Mattawa now has a comprehensive history of its hospital and nursing home thanks to the efforts of Greg Humbert. Entitled the Mattawa Health Hub, Humbert documents the story of health care in the region from the time Colin Rankin of the Hudson’s Bay Company noted in an 1849 letter that “we sport our own doctor as well as the more civilized regions.”
“The old gentleman has a tolerable share of practice,” treating Mattawa residents, Rankin noted. Humbert details how soon after, Mattawa would have its first hospital, operated mainly by members of the Grey Nuns of the Cross who endured travelling “primitive” roads to arrive in the village from Ottawa.
Much has changed over the past century, and Humbert tells the story in meticulous detail. Mattawa’s hospital is “the oldest hospital in Northern Ontario,” operational since 1878. To celebrate the hospital’s centennial, a booklet was published outlining its history in 1978, and Humbert used this as a source for his own research, while drawing from many other documents to fill in the gaps, namely, what occurred in the past forty years.
“So much has happened since” the centennial, Humbert said. “The people of Mattawa are a wonderful people, very proud of their community and their health care services” and “they’ve done an amazing amount of work over the past 20 years to build a new hospital.”
Humbert would know, as he served on the Mattawa Hospital Board for nine years, and still chairs the ethics committee. With the new hospital—a building promised for 25 years, “they never gave up on it,”—and the senior’s home located next door, “they really created a health hub.”
“It’s an amazing structure, and I think a model for rural communities for how to care for local people,” Humbert said. “Mattawa has a great desire to care for their people close to home, and they make sure that it happens.”
Not surprisingly given the subject matter, the Mattawa Museum has posted Humbert’s history on its website. Curator Judy Toupin said it’s been such a popular read that the museum is “looking at getting it printed in hard copy” as there have been so many requests.
He’s happy the history has been well-received. “I really got to love Mattawa over the years I was on their board,” he said, adding that he grew up in North Bay and currently resides just north of Sturgeon Falls in Crystal Falls, a village made popular these past months when a bison herd escaped a local ranch.
This isn’t the first hospital history composed by Humbert. He’s written a few including histories of hospitals in Elliot Lake, Blind River, and in Little Current, places “that never had books written about them.” So he did.
Preserving hospital history “has become my passion,” Humbert said, and admits he can’t drive through a new town without checking out their hospital. It may seem a “quirky passion, but more and more people are recognizing the value of it.”
Humbert retired in 2007, which allowed more time to indulge in his research and writing. However, it was working for the Catholic Health Alliance of Canada that ignited his interest in preserving the history of Catholic hospitals.
Working for the Alliance, he made many connections to hospitals from all over Canada, and having “a penchant for history and archives,” Humbert began collecting histories of these institutions. Upon retirement, he embarked on what was to become a 15-year project, and one that continues to this day.
He realized his large collection of documents and histories was not benefiting many gathering dust on his shelf, so he began digitizing them, with the goal of posting around 100 histories or so. As of today, “the number of books online is close to 600,” he said.
This preservation work is undertaken purely for the love of it. He scans each page and uploads the final document as a digital file so others can learn of these chapters in Canada’s history.
To cut down on storage and clutter—“my office is messy,” he joked—he will often send original copies of hospital histories to the Osler Library of Medical History at McGill University. That library has a section dedicated to hospitals, and if they do not have a copy of what Humbert is offering, they will add it to their catalogue after Humber has scanned the work.
With his latest piece on Mattawa complete, Humbert will continue to search libraries, antiquarian bookstores, and query hospital administrators in his pursuit to preserve the stories of Catholic hospitals and Catholic nursing schools.
“My concern was that people were forgetting that, forgetting where we came from,” he said, acknowledging that by studying hospitals, one can gain a deeper understanding of a town’s values and spirit.
“People have great ownership of their local hospital, whether Catholic or a public institution,” he said, and those who served the community through their involvement in a hospital is a story Humbert strives to preserve for future generations.
“They gave so much to offer care in these communities all over the country,” Humbert said. “I wanted to save that legacy.”
David Briggs is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of BayToday, a publication of Village Media. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.