The duality of Peter E. Jones

A Queen's graduate and the first Indigenous physician of Canada

 

It’s been a century and a half since The Indian Medicine-Man thesis was written, by Student No. 596. It’s not known when it was lost, but sometime between 1866 and now, it disappeared.
 
It’s author, Dr. Peter Edmund Jones was the first Indigenous physician — in the sense of a licensed doctor — in North America. He was also a Queen’s graduate, but his name and student number among the Student Registrar’s records are the only record of Jones’s time at Queen’s in the 1860s. 
 
Jones’ story began on October 30, 1843, in London Upper Canada where he was born. His father, Reverend Peter Jones, was an Ojibwe Methodist preacher. Jones, a quarter Aboriginal, also received his father’s Indigenous name: Kahkewaquonaby, “the waving plume.” 
 
His mother, Eliza Field, was a British woman from an affluent family. The two met when Rev. Jones was touring England, looking for funding to go towards Methodist missions and spreading Christianity to Aboriginal communities in North America.
 
A man with evangelical goals, the senior Jones intended to build a vocational school for Aboriginal youth. In his book about the younger Jones’ life, Bridging Two Peoples, Allan Sherwin writes that the senior Jones’ efforts would eventually help to build one of the first residential schools in North America.
 
Jones viewed his father as a hero, but he died when Jones was only 12 years old, spurring his son’s choice to work in the Indigenous community, despite growing up in a non-Indigenous part of the city. 
 
After a tumultuous bout of polio left him on crutches, Sherwin writes, the unconventional couple believed that education would be the key to their son’s success. They arranged for a governess to aid him 
in his education before he attended the Brantford Grammar School and eventually, university. 
 
First studying at the Toronto School of Medicine, Jones only lasted there until 1864. At this point, he transferred for unknown reasons — although Sherwin suggests it was because of finances — to Queen’s College in Kingston.
The medical school at Queen’s was established in 1855, and new medical students swamped the faculty’s four professors. Jones was the only self-identifying Indigenous student in his class.
 
At the time, daily chapel attendance was mandatory at Queen’s as a way to track student wellness. Aside from chapel attendance, a medical education in the 1860s consisted of chemistry, laboratory demonstrations, natural history, as well as accompanying a surgeon on their rounds at Kingston General Hospital.
 
On campus, Jones had a foot in two different worlds, a state which is perhaps best indicated by the thesis he submitted in his second and final year of his medical degree, entitled The Indian Medicine-Man. The work was inspired by his father’s book, History of the Ojebway Indians: With Especial Reference to Their Conversion to Christianity.
 
In the spring of 1866 — a year before the Canadian Confederation — Jones earned his medical doctorate degree, and became the first known British North American status-Aboriginal to do so. 
 
Jones also retained his self-identification as an Indigenous person once becoming licensed as a doctor. Upon graduation, Jones asked that his Indigenous name, Kahkewaquonaby, be put on the graduation list. 
 
It wasn’t until 2012 with Sherwin’s book that Jones’ status as the first Aboriginal physician in North America was solidified. He had earned his M.D. one year before Oronhyatekha — a Native American Mohawk who completed his degree at the University of Toronto, and was previously known as the first Native medical doctor.
 
Jones’ story doesn’t end with becoming a historical first. After graduating, he went on to fight for Indigenous rights, as he saw them at the time. 
 
Oronhyatekha is known as the first Aboriginal Oxford scholar, as well as being an outspoken activist of women’s suffrage. For Jones, an interest in activism honed in on the Aboriginal community that he deeply identified with.
Like his father, Jones married an English woman, Charlotte Dixon. After graduating, he had a difficult time securing patients in Brantford where the couple now lived due to the racism they faced, so the couple eventually found a home in Hagersville while Jones was able to practice medicine in Mississauga of New Credit.
 
Jones was elected as Chief of the Mississauga Ojibway twice, but the community that Jones had accepted didn’t always accept him. After all, Jones was a man from two worlds. For instance, Jones’s own cousin had unsuccessfully campaigned to rid Jones of his status of the reserve doctor while the Toronto Globe in 1885 referred to him as “an almost full-blooded white.”
 
Jones devoted his time serving as a political organizer for Sir John A. Macdonald and was a part of the consultation on the Electoral Franchise Act MacDonald passed in 1885, which gave “Indian-status” men in Eastern Canada voting rights without losing their status.
 
In a letter dated May 30, 1885, Jones wrote to MacDonald: “My Dear Sir John, I should have written to you some time ago to thank you for making the Indian a person in the Franchise Bill. 
 
Other affairs, however, have prevented me from performing my duty. I now thank you on the part of the memory of my father and on the part of myself, as for many years we advocated and urged this step as the one most likely to elevate the aborigines to the position more approaching the whites.”
 
Jones also went on to create The Indian, the first newspaper explicitly campaigning for Indigenous rights in Canada. The paper was unable to grow as Jones had intended it would, only publishing 24 issues 
before folding due to its inability to secure funding or maintain a constant audience.
 
In 1886, the Liberal government had been elected in and Jones was removed as an Indian agent. According to Sherwin, Jones had also since been removed as the band physician and his wife had left him. As a result, Jones developed a heavy alcohol addiction.
 
Jones then kept a small farm and medical practice in Hagersville until he eventually passed away from cancer in 1909.
 
“Even though prejudice ran high in his day, Jones was well liked, perhaps thanks to his forthright, confident, friendly manner, his intelligence, and his mastery of chess, which was popular at the time,” wrote Lindy Mechefske in her Queen’s Alumni Review article, The Indian Medicine Man in 2013. 
 
Jones was more than just a statistical first. He had eclectic interests that ranged from being regarded as an outstanding chess player to an amateur taxidermist and archaeologist, aside from his contributions to medical science. 
 
No doubt, Queen’s has changed in the 150 years since Jones sat in a classroom on Queen’s grounds. Resources like the Four Directions Aboriginal Centre have become accessible for Indigenous students and before University administrative meeting, recognition is given that the land is Indigenous —  but how much has it changed? 
 
Less than 10 per cent of Indigenous people in Canada have earned a university degree according to the most recent Statistics Canada data, in comparison with upwards of 60 per cent of non-Indigenous people who’ve obtained a post-secondary degree.
 
In 2014, roughly 1 per cent of the entering undergraduate class at Queen’s self-identified as Indigenous in proportion to 4.3 per cent of the Canadian population identifying as Indigenous.
 
For Jones, identity wasn’t a dichotomy.
 
For those who look closely enough, Jones can be remembered as a man who connected two worlds and thrived in both.

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