Robyn Benson, PSAC

Indigenous children as lab rats: Canada's shame

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The revelation that Canadian officials experimented on First Nations children in the 1940s and 1950s is horrifying, all the more so because solid lines can be drawn so directly from that time to our own.

Food historian Ian Mosby’s study, which may be read in its entirety here, makes appalling reading. It chronicles not only nutritional experiments on kids, in which some were deliberately permitted to remain chronically malnourished and suffer a variety of ills from dental decay to anemia, but the attitudes that made such a thing possible in the first place.

When people are colonized, or racialized, or impoverished, or have various disabilities that make them vulnerable to abuse, it seems easy for those with power to start seeing them as less than fully human. At that point they become fair game to be treated as objects for use—as cheap labour, even slaves, or as medical guinea pigs. History is full of heart-rending examples, and they aren’t restricted by any means to the ghastly accounts of Nazi and Japanese medical experiments with which we are familiar.

Think all that sort of thing went out of fashion after World War II? Guess again. As Mosby notes, experiments on non-consenting human subjects actually expanded after the war. The Tuskagee Experiment, for example, tracked poor Black American men infected with syphilis over decades, allowing their bodies and minds to deteriorate even after common antibiotics could have cured them in the 1940s. This experiment only ended in 1972. In 1971, poor Mexican-American women, seeking contraceptive help at a birth control clinic, were given dummy pills in a grossly unethical experiment, and many became pregnant as a result.

So, unfortunately, there is little that is surprising in this latest discovery. But that makes it no less dreadful. The following should give the flavour.

It is true that Ottawa officials, doctors and scientists recognized that widespread hunger and malnutrition were a problem. But, as Mosby indicates, they quickly came to see the bodies of indigenous people as “experimental materials,” and their communities and the residential schools as laboratories. This was a golden opportunity for them to pursue political and professional agendas at some remove from the welfare of the people concerned.

These experiments added more misery to the living hell that was Indian residential schools in Canada:

…[H]unger and the frequently inedible food that children were forced to eat often dominates the memories of survivors of residential schools. These conditions in all likelihood contributed to the appalling death rates of children either during their residency or immediately upon discharge from these institutions, which in some cases exceeded 50 per cent of pupils.

And indigenous people trying to survive in their communities were also victimized by the Great White Father. Indian Affairs actually cut back unemployment relief substantially at the height of the Depression. Able-bodied men were struck off the rolls, and sick relief rations were reduced. Per capita expenditures of relief were cut from half to one third what non-Aboriginal Canadians received.

Indian Affairs was only too happy to conduct its own experiments as well, preventing some households from buying flour, a basic staple, with their Family Allowances. This would supposedly encourage the consumption of “country food” and hence keep them from bothering the good folks at the Hudson’s Bay Company.

The consequences of that could be catastrophic:

In Great Whale River, the consequence of this policy during late 1949 and early 1950 was that many Inuit families were forced to go on their annual winter hunt with insufficient flour to last for the entire season. Within a few months, some went hungry and were forced to resort to eating their sled dogs and boiled seal skin.

Meanwhile, the children incarcerated in residential schools were suffering unspeakably. One of the researchers who experimented on the children offered these patronizing comments:

…We do not know as much as we should as to what motivates the Indian. We have to find out what incentive we can place in front of him. The Indian is very different from us. We have to find out how the Indian can be encouraged, how his work can be diversified, his efforts diversified, so he can make himself self-supporting, so he can obtain the food he needs.

In the schools, where severe hunger was the norm, principals found it downright annoying to have to cope with sporadic federal inspections of the food services, despite the fact that they always gave notice of their arrival:

One inspector was told by an Indian Affairs official that the work was “making it more difficult for the principals, sister superiors and cooks to operate the schools because the Indian children realize that we are there to try to improve the food services.” She added that First Nations had “been agitating for betterment in the food served, and this makes it very hard for the principal.”

…Alberni school principal A. E. Caldwell…felt that the goal of the experiment was consistent with what he viewed as the goals of residential schooling. “Constructive teaching in the residential school,” he wrote, “will lead the Indian people away from indolent habits inherent in the race because of their hitherto easy means of sustenance by hunting anf [sic] fishing, teaching them habits of consistent industry necesxary [sic] to compete inan [sic] industrial age, and will furthermore dispel the almost universal Indian opinion of “white” antagonism that makes the Indian people so difficult to negotiate with. [emphases added]

In the interests of science, the children at St. Paul’s residential school were deliberately kept undernourished to provide a control sample. Children were also denied proper dental care, because it would interfere with the experiments. As for the regular physical examinations the test subjects got, they were, in Mosby’s words, “confusing, painful, and potentially traumatic.”

But wasn’t it all for the greater good? Well, no, as it turns out. As Mosby observes:

In the end, these studies did little to alter the structural conditions that led to malnutrition and hunger in the first place and, as a result, did more to bolster the career ambitions of the researchers than to improve the health of those identified as being malnourished.

It is difficult not to conclude, with these commentators, that the experiments were merely a part of a larger long-term program to wipe out the indigenous peoples—or, in the words of Duncan Campbell Scott, who ran the residential schools in 1910 when tuberculosis was allowed to run rampant, to move towards the “Final Solution of our Indian Problem.”

Sound familiar?

Needless to say, the Harper government and its loyal media columnists lost no time deflecting blame when the Mosby study came out. It was the Liberals! Here’s one such piece of tripe from the National Post. To summarize it: “Hey, come on, you ungrateful Aboriginals, Harper’s already apologized. What do you want from us?” And the current Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, Bernard Valcourt, is of the same opinion.

Well, that might be just fine if it weren’t so obvious that the so-called “apology” by Stephen Harper was a hollow one from the get-go. The government is currently spending millions of dollars to defend its “right” to provide significantly less support for indigenous children than other Canadian children receive. So vicious has been their fight against equal treatment for these kids that they have squandered considerable resources stalking Cindy Blackstock, the chief advocate for indigenous children in Canada today who brought a human rights complaint five years ago on their behalf.

Another empty apology from Harper will solve absolutely nothing. The court case may help. But in the meantime, indigenous children continue to be discriminated against. The 1940s and 1950s were bad enough—but in 2013, the kids are still not all right.

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This page contains a single entry by Robyn Benson, PSAC published on July 29, 2013 9:57 AM.

Baristas rise up: "We are always stronger together" was the previous entry in this blog.

Les enfants autochtones, des rats de laboratoire : le Canada entaché de honte is the next entry in this blog.

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