Cherokee Morning Song

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Editorial: Shameful research on starving First Nations communities


Canadians might have thought they knew the full story of how aboriginal communities were mistreated, relocated, neglected and abused over the last few centuries. They might have thought there was no part of that history that still had the capacity to shock. If so, they were proved wrong by new research from Ian Mosby at the University of Guelph. 

The historian uncovered evidence that government researchers conducted nutritional experiments in communities in northern Manitoba and in residential schools in the 1940s and 1950s. Although Mosby suggests the ethics might have been considered dubious even by the standards of the time, these were not rogue scientists doing covert work. 

They were the country’s leading nutritional experts (including the co-inventor of Pablum), in the employ of Canada’s government and working in stated support of the government’s overall “Indian” policies. The ends justified the means, in their minds: they wanted to come up with government strategies to help aboriginal communities be more productive and healthy.

 In Northern Manitoba, they came across Cree people who were going hungry, even starving — including old people and children in government-sanctioned institutions — and instead of feeding them, they studied them. In fact, some of the experiments depended on keeping some hungry people to an inadequate nutritional baseline for years, or denying nutrients to some parts of the population, just for comparison’s sake. In residential schools, researchers deliberately kept milk rations to less than half of the Canada Food Rules requirement for two years, to get a baseline. 

One school was chosen to be a “control”, and thus left with a menu that the researchers acknowledged to be nutritionally poor. Professional objectivity can be taken too far; ethics demands a respect for the fundamental rights of any research subject, especially when that subject is a human being. The capacity these researchers showed for removing themselves from the subject of their research, for holding themselves aloof, is sickening. These were children, not objects or equations.

 One goal of the project was to find out how to improve nutrition in these communities — considered to be a puzzle because, in the words of one of the nutritional experts who spearheaded the Manitoba project, “the Indian is different from us.” And why didn’t they obtain informed consent from their subjects? “The Indian,” as another of the lead nutrition experts put it, would only be alarmed by researchers “speaking within his hearing of procedures that he does not understand” because he “has the psychology of a child.” 

 On the one hand, researchers were reporting that many people in Northern Manitoba were trying their best to earn a living while starving to the point where “if they were white people” they would be in bed receiving medical care; on the other hand, supporters of the project hoped it would, in the words of one residential school principal, inform agricultural education to “lead the Indian people away from indolent habits inherent in the race.” What sheer offensive gall.

 It’s easy to look back at this history and sneer, to congratulate ourselves on how far we have come. But the impact of past abuse is still there for anyone to see, on many reserves and in the stories of many individuals. 

This is recent, painful history. Some of the children who were in residential schools in the middle of the 20th century are still alive today. Canada is still dealing, and not very well, with the consequences of systemic racism, and still working to eradicate its persistent vestiges.

 If we are ever going to move forward, as a country, from the mistakes and even crimes of our history, we must learn our history’s painful lessons. Research such as Mosby’s is essential to help aboriginal communities and all Canadians come to terms with what really happened. It demonstrates the importance of good record keeping and the fact that serendipity often leads researchers down unexpected paths; Mosby wasn’t looking for this story when he began his research. 

 And it demonstrates that Stephen Harper’s apology to the victims of the residential school system was only the beginning of a process of learning, listening, and as far as possible, making amends. This is an ugly part of our past that Canada’s government must acknowledge and address. 

 Ottawa Citizen

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