Canada’s largest aboriginal group passed an emergency resolution Thursday based on a report that the federal government once conducted nutritional experiments on hungry native children and adults.
The resolution at the Assembly of First Nations annual meeting in Whitehorse calls on the Harper government to make restitution to those affected by the experiments conducted between 1942 and 1952 on 1,300 people.
The chiefs “condemn the action of the federal government for condoning, allowing and being involved in these deeply disturbing and shocking experiments,” said the resolution.
It called on the federal government to “confirm that these experiments reveal Crown conduct reflecting a pattern of genocide against Indigenous peoples.”
Government officials have said Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2008 apology for the harm done by residential schools was intended to cover all wrongdoing against aboriginals. But chiefs at the meeting said that’s not good enough.
The resolution said they “will not accept the apology as catch-all recognition for all federal policy past, present and ongoing which have and continue to negatively impact Indigenous peoples.”
It also demands the government release all records pertaining to any other tests on aboriginal people.
“The chiefs-in-assembly call on the federal government to work immediately to provide Indian residential schools survivors, First Nations and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission full and complete access to all records held by the federal government on experiments conducted on Indigenous communities and Indigenous children in residential schools and Indian Hospitals.”
The Harper government has resisted some document requests from the commission, which has been tasked with compiling a complete record of aboriginal experiences during the residential-school era.
The resolution comes in response to a recently released paper by University of Guelph food historian Ian Mosby. He delved into historical documents and discovered federal scientists used malnourished and hungry aboriginals on reserves and in residential schools to study the effects of nutritional supplements.
The subjects were provided or denied vitamins, minerals and some foods instead of being properly fed. Some dental services were also withdrawn because researchers were concerned healthier teeth and gums would skew results.
Full disclosure of any records that could reveal other such abuses is essential to the commission’s work, said AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo.
“That is in part the feeling you get when the government is attempting or not fully co-operating with the release of documentation – what more is there? Canadians need to be supported to understand the full truth so we can break this pattern of blaming, this idea that you break the leg of a person one day and the following day you blame him for limping.”
Some of the experiments were first detailed in the May, 2000, issue of Anglican Journal. In that article, author David Napier interviewed Dr. L.B. Pett, who supervised the research for the precursor to Health Canada.
Pett, a former head of the nutritional division of the health department, defended the study.
“It was not a deliberate attempt to leave children to develop cavities except for a limited time or place or purpose, and only then to study the effects of vitamin C or flouride,” Pett told Napier. Pett added that results of the study were made available to the schools and communities that provided the test subjects.
Pett acknowledged consent was not sought for the studies.
Napier won a 2000 National Magazine Award for the series that included his work on the nutritional experiments.
Frank Tester, a sociologist and historian at the University of British Columbia who sits on the university’s ethics board, said studies that involve withholding a nutritional element from test subjects remain common.
“We often do research that involves comparative groups,” he said. “We approve this stuff all the time.
“But, of course, consent is required.”
The other, larger ethical lapse seems almost too obvious to mention.
“I just think it’s unethical to go into a situation and say, ‘Oh my God. These people are starving and their health is bad and they’re not being served proper food’ – and not make a public issue of it,” said Tester. “They didn’t assume the public responsibility they should have assumed.
“That’s really unethical.”
Tester said the idea of consent in the 1940s was weak. He guesses that similar studies were conducted in many schools.
“Was it happening with non-aboriginal kids? Probably yes. And also appalling.”