Heartbreaking is the only word that can describe the revelations by University of Guelph food historian Ian Mosby that aboriginal children and adults were deliberately kept on starvation diets and denied basic nutrition as part of experiments more than 60 years ago.
Mosby said that experiments took place on reserves in northern Manitoba as well as at six residential schools around the country. They involved denying some of the children and adults vitamins and minerals, recommended levels of milk, adulterated flour, oranges, and even dental services. The 1,300 “subjects” used in the experiments were already hungry and suffering nutritionally. One of those children was Assembly of First Nations national chief Shawn Atleo’s father, who attended a residential school in Port Alberni, B.C.
It is terribly painful to think of people being deliberately deprived of food in this land of plenty, and adding to that hurt is the knowledge that they were treated as heartlessly as if they had been lab rats instead of human beings. In fact, the experiments and the complete lack of ethics involved with carrying them out sound, frankly, like something that would have come out of Nazi Germany.
No one will ever be able to measure the lifelong damage done by these experiments, for when growing children are deprived of nutritious food, their development and learning outcomes are affected, and may suffer permanent effects. Add these horrible revelations about food deprivation to the stories of abuse, neglect and lack of medical care and sanitation that make up the legacy of residential schools. It all adds up to a profoundly shameful chapter of Canadian history.
Compensation has already been paid to residential school survivors. Perhaps those who were purposely malnourished on reserves should be compensated. However, on Wednesday, Atleo, whose group held its annual meeting in Whitehorse this past week, called on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to provide increased funding for aboriginal child welfare.
The child welfare system may be in need of an overhaul, but the latest revelations about the food experiments should not turn into a call for more compensation to be paid out. The original amounts were intended to cover all of the abuse suffered in residential schools. Chief Ron Evans of Manitoba’s Norway House First Nation says the “intergenerational impacts” are still being dealt with and there are “very little resources to assist us.” Evans complained that after Harper’s residential school apology was issued in 2008, “nothing follows in terms of how do we restore the dignity that they tried to destroy.”
Dignity, however, cannot be purchased for any amount of money. Only the individuals themselves can reclaim their own dignity. Mosby’s research has turned up shocking information, but those who were victimized so many years ago have nowhere to go but forward, and that is where the work must be done.
All Canadians feel great sadness at the abuse aboriginals were forced to endure decades ago and want to see positive improvements for all aboriginals going forward. The resources and opportunities are there. May the healing continue.