The cancer of settler colonialism: Jennifer Fraser, ‘The Cold War on Cancer: Inuit and the Canadian Epidemiological Imagination’, PhD dissertation, University of Toronto, 2022


Abstract: From the early twentieth century to the present day, health professionals have commented on the exceptional nature of Inuit cancer patterns. Over the past hundred years, Inuit have been thought to possess a unique distribution of disease—characterized, at different points, by higherthan average rates of lung, cervical and salivary gland cancer, lower than average rates of breast cancer, and substantial and growing rates of the disease overall. This thesis explores why Inuit cancer patterns have been characterized in this way and discusses their contemporary implications for Inuit health. This project argues that past and current representations of Inuit cancer incidence evolved in tandem with geographic pathology—a branch of cancer research (and predecessor of cancer epidemiology) that posited that examining the cancer rates of colonial populations could help shed light on the disease’s underlying causes. I examine how rising scientific internationalism, increased Arctic militarization, hierarchical discourses of civilization and human development, and settler policies of protectionism, segregation, assimilation, and experimentation not only allowed geographic pathology to take hold in Canada, but also transformed Inuit Nunangat into an important site in the national fight against the disease. Over the course of six-case studies, I show how Inuit served as central nodes and excluded margins of cancer knowledge production. Canadian researchers used Inuit as resources for generating etiological hypotheses and developing new diagnostic imaging devices and screening techniques. However, most of these medical insights and interventions were exported to southern Canadian urban centres—leaving Inuit to contend with the still-unfolding aftermaths of geographic pathology and its relationship to colonial rule’s historical construction, and attempted elimination, of otherness. To assess the evolution and ramifications of Arctic cancer epidemiology, this thesis adopts an interdisciplinary approach, juxtaposing archival materials with contemporary accounts centered on Indigenous social actors. Oscillating between different methods, sources, and temporalities reveals how historical events resurface within contemporary conditions. It also contributes to growing scholarly interest in how cancer is understood and managed in the context of colonial and post-colonial relations of power and allows us to reflect on how settler-colonial structures produce and continue to pervade cancer service delivery in northern settings.

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