Food deprivation and starvation politics against Canada’s Aboriginal peoples

By Roger Annis, July 18, 2013

Since my blog posting yesterday on the subject, a great deal more information has come forward in Canada about the ‘starvation politics’ that successive Canadian governments practiced against First Nations peoples.

Blackfoot camp in western Canada, late 19th century

Yesterday’s news broke the story of how political leaders and scientists in the Department of Indian Affairs practiced Nazi-like nutrition-deprivation experiments against app. 1,300 Aboriginal children during the 1940s and 1950s They did so in the name of “science”. The documents detailing this policy were already public, but a researcher at the University of Guelph has made them more widely known through the course of his research.

And my reference above to Nazism is not bombast. In a Vancouver Sun news article today (text and link below), Ed John, chief of the First Nations Summit in British Columbia, recalls that the investigations and trials in Nuremburg, Germany following World War Two effectively outlawed the kind of live medical experimentation for which Canada now stands accused. The trials led to the ten-point Nuremburg Code, a set of research ethics principles for human experimentation. While not part of international law, the Code is  incorporated into the medical regulations of many countries and it served as a foundation for the 1964 Helsinki Declaration.

Last night, CBC’s Radio One’s As It Happens program broadcast interviews with two people survivors of those experiments. Listen here.

This morning, Radio One’s The Current spoke with another survivor. And it interviewed Dr. James Daschuk, an author and historian at the Centre for Kinesiology, Health and Sport at the University of Regina, Saskatchewan. Daschuk is the author of Clearing The Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, published just two months ago by the University of Regina Press. Read a brief summary of the book here.

“We were hungry all the time. Most of the time anyway. They gave us just enough food to more or less I guess just to keep us alive, I guess … We ate it because we were hungry. We didn’t have a choice in the matter. Either that or starve to death.”–Leonard Pootlass on his B.C. residential school experience, from an interview on CBC

Daschuk says that Canada did not practice the same policies of outright extermination of First Nations people as happened in the U.S. But he does document how it imposed near-starvation in order to compel subjugation. His research uncovered that Canada’s first prime minister, John A. MacDonald of the Conservative Party, openly admitted to the policy in the Parliament of the day. His Liberal Party opposition complained he was spending too much on food supplies to subjugated Indians.

Listen to the 20-minute story on The Current here. And read an op-ed by Dr. Daschuk further below that is published  in the Globe and Mail.

James Daschuk’s book reminds one of the 1990 book Lost Harvests. My brief summary of that book is here. Author Sarah Carter recounts how from the outset of colonization, Canada stripped the Plains Indians of the right to farm. And from my summary, you can link to an exceptional essay on the subject by Chelsea Vowel on her website âpihtawikosisân. The essay includes Vowel’s review of Lost Harvests.

Similar proscriptions were applied against the fishing rights and practices of First Nations on Canada’s east and west coasts and on the large, inland lakes that supported or came to support commercial fisheries. Civil disobedience and legal battles in recent decades have won back some of the lost rights to fish for food and commerce. A landmark legal victory for Aboriginal fishing rights was won by Micmac hero Donald Marshall in 1999. But government obstruction and political tensions over Aboriginal fishing rights are ongoing.

Donald Marshall was a double hero—after serving 11 years in prison for a murder he did not commit, he successfully fought the frame-up against him and was acquitted in 1983. He died in 2009.


Investigation into residential school experiments called for

By Kim Pemberton, Vancouver Sun, July 18, 2013

There are “literally millions of documents” about the residential school system that Ottawa is just starting to make public and it’s not yet known if any more deal with controversial experiments on aboriginal children. That’s the word from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada [established in 2009] after reports Tuesday that malnourished aboriginal children in residential schools, including in Port Alberni, were subjected to nutritional experiments shortly after the Second World War.

“There needs to be a planned approach to find out more and to get to the bottom of this,” Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B. C. Indian Chiefs said Wednesday. “There’s a good chance other depraved acts in the name of science were taking place to other young children.”

The commission, which is charged with establishing the truth about sexual and physical abuse and loss of culture at residential schools, went to court in December to get access to documents held by Ottawa. The documents, mostly in digital files, have started to arrive, a spokeswoman said Wednesday.

While the commission’s five-year mandate runs out in a year, commission chair Murray Sinclair has said he believes it will be possible to study the documents and create a historical record of Canada’s residential school system and abuses within it. “It’s just a question of time and resources. It’s not a question of intent anymore,” Sinclair told Postmedia News recently.

“I do not doubt for a moment that they ( the federal government) understand their obligation to provide all relevant documents to the commission, and that they are working on a plan to make it happen. … Whether they are capable of doing it in the time that’s left is another question.”

The commission, the spokeswoman said, has no idea how many files in total will arrive. It intends to provide access to the documents at a national research centre so the public, researchers and educators can learn more about what happened to the 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children taken from their homes, often against their parents’ wishes, and forced to live in residential schools across Canada. (The residential school system began in the 1870s and more than 130 schools were located across the country. The last one closed in 1996.)

Phillip said the chiefs of the Assembly of First Nations, many of whom learned about the experiments while attending their annual general assembly in Whitehorse, are having “intense discussions” about the issue and are “absolutely outraged.”

“There’s an absolute sense of outrage sweeping through the delegation. You can expect there will be a communications sent to the prime minister demanding answers and he needs to take the necessary steps to make this right,” he said.

AFN national chief Shawn Atleo said the assembly is drafting an emergency resolution demanding that Ottawa admit aboriginal children today are still hungry and acknowledge the “horrors” of nutritional experiments once done on aboriginal children. “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,’ ” Atleo said, referring to Harper’s 2008 apology to survivors of residential schools.

Atleo’s father was one of the children in the Port Alberni residential school. “It hits home in a deeply personal way,” he said. “I’ve heard these stories — some kids allowed to have their oranges and vitamin C and others not.”

Ed John, chief of B.C.’s First Nations Summit, said it was “disturbing” and “an affront to human decency” for nutritional experiments to have taken place on aboriginal children. “We have every right to condemn what the government was involved with,” said John. “It’s a disturbing pattern of government conduct. To experiment with the impact of substandard nutrition on students is a double affront to human decency and humanity.”

John said the reconciliation commission should not have had to go to court to get documents. “The government shouldn’t hide these records, which is what they’ve been doing,” he said. “It’s very disturbing what happened,” he said. “Bear in mind, this came after the experiments by the Nazis and the principles established with the Nuremberg Code (a set of ethical principles for research on humans) and these were not followed.”

The B.C. regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations, Jody Wilson- Raybould, said the recently published research that revealed the nutritional research, by Ian Mosby from the University of Guelph, is a reminder of the ongoing need for healing.

On Tuesday, Mosby revealed that he’d found documentary evidence that, over a 10- year span starting in 1942, at least 1,300 aboriginals, mostly children, were unknowingly made part of the nutritional experiments. At the Port Alberni residential school, for instance, milk rations were held to less than half the recommended amount for two years to get a “baseline” reading for when the milk ration was tripled, according to a 1953 government report discovered by Mosby.

“Our citizens, our communities are still coming to terms with the residential schools legacy and the Mosby paper is another painful reminder of the experiences and how our people suffered at the hands of the government in being subjected to experimentation that they never consented to,” said Wilson- Raybould.


‘Thank them for what they’ve done to us all’

Letters from kids show how little they knew about being deliberately malnourished by federal researchers in the ’40s and ’50s

By Andrew Livigstone, staff reporter, Toronto Star, July 18, 2013

The letter was written in perfect cursive. “Thank them for what they have done to us all.” Before it was mailed, two words were changed, and one added. “Thank them for what they have done for us.”

Sent to government researchers and bureaucrats in Ottawa at the behest of their teachers, dozens of thank-you letters speak volumes of how little 1,300 aboriginal children knew of the experiments they were subjected to without their consent during their time at residential schools.

Guinea pigs in the name of science. New historical research on nutrition experiments on aboriginal children across Canada in the1940s and ’50s sparked outrage from aboriginal leaders Wednesday wanting a response from Ottawa. Grand Chief Shawn Atleo said the story is dominating conversations at a national assembly in Whitehorse. The assembly is drafting an emergency resolution demanding that Ottawa acknowledge that aboriginal children are still hungry.

While leaders decry another black mark in the nation’s history of mistreatment of aboriginals, experts say that the experiments are rooted in a government’s desire to replace the traditional way of life for a modern one.

Such behaviour fits the paternalistic attitude of Canada’s administration of aboriginals during the postwar period, said Mary-Ellen Kelm, an expert in aboriginal history at Simon Fraser University. “The state is the parent consenting to the researcher,” she said. “At the time, the dominate discourse is indigenous people are unhealthy because of a racial taint.”

It’s important to look at the experiments in the context of the time, said Jim Miller, a professor of history at the University of Saskatchewan. The medical community did not have a well-developed understanding or procedure for securing informed consent prior to treatment or tests, he said.

Details of the experiments in nutrition came from recently published historical research by Ian Mosby, a post-doctorate at the University of Guelph. However, Justice Murray Sinclair, chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said, “Everybody who was involved in scientific work (at the time) knew it was wrong to put people into an experimental situation without informing them what they were doing.”

In the 1940s, malnourishment across the aboriginal population was rampant. The Canadian government knew it was their fault and recognized the “Indian problem” — aboriginals’ dependent on the system for support — was a result of cultures colliding. So, children in residential schools across the country had their milk rations halved for years, essential vitamins were kept from people who needed them, and dental services were withheld because gum health was a measuring tool for scientists and any care would distort research.

This was done, Kelm believes, to protect Canada’s emerging reputation on the international stage for being a modern, humanitarian nation. “If we can come up with a one-size-fits-all solution, then all of these problems, including the Indian problem, will go away,” Kelm said. “It’s a direct result of Canada developing this international reputation . . . and having this pesky group of indigenous people who won’t get better.

“They’re embarrassed.”

It’s paternalism with a technocratic gloss, said Maureen Lux, an expert in medicine and aboriginal people at Brock University. It’s the notion that aboriginal people need to be reformed and be no longer ‘Christianized,’ like religious missionaries had been doing for decades, but made modern. “Generally the notion was that these are people who were careless in their health and they didn’t know how to be healthy and they needed guidance from experts,” Lux said.

Children taken from their homes and removed from the authority of their parents are perhaps the most vulnerable, said Brenda Macdougall, co-ordinator of the Aboriginal Studies program at the University of Ottawa. “Nobody is looking after their personal best interest,” Macdougall said.


When Canada used hunger to clear the West

Op-ed by Dr. James Daschuk, Globe and Mail, July 18, 2013

Twenty years ago, Saskatoon scholar Laurie Barron cautioned that stories of sexual and physical abuse at Indian residential schools should be taken with a grain of salt; he thought they were just too horrific to be believed in their entirety. But national leader Phil Fontaine’s public admission of his abuse, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People and the haunting testimony presented recently to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada have brought the horrors of the residential school system to the forefront of our consciousness. We are often shocked, but we really shouldn’t be surprised.

Nor should we be surprised by the revelations in Dr. Ian Mosby’s article about the medical experimentation on malnourished aboriginal people in northern Canada and in residential schools. Rather than feed the hungry among its wards (even adult “Registered Indians” were not full citizens until 1960), government-employed physicians used pangs of hunger to further their research into malnutrition, in a plot reminiscent of the Tuskegee experiment on African-Americans with syphilis, whose conditions were monitored rather than treated.

Researching my own book forced me to reconsider many of my long-held beliefs about Canadian history. A professor of mine at Trent University once explained that Canadian expansion into the West was much less violent than that of the United States’, because in that country, “the person with the fastest horse got the most land.” By contrast, in the Dominion’s march west, the land was prepared for settlement by government officials before the flood of immigrants.

What we didn’t know at the time was that a key aspect of preparing the land was the subjugation and forced removal of indigenous communities from their traditional territories, essentially clearing the plains of aboriginal people to make way for railway construction and settlement. Despite guarantees of food aid in times of famine in Treaty No. 6, Canadian officials used food, or rather denied food, as a means to ethnically cleanse a vast region from Regina to the Alberta border as the Canadian Pacific Railway took shape.

For years, government officials withheld food from aboriginal people until they moved to their appointed reserves, forcing them to trade freedom for rations. Once on reserves, food placed in ration houses was withheld for so long that much of it rotted while the people it was intended to feed fell into a decades-long cycle of malnutrition, suppressed immunity and sickness from tuberculosis and other diseases. Thousands died.

Sir John A. Macdonald, acting as both prime minister and minister of Indian affairs during the darkest days of the famine, even boasted that the indigenous population was kept on the “verge of actual starvation,” in an attempt to deflect criticism that he was squandering public funds.

Within a generation, aboriginal bison hunters went from being the “tallest in the world,” due to the quality of their nutrition, to a population so sick, they were believed to be racially more susceptible to disease. With this belief that aboriginal people were inherently unwell, their marginalization from mainstream Canada was, in a sense, complete.

For more than a century, Canadians have been accustomed to reports of terrible housing conditions on reserves, unsafe drinking water, dismal educational outcomes and, at least in Western Canada, prison populations disproportionally stacked with aboriginal inmates. Aboriginal leaders and young people such as those who embraced the Idle No More movement have been calling for Canadians to fundamentally acknowledge the injustices and atrocities of the past and fix the problems that keep indigenous Canadians from living the same quality of life as their non-aboriginal neighbours.

As the skeletons in our collective closet are exposed to the light, through the work of Dr. Mosby and others, perhaps we will come to understand the uncomfortable truths that modern Canada is founded upon – ethnic cleansing and genocide – and push our leaders and ourselves to make a nation we can be proud to call home.

Dr. James Daschuk is the author of Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation and the Loss of Aboriginal Life. He is an assistant professor in the faculty of kinesiology and health studies at the University of Regina and a researcher with the Saskatchewan Population Health and Evaluation Research Unit.

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