Nutritionists viewed malnourished children at Indian Residential Schools as perfect test subjects

The discovery of hundreds of children’s remains in Kamloops, Brandon and Cowesss has revealed the absolute havoc settlers through the Indian Residential School System have wreaked on indigenous children, families and communities.

Read More: Amid Shocking Findings In Residential Schools, Non-Indians Need To Take Action

As a nutritionist and settler Canadian, I call on my colleagues to recognize and understand the damage that malnutrition and nutrition experiments have wrought on indigenous peoples and the legacy they have left behind.

Easier to assimilate

Ian Mosby, historian of nutrition, indigenous health, and the politics of Canadian settler colonialism, revealed that Canada’s most prominent nutritionists conducted highly unethical research on 1,300 indigenous peoples, including 1,000 children, in Cree communities in northern Manitoba and elsewhere between 1942 and 1952 have six residential schools across Canada.

Many already suffered from malnutrition due to destructive government policies and terrible conditions in boarding schools.

In the eyes of the researchers, this made them ideal test subjects.

A nurse takes a blood sample from a boy at Indian Residential School in Port Alberni, BC, during a medical and dental exam in 1948.
(F. Royal. Canada. National Film Board of Canada. Phototèque. Library and Archives Canada, e002504649), CC BY

Frederick Tisdall – famous as the co-founder of the Pablum infant formula at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto – along with Percy Moore and Lionel Bradley Pett were the main architects of the nutrition experiments.

They suggested that education and nutrition interventions would make indigenous peoples more profitable assets for Canada, that the transmission of diseases like tuberculosis would decrease to white people, and that assimilation would be easier if the indigenous peoples were healthier.

You have successfully submitted your plan for nutrition experiments to the federal government.

Tisdall, Moore, and their team based their pitch on the results they found after subjecting 400 Cree adults and children in northern Manitoba to a series of intrusive exams, including physical exams, x-rays, and blood draws.

Pett and his team’s pitch focused on determining a baseline. They wanted to give the children of Alberni Indian Residential School a small amount of milk for two years, enough to deprive adolescent children of the calories and nutrients they need significantly.

Other experiments involved withholding essential vitamins and minerals from children in control groups while preventing Indian health services from providing dental care on the pretext that this could affect study results.

Even before these experiments, children in Indian residential schools were starving – with reports of severe malnutrition and signs of serious vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

Motives and racial backgrounds of the nutrition experiments

Interest in nutrition research rose dramatically in the 1940s after the Canadian Council on Nutrition publicly stated that more than 60 percent of the people in Canada were nutritionally deficient.

Most of the experiments up until then had been carried out on animals, but researchers like Pett, the lead author of the later Canadian Food Guide, took the opportunity to use indigenous peoples as laboratory rats.

While perpetrators like Pett often acted under the pretext of understanding and helping indigenous peoples, the racial basis of these nutrition experiments was clear.

The investigators tried to unravel the “Indian problem”. Moore, Tisdall and their staff attributed discriminatory stereotypes such as “immobility, indolence, improvisation and indolence” to malnutrition.

AE Caldwell, principal of the Alberni Indian Residential School, claimed the malnutrition was due to traditional diets and lifestyles, which he called “sluggish habits”. The nutrition experiments, along with the deeply inadequate and poor quality foods given to residential school children, were a perfect fit with Caldwell’s assimilation mission.

Denying adequate traditional food to virtually all children is another means of colonization and cultural genocide.

A nurse watches boys spit in test tubes

A National Health and Welfare Department nurse oversees saliva collection from boys at Indian Residential School in Port Alberni, BC, in 1948.
(F. Royal. Canada. National Film Board of Canada. Phototèque. Library and Archives Canada, e002504650), CC BY

Following Mosby’s findings, Pett stated that he was keen to better understand the “inevitable” transition from traditional foods, but Indian boarding schools have been specifically designed to make this happen.

Their research is unethical by today’s standards, and it is hard to believe that it was ever acceptable to experiment on anyone, let alone children, without their consent.

The aftermath of the Holocaust and the biomedical experiments in concentration camps led to the development of the Nuremberg Codex in 1947, which states that voluntary consent to research is imperative and that experiments should avoid all unnecessary psychological and physical suffering.

The code came out the same year Pett began his nutrition experiments at six residential schools.

Consequences of malnutrition and experimentation

Childhood malnutrition can be fatal, especially if it is linked to the risk of illness, which has often been the case in boarding schools.

The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission shows that the main causes of death in boarding schools were physical harm, malnutrition, illness and neglect.

Malnutrition has profound effects on boarding school survivors. Childhood hunger increases the risk of developing chronic conditions like type 2 diabetes, and research shows that severe malnutrition can even cause epigenetic changes that can be passed down through generations.

It was immoral to experiment on children who were already forced to suffer.

Food insecurity and nutritional problems in indigenous communities are important problems in Canada resulting from the boarding schools and colonial politics that continue to this day.

Experiments in boarding schools and in communities have made health care facilities precarious and traumatic places for many indigenous peoples and led to a degree of reluctance to vaccinate during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, stigmatization, violence and racism against indigenous peoples persist in these contexts.

This particular story of malnutrition and nutrition experiments on indigenous children and adults has been told before. It caught mainstream media attention in 2013, following Mosby’s research and advocacy.

And it comes as no surprise to the indigenous peoples whose truths we must finally hear deeply.

If you are an Indian Residential School survivor or are affected by the boarding school system and need assistance, you can contact the Indian Residential Schools 24 hour emergency line at 1-866-925-4419