Even as brave soldiers, some of them aboriginal, fought to defeat the Nazis and their notion of a master race during WW2, Canadian health authorities back on the home front were busy using aboriginal kids as nutritional guinea pigs.
"It was experiments being conducted on malnourished aboriginal people," food historian Ian Mosby revealed in an interview with CBC's As It Happens radio show on Tuesday July 16. "It started with research trips in northern Manitoba where they found, you know, widespread hunger, if not starvation, among certain members of the community. And one of their immediate responses was to design a controlled experiment on the effectiveness of vitamin supplementation on this population."
As the U.S. absorbs revelations of forced sterilization among female inmates in California, the news from up north is resonating across Canada. (Related: Strapped Down & Sedated: Female Inmates Illegally Sterilized in CA)
Mosby, who is earning his PhD in history at the University of Guelph, said the research—which occurred without the subjects’ knowledge—was undertaken in residential schools and remote aboriginal communities in Manitoba during and just after World War II. He also uncovered plans for similar research in residential schools in British Columbia, Ontario, Nova Scotia and Alberta. About 1,300 aboriginal children were used in the experiments, the Canadian Press reported.
The experiments were conducted beginning in 1942, when authorities visiting remote northern communities in Manitoba found widespread malnutrition. Rather than assist them, the authorities decided to conduct vitamin research, Mosby said.
Mosby told the Canadian Press that he was not looking for anything like this. He was merely researching health policy. But something struck him as strange, he said.
"I started to find vague references to studies conducted on 'Indians' that piqued my interest and seemed potentially problematic, to say the least," he said to the Canadian Press. "I went on a search to find out what was going on."
What he found disturbed him greatly. "It's an emotionally difficult topic to study,” he said.
According to the Canadian Press account, 300 children in Norway House Cree were the first subjects, with 125 receiving vitamin supplements and the rest left to their bodies’ own devices. Even those receiving the supplements were not getting all they needed, Mosby wrote, because people were not getting enough food—they were living on fewer than 1,500 calories daily rather than the adult need of 2,000.
"The research team was well aware that these vitamin supplements only addressed a small part of the problem," Mosby wrote, according to the Canadian Press. "The experiment seems to have been driven, at least in part, by the nutrition experts' desire to test their theories on a ready-made 'laboratory' populated with already malnourished human experimental subjects."
This did not stop the research from spreading, with plans developed in 1947 to conduct similar experiments on 1,000 children in six residential schools in Port Alberni, British Columbia, Kenora, Ontario, Schubenacadie, Nova Scotia and Lethbridge, Alberta, the Canadian Press reported.
The Canadian government seemed caught off-guard by the revelations.
"If this is story is true, this is abhorrent and completely unacceptable," said a spokesperson for Bernard Valcourt, the minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, via e-mail late Tuesday to the Canadian Press. "When Prime Minister [Stephen] Harper made a historic apology to former students of Indian Residential Schools in 2008 on behalf of all Canadians, he recognized that this period had caused great harm and had no place in Canada. Our Government remains committed to a fair and lasting resolution to the legacy of the Indian Residential Schools.”
This year marks the fifth anniversary of the June 8, 2008 official apology delivered to residential school survivors by Harper on behalf of the Canadian government. During the 150-year-long residential schools era, 150,000 aboriginal students were ripped from their families, virtually interred in mostly church-run boarding schools far from home, and forbidden to use their language and culture.
First Nations advocates are already calling for government action. Wab Kinew, who is the director of indigenous inclusion at the University of Winnipeg, said the federal government should turn all that research over to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is compiling a history of the residential school era, which ended in the 1990s.
"This is a reminder of a disgusting period in both Canadian and scientific history when indigenous people and other non-whites were regarded as inferior,” he told the Winnipeg Free Press. “The end goal of course is to make sure things like this never happen again.”