In July, old news became new again. The commercial media published stories about medical and nutrition experiments conducted in Canada’s Indian Residential Schools during the 1940’s and 1950’s.
Why call it ‘old’ news? Because an article on this topic appeared in the Vancouver Sun in 2000 (http://canadiangenocide.nativeweb.org/keynewsnativekidsusedforexperiments.html). In fact, along with the research that Dr. Peter Bryce, Chief Medical Officer of Canada, conducted in the early 1900’s about the condition of children in the ‘schools’, as directed by Duncan Campbell Scott, Canada’s Superintendant of Indian and Affairs, these results were printed in The Ottawa Citizen in November 1907, (http://canadiangenocide.nativeweb.org/keynewsschoolsandwhiteplague.html) only to be promptly buried and forgotten, causing hardly a ripple. It seems that the only person who took much notice of Dr. Bryce’s research, that the death rates in the Western ‘schools’ ran between 30 and 60 per cent, was D.C. Scott himself, and he was not pleased. By 1913, Dr. Bryce’s services were no longer required.
Information about these experiments was also reported in a 2006 documentary on Canada’s Indian Residential Schools titled “Unrepentant: Kevin Annett and Canada’s Genocide”. The United Church de-frocked minister Annett when he blew the whistle on Church abuses of survivors and victims of British Columbia’s Indian Residential Schools on Vancouver Island, and illegal land sales conducted by that church to a logging company.
This ‘old-new’ story was contained in the report published by one Ian Mosby, a post-doctorate fellow of Guelph University in Ontario, written in his capacity as a food historian. It provided information about the treatment of the health of Native populations, and of Indigenous children in Residential Schools across the country. Mosby found it in an article he came across in May 2000, in the Anglican Journal — the same piece found by the Vancouver Sun, and by Kevin Annett, back in 2000.
Digging deeper, Mosby found government documents that revealed an experiment conducted on some 1,300 indigenous people, most of whom were children, beginning in northern Manitoba in 1942, and eventually spanning the country through the early 1950’s. The experiments targetted First Nations people, it seems, because rampant malnourishment prevailed in most of their isolated and poverty ravaged communities. Indigenous peoples were forced to live on ‘Reserve land’ and be ‘assimilated’, ‘civilized’ and ‘educated’ within the confines of church and state policy. After the collapse of the fur trade, they proved to be ‘ideal’ test subjects for different diet regimens. Some children were given vitamin enriched diets. Others were denied vitamins. Still others were limited in their intake of milk rations. In terms of milk consumption, doctors knew that tuberculosis could be contracted through non-pasteurized milk, but many schools still served it to children.
The medical experimentation consisted of depriving children of dental care, since the health of one’s gums is a health indicator, and the treatment of gum disease could have skewed experiment results. Ironically, an “Indian person” could not refuse medical treatment, according to Canada’s Indian Act.
The response of some prominent Canadians and Native people to this ‘news’ is shock and surprise. The Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo expressed awareness of the situation: his father had gone to the school in Port Alberni, B.C. But he said he did not realize that a government experiment had taken place. The Aboriginal Affairs critic for the Official Opposition New Democratic Party, Jean Crowder, spoke about the life of poverty that still dominates First Nations’ communities, and how poor nutrition remains an issue.
I was dismayed, but not surprised by Justice Murray Sinclair, Chair of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) into Indian Residential Schools. On his Facebook page, Sinclair expressed shock and surprise. However, subsequent media coverage reported that he was not surprised by the news of the experiments because of revelations at the TRC Hearings, now in the final year of its five year mandate to collect data and listen to survivors.
Murray Sinclair has disappointed me on other occasions, including when, during an interview with CBC’s news anchor Peter Mansbridge, Sinclair stated he was most surprised that children actually died in these ‘schools’.
On another occasion, Sinclair had the audacity to apologize publicly to the Catholic Church on behalf of the TRC, and on behalf of his head researcher, John Milloy, (who was also a researcher on the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples), for pushing the Catholic Church too hard to fully open ALL of their archived documents … which they refused to do … and still refuse to do. John Milloy also apologized to the church. He subsequently resigned from the TRC. By the way, the Canadian Government is also withholding archival materials, and has acknowledged that it destroyed documents on at least three occasions, allegedly to make space for more important stuff.
Canada’s current Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Minister, Bernard Valcourt wonders aloud whether this story is true — but if it is, it is “abhorrent and completely unacceptable”.
In a July 17, 2013 article in The Globe and Mail, Shawn Atleo states: “We’re going to call on the Prime Minister to give effect to the words that he spoke when he said: ‘The burden of this experience has been on your shoulders for far too long. The burden is properly ours as a government.’” This refers to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2008 official apology for residential schools.
On July 25, after a call-out for action went viral, protests took place across the country on the theme “Honour the Apology”. We’ll see where this ‘old – new’ story takes us. Harper’s Conservative government pledges to follow a court order to hand over ‘relevant’ documents to the TRC. But who knows when that will happen?
Carrie Lester is a Native rights, environmental activist of mixed Mohawk / Bearfoot Onondaga / UK-Canadian-settler heritage, and is a member of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, based in Toronto.