Daughter of former Nanaimo Indian Hospital patient speaks out

Denise Titian, January 27, 2020

June Watts spent almost a decade in the Nanaimo Indian Hospital as a child, recounts her daughter, Gail Peterson Gus, a Tseshaht woman that helped care for her ailing mother while still a child. (Submitted photo)

Port Alberni, BC — 

“My mom spent one week shy of 10 years in Nanaimo Indian Hospital,” said Gail Peterson Gus, a Tseshaht woman that helped care for her ailing mother while still a child. 

June Watts was born in 1933 and Gail says her mother spent her first seven years starving in Alberni Indian Residential School before she got sick with TB and was transferred to Nanaimo Indian Hospital. 

June eventually married a longshoreman name Sidney Peterson and gave birth to her only child, Gail.

She was always sickly but never complained, Gail told Ha-Shilth-Sa. June had a lung removed at NIH and had the scar to prove it. 

“I always described it as a bad pumpkin carving,” said Peterson-Gus. 

She recalled seeing a woman with a similar scar getting changed at the swimming pool dressing room. A curious child, Peterson-Gus asked the woman if she had a lung removed. The woman replied, yes, she did, many years before.

“It was a beautiful scar, clean and sharp,” Gus recalled. By comparison, June’s scar, according to Peterson-Gus was big, ugly – a butchered piece of work.

When Peterson-Gus was age five, her mother was home in bed, sick, trembling with a fever. 

“My dad gave me a bowl of ice water and a cloth and I nursed her,” she remembered. 

Peterson-Gus said she spent most of her childhood in the lobby of the old West Coast General Hospital. Kids under age 16 were not allowed in the hospital rooms, so Gus would wait in the lobby while her father visited her mother. She recalls that they received many calls over the years, telling them that their mother wouldn’t make it through the night and they would rush to the hospital to be by her side.

“I am thankful to Dr. Harry Webster for keeping her alive long enough to become a mother,” said Peterson-Gus. 
On March 6, 1992, June passed away at the age of 58. 

“She starved at residential school and had her lung cut out and she died,” said Peterson-Gus, adding that there is no justice and no validation because she passed away before the compensation cut-off dates for Indian hospital and residential school class action lawsuits.

Gus described intergenerational issues that followed; problems that stemmed from the long absences of her parents and the reversal of roles as Peterson-Gus became a young care giver. She talked about being becoming a teen mother, followed by addictions in the family and the unbearable loss of a child through suicide. 

“There’s really no help, no intergenerational help – just Band-Aids,” said Peterson-Gus. 

Gus is caring for her grandchildren after her son’s death and works to support them. 

“I would like to see a family trauma program that we could go to without having to leave our jobs,” said Peterson-Gus. 

"I need help, my grandchildren need help, but I still have a mortgage and bills to pay,” she added. “I am living the legacy of our ancestor’s pain and it breaks my heart.”

As the child of someone who was admitted to an Indian hospital, Peterson-Gus may be included as a member in the Indian Hospital Class Action lawsuit.