Native Village 
Youth and Education News
October, 2013

Hungry aboriginal kids, adults in Canada were subject of nutritional experiments
Condensed by Native Village

 1948: Blood sample taken from a boy at the Indian School, Port Alberni, B.C.

Canada: Beginning in 1942, hungry aboriginal children and adults became unwitting subjects of nutritional experiments in Canada.  The government-run program involved at least 1,300 aboriginals. 

Most were children.

“This was the hardest thing I’ve ever written,” said Ian Mosby from the University of Guelph.  Mosby's work focuses on the history of food in Canada. He was researching health policy when he ran across newly released details about government policy toward aboriginals after World War II.

Plans were developed to research about 1,000 hungry aboriginal children in six residential schools in Canada. The tests began in 1942 when government researchers visited several aboriginal communities in northern Manitoba reserves.  They found hungry people living in poverty because the fur trade had collapsed, and the government was sending less money.

The population was demoralized. Researchers labeled them: “shiftlessness, indolence, improvidence and inertia.” They also clarified that these traits  -- “so long regarded as inherent or hereditary traits in the Indian race” -- were, in fact due to malnutrition.

But researchers didn't recommend getting the Indians more help.  Instead, they decided these isolated, dependent, hungry people would make perfect subjects for tests on the effects of different diets.

Today, such experiments are repugnant.  Even at that time, the ethics of these studies were questionable. 

“This is a period of scientific uncertainty around nutrition,” said Mosby. “Vitamins and minerals had really only been discovered during the interwar period.  In the 1940s, there were a lot of questions about what are human requirements for vitamins. Malnourished aboriginal people became viewed as possible means of testing these theories.”

The first experiment began on 300 Norway House Cree. Of them, 125 received vitamin supplements. The rest did not. At the time, researchers estimated the Cree were living on under 1,500 calories a day. 

Normal, healthy adults generally require at least 2,000 calories per day.

At one school, children were divided into one group that received vitamin, iron and iodine supplements and one that didn’t.
Another school depressed levels of vitamin B1 to create another baseline before levels were boosted.
A special enriched flour --illegal for sale in Canada under food adulteration laws -- was fed to children at another school.
So all results could be properly measured, one school received no supplements at all.

“The research team was well aware that these vitamin supplements only addressed a small part of the problem,” Mosby writes. “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.”

The research spread. In 1947, plans were developed for research on about 1,000 hungry aboriginal children in six residential schools in British Columbia, Ontario, Nova Scotia, and Alberta.  Since gum health is a scientific measuring tool, most dental services were dropped from these schools.  Researchers said dental treatments could distort the result.

The nutritional experiments ended in the 1950s, but not much was learned from those hungry little bodies. Little has been written/ A few papers were published — they were not very helpful,” Mosby said.  An Anglican Journal article [May 2000] was the only reference he could find.

"[Researchers] knew from the beginning that the real problem and the cause of malnutrition was underfunding,"  Mosby said.  "That was established before the studies even started and when the studies were completed that was still the problem.”

But Mosby said that most residential school survivors have powerful memories of hunger and food-related punishments being major parts of their experiences.

Bella Coola’s, 64, spent about three years at Port Alberni school starting in 1954. She painfully remembers about half of the students drinking milk with each meal. The others were denied.

“They had staff members in the dining room,” she said. “They would make sure that the ones (who) got the milk drank the milk without sharing.”

Leonard Pootlass arrived at Port Alberni school as a sickly five-year-old in 1951. While he doesn't recall any experiments, he said he's not surprised by their existence.

“I knew they did more than what they were doing to us besides trying to assimilate us into white society, which didn’t work for them,” Pootlass said. “They almost killed me in there, that’s all I know. They gave us enough (food) to keep us alive, more or less.”

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