NEW historical research that hungry aboriginal children and adults were once used as unwitting subjects in nutritional experiments by Canadian scientists has outraged indigenous academics and scholars in Manitoba.
"Alongside residential schools and the atrocities of the Indian Act, the starvation of First Nations communities for bureaucratic ‘research’ is another violent chapter illustrating the legacies that separate indigenous and nonindigenous peoples," said Niigaanwiwedam James Sinclair, assistant professor of native studies at the University of Manitoba.
In Guelph, Ont., Ian Mosby, the researcher who uncovered details about one of the least known but perhaps most disturbing aspects of government policy toward aboriginal people immediately after the Second World War, called it "the hardest thing I’ve ever written."
Mosby — whose work at the Guelph University focuses on the history of food in Canada — was researching the development of health policy when he ran across the strange science, he told The Canadian Press.
Government documents 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.
‘This is a reminder of a disgusting period... when indigenous people and other nonwhites were regarded as inferior’
It began with a 1942 visit by government researchers to a number of remote reserve communities in northern Manitoba, including places such as The Pas and Norway House. Mosby’s study covered the decade between 1942-1952 but there is no indication when the practices actually ceased.
Scientists found people who were hungry, beggared by a combination of the collapsing fur trade and declining government support. They also found a demoralized population marked by, in the words of the researchers, "shiftlessness, indolence, improvidence and inertia," Mosby told CP. The researchers suggested those problems — "so long regarded as inherent or hereditary traits in the Indian race" — were in fact the results of malnutrition.
Instead of recommending an increase in support, the researchers decided that isolated, dependent, hungry people would be ideal subjects for tests on the effects of different diets. Wab Kinew, director of indigenous inclusion at the University of Winnipeg, called on the federal government to turn over the original research to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada into residential schools.
"This is a reminder of a disgusting period in both Canadian and scientific history when indigenous people and other non-whites were regarded as inferior. The end goal of course is to make sure things like this never happen again," Kinew said.
The first experiment began in 1942 on 300 Norway House Cree. Of that group, 125 were selected to receive vitamin supplements that 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. Not much was known about the nutritional affects of vitamins and minerals at the time.
"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," Mosby wrote.
The research spread. 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.
They involved: Milk rations cut for two years to less than half the recommended levels.
Vitamins, iron, iodine supplements and a special enriched flour that couldn’t legally be sold elsewhere in Canada under food-adulteration laws.
Dental services were withdrawn at the same time. Scientists knew gum health was an important measurment and they didn’t want treatments on children’s teeth distorting results.
Not much was learned from those hungry little bodies, Mosby said. A few papers were published — "not very helpful," Mosby said — and he couldn’t find evidence the research program was completed.
"They knew from the beginning that the real problem and the cause of malnutrition was underfunding," Mosby told The Canadian Press.
Brenda Elias, a professor with community health sciences at the University of Manitoba and member of the university’s health research ethics board, said research such as this would never be allowed now.
"The period in question is certainly a troubling one," she said. "It was also a turning point for research ethics, particularly for populations that were most disadvantaged and discriminated against."
— with files from The Canadian Press