Canada's oft-overlooked history of forcing Indigenous children into residential schools has been linked to serious health consequences on survivors and their families today, according to an article published this month in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. Food historian Ian Mosby and human biologist Tracey Galloway—both of the University of Toronto—say that the high instance of type 2 diabetes and obesity in Indigenous communities can be attributed, in part, to the prolonged malnutrition and hunger children experienced in the government-funded church-run facilities, which were established in the 1870s and continued on until the last school closed its doors in 1996.
Galloway explains that when exposed to hunger, children undergo a physiological reaction in which cells begin to prioritize the storage of fat over lean mass.
"This not only leads to higher risk of obesity later in life but causes them to develop this condition called insulin sensitivity, a precursor to diabetes," Galloway told VICE. While one in 10 Canadians will develop diabetes in their lifetime, that risk jumps to one in six for Indigenous people in Canada, and, on some Indigenous communities, as high as one in four. For women, those physiological changes can also result in a heightened risk of infertility and poor pregnancy outcomes later in life.
But it doesn't stop there—these physiological changes, Galloway says, get passed on to the next generation, and the generation after that. So, a child's exposure to hunger impacts not only their health, but the health of their children and grandchildren—many of whom may have also been sent to residential schools and exposed to the same degree of hunger and malnutrition. "We have in Canada this layering on of generations of risk carried both through the parents and then repeated again in childhood exposure to hunger," Galloway said. "It's really unprecedented."
Mosby was initially motivated to investigate the subject after hearing testimony from residential school survivors around the country, noticing that hunger was consistently the central theme in each story, as was the development of chronic conditions like diabetes later in life. "I realized how far we are from justice for survivors," he told VICE.
He also noticed that hunger was barely mentioned in the existing medical literature surrounding diabetes and obesity in Indigenous communities. "Diabetes researchers for a long time—for decades, in fact—looked for genetic causes for the disproportionate levels of diabetes in Indigenous communities," he said. "This was a very problematic theory in a lot of respects because it ignored the actual social conditions and circumstances."
Mosby turned to Galloway last summer to help him look at a potential link, and the evidence they found was overwhelming. "While we can't say exactly what people ate at every school, we know that, in general, kids had far too few calories, too little protein and fat—growing kids need to have fat in their diet and a good source of protein—very rarely did they get fruits and vegetables, and then many, many kids describe eating contaminated food," Galloway said.
Their findings were corroborated by testimony given to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission from residential school officials, and was all the more grave in light of research carried out by Paul Hackett and colleagues at the University of Saskatchewan. Hackett's paper was published in the Journal of Circumpolar Health and revealed that kids arriving at residential schools were as healthy as other Canadian children at the time. "Some of the justification for putting kids in the residential schools in the first place was that they weren't doing well," Galloway said. "But the longer they stayed at residential schools, the more likely they were to be too lean for their height."
Mosby points to underfunding to explain the prevalence of hunger, but also poor living conditions and education, at residential schools—a structural problem he says still persists today. "The same services that are provided to non-Indigenous people are being funded at a fraction of the cost for Indigenous communities," he says. "The root causes of hunger and malnutrition in residential schools haven't been addressed, and we're still seeing Indigenous children, in particular, suffering because of these policies."
While the psychological consequences have largely been acknowledged in medical research surrounding survivors of residential schools, Mosby says the physical repercussions haven't been looked at in the same way. "Many people have this false idea that the abuse in residential schools was a few bad apple priests but the overall intent was good," he said. "The extent of hunger in residential schools shows that it wasn't bad apples—this was a system that was rotten to its very core, and it's had lasting and continued impacts on survivors and their families."