairie


In the late 1970s a native child died in the town of Alert Bay, British Columbia. While this event was not unusual particularly in a community with a large native population, the parents and friends of the dead girl took umbrage at this seemingly common event and began a concerted challenge against the British Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, provincial and federal ministries of health, and the local medical establishment. This story is an account of what happens when the health care system is challenged and placed under scrutiny. Why this particular death was used as the stimulus for the challenge was never made clear.

The author, a non-native married to an Indian (which made her legally Indian), lived in the community and was a major actor in the scenario. The book chronicles the events over the year starting with the day the young girl died and ending with the most recent public inquiry. The data for the book is based on interviews with local people (Indian and non-Indian), Indian Affairs officials, provincial authorities, and public records such as newspapers and transcripts from public hearings.

The book begins with a description of the events leading up to the death of the young Indian girl. It also provides the reader with a brief glimpse of the initial community response, both Native and non-Native, to the death. This is followed by a general historical discussion of Native-white relations in Canada and in Alert Bay specifically over the past century. The author concludes that there has not been an evolution in the relationship between Natives and non-Natives as the structure of colonization has not altered in basic form. The book moves on to the specifics of the case study. Here the author documents the inquest that was held into the death, the testimonies and the responses given by such various stake-holders as Indians and provincial authorities. This section of the book also tries to provide a description of how this event influenced the community. Unfortunately, this is the weakest part of the book as little evidence is presented to demonstrate the “strained” relations between the Indian and non-Indian community. The author also tries to place the event within the legal and political context of Indian control by the federal and provincial governments. The final section of the book deals with the federal inquiry which was held a year after the death.

There is very little analysis in the book since it is a descriptive account of a case study. However, the limited analytical framework that does exist follows a model which assumes that two ethnic groups (Natives and non-Natives) are locked in a struggle over scarce goods. I make no judgement as to the correctness of such a model, but it must be pointed out that Speck’s descriptions of the events are based upon these assumptions and follow what might be called a conflict model.

In the end, the author portrays a social systern that appears benign in its influence on Native people but is oppressive by its very structure. In addition, it shows how the system reacts when the status quo is challenged. The author shows how those segments of society, when challenged, proceed to neutralize any actions taken by the challengers. In short, as I compared the 1978 death rate, suicide rate, and unemployment rate of Natives in Alert Bay to the 1988 rate, I found little change. In summary, it becomes clear that change will occur only if all the stake-holders agree to work in a concerted fashion. Clearly this has not taken place.


Speck, Dara Culhane, “An Error in Judgement: The Politics of Medical Care in an Indian / White Community,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed April 21, 2024,