This story is over 5 years old

The Federal Government Is Surprisingly Blasé About Medical Experiments Conducted on Canada’s First Nations

The Canadian government has stated they won’t be offering an apology to First Nations people from a number of northern communities, who were unknowingly and unwillingly the subjects of medical experiments.

by Dave Dean
Aug 13 2013, 9:06pm

Qu'Appelle Indian Industrial School, Saskatchewan. via WikiCommons.

The Canadian government has stated they won’t be offering an apology to First Nations people from a number of northern communities, who were unknowingly and unwillingly the subjects of medical experiments.

Last month, Dr. Ian Mosby, a Canadian historian from the University of Guelph, published a paper that exposed and examined experiments that were conducted throughout the 40s and 50s on both adults and children throughout at least eight First Nations communities across northern Manitoba, B.C. and Ontario.

Over 1,300 subjects, most of whom were children attending residential schools—who as wards of the state had no real say on what could or could not be done to them—were put through tests that studied the malnourished human body. The experiments were headed up by medical researchers, one of which was Dr. Frederick Tisdall the co-inventor of the baby food Pablum, and were consistently funded by the federal government.

In his paper Mosby writes, “Bureaucrats, doctors, and scientists recognized the problems of hunger and malnutrition, yet increasingly came to view Aboriginal bodies as ‘experimental materials,’ and residential schools and Aboriginal communities as kinds of ‘laboratories’ that they could use to pursue a number of different political and professional interests.”

There were two angles to the study: One was to determine if nutritional supplements could replace food as sufficient fortification to starving bodies, and the other was geared towards solving that thorn-in-the side of the “Indian Problem,” hypothesizing that, maybe, if they weren’t so hungry all the time and could subsist with the help of vitamin supplements, the Indians would smarten up, get healthy and assimilate. As Mosby puts it, “Nutrition offered a new explanation for—and novel solution to—the so-called ‘Indian Problem’ of susceptibility to disease and economic dependency.”

For these studies to be done effectively, benchmarks were needed—which meant that some would receive care and others would stay neglected. There are documented cases of schools withholding milk rations so scientists could get a baseline of malnourishment. In other cases, half the student population would receive iron and iodine supplements while the other half wouldn’t. And in most instances, because studying teeth and gums was a measuring stick of nutritional health, all dental care was revoked, as it would interfere with the indicators of the study. One man who has spoken out about being subject to these experiments recalled his adult teeth falling out when he was only 11

One of the schools that these experiments took place at was the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora. Just last week, it came to light that at Cecilia Jeffrey not only were students subjected to nutritional experiments, but it was also the site of experimental ear-infection treatments that tried up to 14 different drugs and treatment methods on aboriginal students—including teaching students to flush their own ears out with hot water using modified enema equipment, having earwax removed with syringes, and being given nose drops to treat “mouth breathing”

Ian Mosby has stated that even at the time, these studies being conducted on unknowing and unwilling human subjects would have been perceived as all kinds of fucked up. And, the fact they took place in the same decade the Nuremberg Code was being established makes them that much more troubling.

Since these experiments have been exposed, First Nations groups are understandably outraged. However, while both the United and Presbyterian churches have been up-front and apologetic about the role their institutions played, the Prime Minister’s Office and Ministry of Indian Affairs has treated it as old-hat, acting relatively blasé about the whole issue. "The apology itself that the Prime Minister made looked at the Indian Residential School as a dark chapter in Canada's history,” states Kenora’s Conservative MP Greg Rickford, “it included a number of activities that were regrettable, unfortunate, and for which an apology accounts for.”

But the difference between these experiments being done, and, for example, the withholding of documents related to the electric chair at St. Anne’s Residential School—is that these experiments were sanctioned by the federal government and politically reinforced as sound, rational and ethical policy.

This wasn’t an isolated, unfortunate incident of abuse suffered in one school at the hands of a few twisted nuns or priests—this was government mandate. It’s unsettling to read even more evidence of the Canadian government’s systemic attempt to solve the ‘Indian Problem,’ as we learn more about what essentially amounts to a genocide seeping through Canada’s often crisp, white table-clothed perception of our national historic identity.

Follow Dave on Twitter: @ddner

More on the residential schools issue:

The Canadian Government Is Withholding Documents Concering the Torture of Native Children

The Wildly Depressing History of Canadian Residential Schools

medical experiments
Vice Blog