In Canada, hungry aboriginal kids, adults used as nutritional experiment subjects

by: Obert Madondo | Twitter: @Obiemad:

First Nations demand a better deal from the Canadian Government during a massive December 2012 protest on Parliament Hill. (Photo: Obert Madondo)

First Nations demand a better deal from the Canadian Government during a massive December 2012 protest on Parliament Hill. (Photo: Obert Madondo)

In Canada, hungry aboriginal kids and adults were used as unwitting subjects of nutritional experiments by Canadian government bureaucrats during and after World War II, The Canadian Press reported Tuesday.

“This was the hardest thing I’ve ever written,” said Ian Mosby, a historian of food nutrition and fellow at the University of Guelph, who unraveled the diabolical experiments. “I started to find vague references to studies conducted on ‘Indians’ that piqued my interest and seemed potentially problematic, to say the least. I went on a search to find out what was going on.”

Mosby published his findings in a paper titled Administering Colonial Science: Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools, 1942–1952, featured in the May 2013 issue of the scholarly journal, Histoire sociale/Social History.

Here’s the abstract:

Between 1942 and 1952, some of Canada’s leading nutrition experts, in cooperation with various federal departments, conducted an unprecedented series of nutritional studies of Aboriginal communities and residential schools.

The most ambitious and perhaps best known of these was the 1947–1948 James Bay Survey of the Attawapiskat and Rupert’s House Cree First Nations. Less well known were two separate long-term studies that went so far as to include controlled experiments conducted, apparently without the subjects’ informed consent or knowledge, on malnourished Aboriginal populations in Northern Manitoba and, later, in six Indian residential schools.

This article explores these studies and experiments, in part to provide a narrative record of a largely unexamined episode of exploitation and neglect by the Canadian government. At the same time, it situates these studies within the context of broader federal policies governing the lives of Aboriginal peoples, a shifting Canadian consensus concerning the science of nutrition, and changing attitudes towards the ethics of biomedical experimentation on human beings during a period that encompassed, among other things, the establishment of the Nuremberg Code of experimental research ethics.

In doing so, this article argues that – during the war and early postwar period – bureaucrats, doctors, and scientists recognized the problems of hunger and malnutrition, yet increasingly came to view Aboriginal bodies as “experimental materials” and residential schools and Aboriginal communities as kinds of “laboratories” that they could use to pursue a number of different political and professional interests. Nutrition experts, for their part, were provided with the rare opportunity to observe the effects of nutritional interventions (and non-interventions, as it turned out) on human subjects while, for Moore and others within the Indian Affairs and Indian Health Services bureaucracy, nutrition offered a new explanation for – and novel solutions to – the so-called “Indian Problems” of susceptibility to disease and economic dependency.

In the end, these studies did little to alter the structural conditions that led to malnutrition and hunger in the first place and, as a result, did more to bolster the career ambitions of the researchers than to improve the health of those identified as being malnourished.

“This is the first piece of new, non-dissertation related research I’ve published since receiving my PhD and it was, without a doubt, the most difficult research project I’ve undertaken,” Mosby wrote on his blog. “But while the subject matter and the sources were often disturbing, I think that the story itself is one the needs to be told if Canadians hope to come to grips with the devastating impact of Canada’s colonial policies governing the lives of Aboriginal peoples.”

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Obert Madondo

Publisher and editor
Obert Madondo is an Ottawa-based independent journalist and progressive political blogger. He's the publisher and editor of The Canadian Progressive.