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Natives focus of 'colonial science'

Dietary experiments likely one of many, researcher says

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There were "likely" other experiments carried out on First Nations people in the last century, but further study is needed, said the researcher who recently found dietary experiments were conducted by federal health officials on northern First Nations people between 1942 and 1952.

Former residential school students have always maintained they were subjected to experiments.

"It took a white guy with a PhD" to get people to start believing them, said Ian Mosby, a post-doctoral fellow at Guelph University.

"It seems this is just scratching the surface," Mosby said following his presentation.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission that's gathering residential school testimonies wants to look further into this area, "but it's not possible without an extension of its mandate."

The federal government is not looking favourably on an extension, he said.

Mosby spoke at a Canadian Food History Symposium at the University of Winnipeg Saturday. He said malnutrition was widespread in northern First Nations before and after the Second World War, partly due to their traditional diet being replaced by store-bought products from the south.

However, Mosby stressed nutrition was never withheld from aboriginal children nor adults as part of the experiment.

Additional vitamin and mineral supplements were only provided to a group of aboriginals to see whether they performed better in school and other endeavours and whether they were healthier. He said some media have misconstrued his study to mean the federal government withheld nutrition as part of the study. He has tried to correct that misconception, he said.

What was withheld from some aboriginal people in the study was dental service, because the researchers thought that might somehow skew the results.

In effect, Mosby said, federal health officials viewed "residential schools and First Nations as laboratories." He called it "colonial science."

He said the aim of the study he uncovered was to prove a hypothesis nutrition was one of the root causes of what was called "the Indian problem" back then.

Researchers concluded in a preliminary report, read by Mosby at the symposium, "It is not unlikely that many characteristics, such as shiftlessness, indolence, improvidence and inertia, so long regarded as inherent or hereditary traits in the Indian race may, at the root, be really the manifestations of malnutrition." Little ever came of the study.

Mosby was taken by surprise by the response to his story. For example, it ran on the front page of the Toronto Star for three straight days. He was besieged by interview requests.

But he has seen very little positive impact so far, other than to affirm the suspicions of former residential school students. He called on Ottawa to make available the archives of Health Canada and Indian Affairs for researchers to study. For example, it is commonly known staff at residential schools were much better fed than the children in their charge.

Experiments were conducted on about 1,000 aboriginal people, about 300 of whom were Cree from Norway House and Cross Lake in northern Manitoba.

The figure includes the "control group," who received dietary supplements to improve their nutrition.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 27, 2013 A4

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