Residential school children, perfect guinea pigs for nutrition researchers

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The author is a PhD student in nutrition at the University of Toronto.

The discovery of the remains of hundreds of children in Kamloops, Brandon, Cowessess and Cranbrook exposes the abuses inflicted on children, families and indigenous communities through the residential school system.

As a Canadian nutrition researcher and settler, I ask my colleagues to recognize and understand the damage caused by malnutrition and nutritional experiments conducted on indigenous peoples and the traces these experiments have left.

Easier to assimilate

Ian Mosby, a historian of indigenous food, health and Canadian colonial politics, found that between 1942 and 1952 Canada’s leading nutrition scientists conducted unethical research on 1300 natives, including 1,000 children, in Cree communities in the north. of Manitoba and six residential schools in Canada.

Many of them were already suffering from malnutrition due to destructive government policies and terrible living conditions in residential schools. In the eyes of the researchers, this made them perfect subjects for experimentation.

Black and white photo: A nurse takes a blood sample from a child
A nurse takes a blood sample from a boy at boarding school in Port Alberni, British Columbia, as part of an investigation by the National Department of Health and Welfare, 1948. (F. Royal. Canada. National Film Board of Canada . Photothèque. Library and Archives Canada)

Frederick Tisdall, famous for creating Pablum baby cereal at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, Percy Moore and Lionel Bradley Pett, the lead author of what later became the Canadian Food Guide, were the main architects of the experiments nutritional conducted in the colleges.

They proposed making Aborigines more “profitable” in Canada through education and dietary interventions. They believed that if Aborigines were healthier, they would be less likely to transmit diseases, such as tuberculosis, to whites and that their assimilation would be easier. This is how they managed to get their nutritional testing project accepted by the federal government.

Tisdall, Moore and their team drew on the results of research conducted with 400 Cree adults and children from northern Manitoba. Candidates had undergone a variety of intrusive assessments, including physical exams, x-rays, and blood tests.

Based on this baseline, the researchers proposed giving Alberni boarding school children a minimum amount of milk for two years, enough to deprive these growing children of the calories and nutrients they needed.

Other experiments resulted in the deprivation of children in the control groups of essential vitamins and minerals, while preventing native health services from providing them with dental care, under the pretext of not influencing the study results.

Even before these experiments, there had been reports of severe malnutrition and severe vitamin and mineral deficiencies among residential school children.

Experiences with a racist basis

Interest in nutritional research increased dramatically in the 1940s after the Canadian Nutrition Council publicly stated that over 60% of the Canadian population had nutritional deficiencies.

Until then, most of the experiments had been done on animals, but researchers like Pett took the opportunity to use the natives as laboratory mice.

Although they often acted under the pretext of wanting to understand and help indigenous peoples, the racist underpinnings of these nutritional experiments were clear.

The researchers said they wanted to analyze the “Indian problem”. Moore, Tisdall and their collaborators attributed discriminatory prejudices against Aborigines such as “recklessness, indolence, improvisation and inertia” to malnutrition.

AE Caldwell, principal of the Alberni college, said the malnutrition was caused by traditional diets and lifestyles, which he also called “sluggish habits”. Nutritional experiments, as well as inadequate and poor quality food given to children in boarding schools, fit perfectly with Caldwell’s assimilation mandate.

Denying virtually all children access to adequate traditional nutrition was another means of cultural colonization and genocide.

The nurse watches the boys spit into the test tubes
A nurse from the Department of National Health and Welfare supervises the collection of saliva samples from boys at the residential school in Port Alberni, British Columbia, in 1948. (Credit: F. Royal. Canada. National Board of Canadian film. Photothèque. Library. and Archives Canada)

According to Mosby’s findings, Pett sought to better understand the “inevitable” abandonment of traditional foods, while residential schools were deliberately designed to cause this abandonment.

The research of these nutrition experts is completely immoral by contemporary standards. It is hard to believe today that it was ever acceptable to do this kind of experimentation on someone, let alone children, without their 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 for research is absolutely essential and that experiments must avoid unnecessary mental and physical suffering.

The code was released the same year that Pett began his nutritional experiments at six boarding schools.

Consequences of malnutrition and experimentation

Childhood malnutrition can be fatal, especially when associated with the risk of disease, as was often the case in boarding schools.

The final report from Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission indicates that the leading causes of death for children in residential schools have been physical injury, malnutrition, disease and neglect.

For residential school survivors, malnutrition still has tangible effects. Food deprivation in childhood increases the risk of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, and research indicates that severe malnutrition can even cause epigenetic changes that can be passed down from generation to generation.

It is immoral to subject children who have already suffered to such experiences.

Food insecurity and nutritional problems in indigenous communities are major problems in Canada, stemming from residential schools and enduring colonial policies.

Traumatic experiences in residential schools and communities have made health facilities a risky place for many indigenous peoples. This may explain why some indigenous peoples are reluctant to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Especially since the stigma, violence and racism against indigenous peoples are still present.

The stories of malnutrition and the nutritional experiences of indigenous children and adults are not new. They were reported in the media in 2013 after Mosby’s search and defense.

Nor are they a surprise to indigenous peoples, who have already told us these truths. The time has come to learn to listen to them.


If you are a residential school survivor or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour residential school helpline by calling 1-866-925-4419.The conversation

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