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Blackfoot Camp, undated. ‘a decades-long cycle of malnutrition, suppressed immunity and sickness.’ (University of Toronto/Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library)
Blackfoot Camp, undated. ‘a decades-long cycle of malnutrition, suppressed immunity and sickness.’ (University of Toronto/Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library)

Experiments on aboriginal children were awful, and they have not stopped Add to ...

There are still a lot of hungry and malnourished aboriginal children in Canada.

With the meeting of First Nations, Inuit and Métis leaders along with Canada’s premiers underway in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., let’s not lose sight of that grim reality as we ponder the lessons that come from the recent revelation that aboriginal children were deliberately malnourished between 1942 and 1952 as part of nutritional experiments.

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University of Guelph researcher Ian Mosby found that at a time of severe economic hardship – because of the collapse of the fur trade, scarcity of animals due to over-hunting, massive cuts in government support, and the loss of many working age men due to the war effort – malnutrition and hunger were commonplace in First Nations communities in the post-war years.

Instead of providing food aid, a decision was made to use aboriginal kids as lab rats in the burgeoning field of nutritional science. To measure the effects of loss of essential nutrients, milk rations were withheld and key nutrients like iron and iodine deliberately removed from some children’s diets, while others were given fortified flour and vitamin supplents. Those experiments were conducted – without consent – on remote reserves in Manitoba and then expanded to residential schools in B.C., Alberta, Ontario and Nova Scotia. They were sanctioned and supported by the Department of Health and Welfare and the Department of Indian Affairs. The research also involved top scientists, including a pediatrician from the Hospital for Sick Children who helped developed Pablum, a baby food that helped end the epidemic of rickets, a crippling childhood illness.

The actions, even in the context of the time, were abhorrent and -- to make matters worse -- not much was learned from the ‘studies.’ By and large though, news of these nutritional experiments has been dismissed as a vestige of a bygone era. The office of Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt went so far as to say that was covered off by the history 2008 apology about residential schools abuse.

Not so fast.

While the nutritional experiments ended and the long-overdue apology helped heal some wounds, there is little evidence the tradition of malfeasance has ended.

Deprivation of nutrients is the least of the horrors inflicted upon residential school students. There was widespread physical and sexual violence, never mind that the express purpose of residential schools was cultural genocide – to strip aboriginal children of their language, culture and traditions.

The fallout continues, and “sorry” isn’t a sufficient corrective measure.

One of the side effects of children being scooped up at a young age and being shipped to far away institutions is that parents never learned to parent. Family structures collapsed and community networks along with them.

We continue to see the impact to this day. There are some 27,000 aboriginal foster children across Canada. That’s more children than were taken from their families at the height of residential schools.

Almost all those children have been removed from their families because of neglect, like not being fed, clothed and housed properly. This bad parenting has its roots in the destruction of family over generations, and it is exacerbated in many cases by poverty and addiction, and practical realities like chronic housing shortages.

It is no longer be an explicit policy to starve aboriginal children. But many remain hungry and otherwise malnourished because conditions on reserves and other remote communities are are not much different today than 60 years ago – sky-high food prices, lack of safe drinking water, poor access to the land, inadequate housing, widespread unemployment and so on.

In many remote northern communities, alcohol prices are regulated (and kept artificially low) and food prices are not. On reserves, food banks have become the norm. Aboriginal peoples also have the highest rates of obesity and diabetes in the country, another consequence of lack of access to healthy, affordable food. (Let’s not forget that obesity is a form of malnutrition.)

In fact, many (but not all) aboriginal communities are living laboratories for failed social policies. Rates of infectious disease, traumatic injury, and child mortality greatly exceed those in non-aboriginal communities. Rates of incarceration are sky high. The litany of murdered and missing aboriginal women is gruesome, and unaddressed.

Aboriginal people in Canada have a life expectancy that is about 10 years less on average than non-aboriginals. In other words, they have a life expectancy of post-World War II Canada, not 21st century Canada.

Some day – hopefully sooner rather than later – we are going to look back on this as a perverse, inhumane experiment on a grand scale.

Follow on Twitter: @picardonhealth

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