The discovery of hundreds of children’s remains in Kamloops, Brandon and Cowessess revealed the absolute devastation that settlers inflicted on Indigenous children, families and communities through the residential school system.
Read more: Amid more shocking residential school findings, non-Indigenous people must act
As a nutrition researcher and Canadian settler, I ask my peers to recognize and understand the damage malnutrition and nutritional experiences have on Indigenous peoples and the legacy they have left.
Easier to assimilate
Ian Mosby, historian of food, Indigenous health and the politics of Canadian colonialism, discovered that between 1942 and 1952, Canada’s foremost nutrition scientists carried out highly unethical research on 1 300 Aboriginal people, including 1,000 children, in Cree communities in northern Manitoba and at six residential schools across Canada.
Many were already suffering from malnutrition due to destructive government policies and dire conditions in residential schools.
In the eyes of researchers, this made them ideal test subjects.
Frederick Tisdall – famous for being the co-creator of Pablum infant food at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto – along with Percy Moore and Lionel Bradley Pett were the primary architects of the nutritional experiments.
They proposed that education and dietary interventions would make Indigenous people more profitable for Canada, that if Indigenous people were healthier, the transmission of diseases like tuberculosis to whites would decrease and assimilation would be easier.
They successfully presented their plan of nutrition experiments to the federal government.
Tisdall, Moore and their team based their case on results obtained after subjecting 400 Cree adults and children in northern Manitoba to a series of intrusive assessments, including physical exams, x-rays and blood tests.
Pett and his team’s pitch centered around determining a baseline. They wanted to give the children at Alberni Indian Residential School a small amount of milk for two years, enough to significantly deprive the growing children of the calories and nutrients they needed.
Other experiments involved withholding essential vitamins and minerals from children in control groups, while preventing Indian health services from providing dental care on the grounds that it could impact study results.
And even before these experiences, children in residential schools were hungry – with reports of severe malnutrition and signs of severe vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
Racial motives and foundations of nutritional experiments
Interest in nutrition research increased dramatically in the 1940s after the Canadian Council on Nutrition publicly stated that over 60 percent of the Canadian population suffered from nutritional deficiencies.
Until then, most of the experiments had been done on animals, but researchers like Pett, who was the primary author of what would become Canada’s Food Guide, took the opportunity to use Indigenous peoples as rats of laboratory.
While authors like Pett often operate under the facade of understanding and helping Indigenous peoples, the racial underpinnings of these nutritional experiences are clear.
Investigators sought to unravel the “Indian problem”. Moore, Tisdall and colleagues attributed to malnutrition discriminatory stereotypes such as “lack of speed, indolence, recklessness and inertia”.
AE Caldwell, director of the Alberni Indian Residential School, said malnutrition was caused by traditional diets and lifestyles, which he also called “indolent habits.” The nutritional experiences, along with the deeply inadequate and shoddy foods given to children in residential schools, aligned perfectly with Caldwell’s assimilation mandate.
Denying virtually all children access to adequate traditional foods is another means of colonization and cultural genocide.
According to Mosby’s findings, Pett said he aimed to better understand the “inevitable” transition away from country foods, but residential schools were deliberately designed to bring about this.
Their research is unethical by contemporary standards, and it’s hard to believe that it was ever okay to experiment on anyone, let alone children, without consent.
The aftermath of the Holocaust and biomedical experiments in concentration camps led to the development of the Nuremberg Code in 1947, which states that voluntary consent to research is absolutely essential and that experiments must avoid mental suffering and unnecessary physics.
The code came out the same year Pett embarked on his nutritional experiments at six residential schools.
Consequences of malnutrition and experimentation
Childhood malnutrition can be fatal, especially when combined with the risk of disease, which was often the case in residential schools.
The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission indicates that the leading causes of death among children in residential schools were physical injury, malnutrition, disease and neglect.
For residential school survivors, malnutrition has lasting effects. Starvation in childhood increases the risk of chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, and research indicates that severe malnutrition can even cause epigenetic changes that can be passed down from generation to generation.
Experimenting with children already in pain was immoral.
Food insecurity and nutrition issues in Indigenous communities are major issues in Canada, resulting from residential schools and colonial policies that continue to this day.
Experiences in residential schools and in communities have made health care settings precarious and traumatic places for many Indigenous peoples and led to some reluctance to be vaccinated during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, stigma, violence and racism against Indigenous peoples in these contexts persist.
This particular story of experiences of malnutrition and nutrition on indigenous children and adults has already been told. It gained the attention of the mainstream media in 2013 after Mosby’s research and advocacy.
And this is no surprise to indigenous peoples, whose truths we must finally listen to deeply.
If you are a residential school survivor or have been affected by the residential school system and need assistance, you can contact the 24 hour residential school crisis line: 1-866-925-4419
Allison Daniel, PhD Candidate, Nutritional Sciences, University of Toronto
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.