Aboriginal children were deliberately starved in the 1940s and ’50s by Canadian government researchers in the name of science.
Milk rations were halved for years at residential schools across the country. Essential vitamins were kept from people who needed them. Dental services were withheld because gum health was a measuring tool for scientists and dental care would distort research.
For over a decade, aboriginal children and adults were unknowingly subjected to nutritional experiments by Canadian government bureaucrats.
This disturbing look into government policy toward aboriginals after World War II comes to light in recently published historical research.
When Canadian researchers went to a number of northern Manitoba reserves in 1942 they found rampant malnourishment. But instead of recommending increased federal support to improve the health of hundreds of aboriginals suffering from a collapsing fur trade and already limited government aid, they decided against it. Nutritionally deprived aboriginals would be the perfect test subjects, researchers thought.
The details come from Ian Mosby, a post-doctorate at the University of Guelph, whose research focused on one of the most horrific aspects of government policy toward aboriginals during a time when rules for research on humans were just being adopted by the scientific community.
Researching the development of health policy for a different research project, Mosby uncovered “vague references to studies conducted on ‘Indians’ ” and began to investigate.
Government documents eventually revealed a long-standing, government-run experiment that came to span the entire country and involved at least 1,300 aboriginals, most of them children.
These experiments aren’t surprising to Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The commission became aware of the experiments during their collection of documents relating to the treatment and abuse of native children at residential schools across Canada from the 1870s to the 1990s.
It’s a disturbing piece of research, he said, and the experiments are entrenched with the racism of the time.
“This discovery, it’s indicative of the attitude toward aboriginals,” Sinclair said. “They thought aboriginals shouldn’t be consulted and their consent shouldn’t be asked for. They looked at it as a right to do what they wanted then.”
In the research paper, published in May, Mosby wrote, “the experiment seems to have been driven, at least in part, by the nutrition experts’ desire to test their theories on a ready-made ‘laboratory’ populated with already malnourished human experimental subjects.”
Researchers visited The Pas and Norway House in northern Manitoba in 1942 and found a demoralized population marked by, in their words, “shiftlessness, indolence, improvidence and inertia.”
They decided that isolated, dependent, hungry people would be ideal subjects for tests on the effects of different diets.
“In the 1940s, there were a lot of questions about what are human requirements for vitamins,” Mosby said. “Malnourished aboriginal people became viewed as possible means of testing these theories.”
These experiments are “abhorrent and completely unacceptable,” said Andrea Richer, spokesperson for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Minister Bernard Valcourt.
The first experiment began in 1942 on 300 Norway House Cree. Of that group, 125 were selected to receive vitamin supplements, which were withheld from the rest.
At the time, researchers calculated the local people were living on less than 1,500 calories a day. Normal, healthy adults generally require at least 2,000.
In 1947, plans were developed for research on about 1,000 hungry aboriginal children in six residential schools in Port Alberni, B.C., Kenora, Ont., Schubenacadie, N.S., and Lethbridge, Alta.
One school for two years deliberately held milk rations to less than half the recommended amount to get a ‘baseline’ reading for when the allowance was increased. At another school, children were divided into one group that received vitamin, iron and iodine supplements and one that didn’t.
One school depressed levels of vitamin B1 to create another baseline before levels were boosted.
And, so that all the results could be properly measured, one school was allowed none of those supplements.
The experiments, repugnant today, would probably have been considered ethically dubious even at the time, said Mosby.
“I think they really did think they were helping people. Whether they thought they were helping the people that were actually involved in the studies — that’s a different question.”