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Canada's legacy of abuse

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The most startling thing about a historian's report on nutritional experiments on aboriginal children 70 years ago is that, except for the details, it is not very surprising at all.

The idea that native peoples were once regarded as lower beings with no basic rights who couldn't hire a lawyer, vote, or leave their reserve without permission, who were relocated and dislocated by government diktat, ignored, dismissed as children, starved, robbed of their land and even their children, who were physically and sexually abused -- the list goes on -- is not new.

Canada was a racial society, and even today some Canadians still view Indians as victims of their own laziness, lack of ambition and child-like helplessness, which bigots regard as hereditary traits.

The abuse fits into a historical context, which needs to be understood, but it does not wipe the slate clean or absolve Canada and Canadians of their responsibilities to a people who have been repeatedly victimized.

The nutritional experts who conducted experiments on starving aboriginal populations, for example, said they believed their work would help lift them out of poverty and into the modern era, much the way the creators of residential schools believed their work would have the same effect.

The problem is they neglected to raise the alarm bell about the malnutrition they witnessed all around them.

The science of nutrition was still in its infancy. What harm could there be in providing vitamins and supplements to some aboriginals to see if it would improve their health? Or so the experts may have claimed.

Some 60 per cent of Canadians, in fact, were malnourished in the 1930s and 1940s, the Canadian Council of Nutrition said at the time, so the need for research was considered critical.

Notions of informed consent did not exist and the experiments were hardly as bad as the forced sterilizations, lobotomies and other medical abuses of the day committed against women, the disabled and mentally challenged, many of whom, by the way, happened to be aboriginal. In fact, about 25 per cent of the forced sterilizations under the eugenics policies of the day in Alberta were natives.

In the case of the nutritional experiments, food historian Ian Mosby concluded in his study the scientists were not motivated by altruism, but by crude professional ambition.

Their real goal, Mosby says in Administering Colonial Science: Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools, 1942-1952, was "to further their own professional and political interests rather than to address the root causes" of native poverty and malnutrition and "the Canadian government's complicity in them."

He is right in saying the experiments should be remembered as just one example in a series of "dehumanizing" assaults against aboriginal people over a long period of time -- Canada's enduring dirty secret.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered an expansive apology to aboriginals in 2008 over residential schools and other abuses, but this new revelation must also be addressed in some way.

Shawn Atleo of the Assembly of First Nations said Ottawa should help the Truth and Reconciliation Commission get full access to government documents on residential schools. The prime minister, he said, should also provide better funding for child welfare and food security on First Nations land.

These are reasonable requests that should have been granted in any event.

The teaching of aboriginal history has grown dramatically in universities across Canada, but most Canadians probably do not know much about the horrific treatment of aboriginals over the centuries. If they did, they might have a better appreciation of native anger today and of the urgent need to resolve this stain on the fabric of Canadian life.


Ian Mosby's study can be found at

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 19, 2013 A10

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