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British Columbia Forum on residential school malnutrition experiments triggers raw emotions

Former students at a Vancouver Island residential school – where some of the pupils were effectively treated as lab rats, deliberately malnourished so they could be studied by government scientists – gathered Wednesday for an emotional forum on the experiments.

The event's keynote speaker was the historian who earlier this year made headlines when he published details about a post-Second World War experiment in which food was deliberately withheld from some aboriginal students at six schools in four communities across the country.

The lone B.C. school was the Alberni Indian Residential School in Port Alberni.

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Ian Mosby, a University of Guelph researcher, visited the community for the forum organized by the Tseshaht First Nation and Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council.

He told the dozens of people in attendance that memories of food are often a considerable source of trauma for residential school survivors.

He said each of the schools that was chosen for the experiment had a different focus.

A Nova Scotia school, for instance, looked at vitamin C consumption.

The Alberni school experiment focused on milk. He said students were given an inadequate milk intake for two years, and then given more milk for three years to study the effects.

"All of these experiments could only take place because of widespread, systematic malnutrition," Mr. Mosby said in a phone interview after his speech.

"All of the experiments, as well, only treated one aspect of the malnutrition discovered and did not treat all of the deficiencies in children's diets."

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Whether the students were in Port Alberni between 1947 and 1952 when the experiment was conducted, or before or after those dates, Mr. Mosby said malnutrition was a common theme.

Debra Foxcroft, president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, said the issue of the experiments is of great importance to her because her father was at the school at the time of the experiments.

Ray Silver, 84, told those in attendance he remembered being so hungry at times that he would ask other students if he could eat their orange peels.

He said he never learned how to read or write while he was at the school, only how to steal food. He mentioned making keys just so he could get into the cellar, where the fruit was kept.

"This is what I learned in residential schools. Nothing else," he said.

He added that his brother died while he was at the school.

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One man asked if the experiments continued into the 1960s, when he was at the school. He said he remembered being terribly hungry at all times.

"Was that an experiment to eliminate us?" he asked. "… I need to hear the truth."

Several people who spoke were in tears, either from the moment they grabbed the microphone, or as they shared their stories.

Mr. Mosby invited those in attendance to talk to him if they're seeking further information, though he cautioned most of the information he's gathered consists of summaries, not individual records.

Mr. Mosby, who is a historian of food, health, and nutrition, has said he came across the information while he was researching the development of federal health policy.

He said the experiments involved at least 1,300 aboriginals, most of whom were students.

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The first experiments, he said, were conducted on people living on remote Manitoba reserves in 1942. He said rather than helping those people, the decision was made to study them instead.

Mr. Mosby's research prompted the Assembly of First Nations to pass a resolution in July that called on Ottawa to make restitution.

The aboriginal affairs minister said then that a 2008 apology to residential-school survivors would have included those who were experimented on.

Mr. Mosby described the months since the story surfaced as "surreal." He said he's been approached by many survivors who've shared common stories he'll look at for further research, including dentistry, or common scar patterns on students' backs.

He said the most important thing he can do is promote healing.

He said some of the survivors he's spoken with have long believed they were experimented on. For others, he said, the news was a complete shock.

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