A study suggesting indigenous children from Saskatchewan and Manitoba were healthy when they were sent to residential schools undercuts government justification for nutritional experiments at the time.
Researchers also say it suggests the schools set the stage for health problems plaguing First Nations today.
Paul Hackett, a researcher at the University of Saskatchewan, said he and two others analyzed the body mass index of more than 1,700 children entering the schools between 1919 and the 1950s. The children's records, which are public, were meticulously kept on microfilm.
They detailed the weight, height and sex of the youngsters sent to a residential school in Brandon, Man., and to two others in Saskatchewan.
The team found 80 per cent of the children were at a healthy weight – better than the average Canadian child today. The findings were published in the International Journal of Circumpolar Health.
"All that suggests they were healthy, on the whole," Hackett said Tuesday. "That was somewhat surprising to me largely because of the thought that the Great Depression would have had some impact on health, that access to food might have been less.
"But they were coming out of their communities quite healthy, indeed much healthier than we see today."
About 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children were taken from their families and forced to attend government schools over much of the last century to "take the Indian out of the child." The last school closed outside Regina in 1996.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimated at least 6,000 children died in the schools. The commission's final report said they were poorly heated, poorly ventilated and "the diet was meagre and of poor quality."
The analysis of the health of children entering residential schools suggests the experience set the stage for health problems such as obesity and diabetes which disproportionately affect indigenous people today, Hackett said.
Previous work by one of the researchers suggests diabetes was unknown among indigenous people before 1937.
"There are many, many different factors, but certainly residential schools are certainly right up there as being one of the main factors in that loss of traditional food and loss of health," Hackett said.
The study also contradicts the government's justification for nutritional experiments on residential school students due to their poor health.
Investigation by academic Ian Mosby found government researchers used hungry indigenous children for experiments that withheld everything from milk rations to dental care. Children at one school were divided into two groups – one received vitamin, iron and iodine supplements and another didn't.
During the 1950s, the government said the experiments were necessary due to the poor health of students.
"If there is a nutritional problem, it's probably coming out of the residential schools experience," Hackett said.
"It really ties in with what we saw in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the message for a long, long time from indigenous people – the residential school experience had a very negative effect on these kids and subsequent generations."