Benson Nookemis and Debra Foxcroft speak to media on the former site of the Alberni Indian Residential School. Nookemis said the students at AIRS were always hungry. Foxcroft said her father attended the school during the nutritional experiments that have recently been revealed. He told her that the pigs and cows there ate better than the students.
Photo by Debora Steel
Tseshaht First Nation has demanded a public apology from the federal government and a full disclosure of facts surrounding nutritional and medical experiments performed on children at the Alberni Indian Residential School beginning in the late 1940s.
Details of the experiments, which took place at selected locations across Canada beginning in 1942, were only revealed to the public on Tuesday. On Wednesday, standing just a few metres from the site of the notorious building where generations of aboriginal children were systematically stripped of their language and traditional culture, elected Chief Councillor Hugh Braker blasted a federal government that allowed “fake science and discredited research” to happen and later conspired to keep it secret.
Braker pointed out that when the AIRS program began in 1947, the world was still reeling from revelations of hideous medical experiments in the Nazi concentration camps. Despite those horrors, he said, the Canadian government allowed scientists to withhold food and medical care from vulnerable children in the name of medical research.
“Tseshaht condemns those experiments. They were done without the consent of the parents, without the consent of the students and without the knowledge of the students or the First Nations involved; we think they were horrific,” Braker said. “These were innocent children. They were yanked from their homes. They had no parents with them at the residential school. Their diet was already bad. They were isolated and they were deprived of their language. Only after the federal government had already victimized them did it re-victimize them by subjecting them to experiments that were beyond their capacity to consent to.”
The revelations came to light in the May 2013 edition of the scholarly journal, Social History, in an article published by University of Guelph researcher, Dr. Ian Mosby. Titled Administering Colonial Science: Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools, 1942-1952, Mosby chronicles a series of experiments that came as the result of a visit in 1942 by a team of respected Canadian researchers to a number of First Nations reserves in northern Manitoba.
There, the researchers were shocked at the poor health of residents in the remote villages, where a downturn in the trapping economy and cutbacks to the meager social assistance programs of the day had exacerbated already marginal economic conditions. Rates of tuberculosis were astronomical (1,400 per 100,000 versus 27.1 for the non-aboriginal population) and the infant mortality rate was eight times that of the rest of Canada.
That led the researchers to speculate that what was widely thought of as the “Indian Problem” might hinge on nutrition and living conditions as opposed to race and genetics. Their “Summary of Findings From a Nutritional Survey of Approximately Three Hundred Indians (March 15, 1942) concluded that:
It is not unlikely that many characteristics, such as shiftlessness, indolence, improvidence and inertia, so long regarded as inherent or hereditary traits in the Indian race may, at the root, be really the manifestations of malnutrition. Furthermore, it is highly probable that their great susceptibility to many diseases, paramount amongst which is tuberculosis, may be directly attributable to their high degree of malnutrition arising from lack of proper foods.
The team proposed a one-to-two year study “on a limited number of Indians” to prove that with education and nutritional interventions, they could improve the performance standard of the aboriginal population, concluding with, “It is our belief that the Indian can become an economic asset to the nation.”
But from a small study involving a small sample group, the program soon evolved into a wide-ranging series of experiments that spread to residential schools across Canada, including AIRS.
During the war years, leading nutritional scientists warned that up to 60 per cent of Canadians suffered from some form of vitamin or mineral deficiency. Under the guise of improving health conditions for Canada’s aboriginal population, scientists like Dr. Frederick Tisdall, inventor of Pablum and considered Canada’s leading nutritional expert, and biochemist/researcher Dr. Lionel Bradley Pett apparently decided they had a captive population of malnourished children to experiment on.
As Mosby describes it, the scientists “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.”
The research teams, with early assistance from the Nutrition Services Division of the Canadian Red Cross Society, and later from federal Indian Affairs, first looked at the diet of residential school students across the country. In 1947, Pett launched a series of experiments in six schools, including AIRS in Alberni, one in Nova Scotia and two each in Ontario and Alberta.
See our update on Red Cross involvement: http://www.hashilthsa.com/news/2013-07-20/red-cross-wasn%E2%80%99t-part-hunger-experiments-says-researcher
At AIRS it was discovered that the children were lacking in vitamins A, B and C, due to the poor diet, and had the highest incidence of riboflavin deficiency of the entire test group.
Pett decided to test the effectiveness of tripling the school’s daily allotment of milk, from eight ounces per day (half the recommended level in Canada’s Food Rules) to 24 ounces. But first, he ordered that the existing eight-ounce daily ration be maintained for two years to establish a baseline for study.
To compound the physical insult to the vulnerable children, Pett ordered that in order to monitor the effects of vitamin deficiency on the teeth of his subjects, they were no longer to receive dental care from the visiting dentists from Indian Health Services.
In AIRS principal A. E. Caldwell, Pett and his team found a willing partner. Caldwell believed the experiment was consistent with the school’s goal of assimilation.
“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.”
One student who fell unwittingly into the AIRS experiment was Benson Nookemis of Huu-ay-aht, who was taken from his community in 1942 and stayed through 1947, the first year of the program. Nookemis said, like many of his fellow survivors, he has blanked out some details, such as the daily diet.
“All I know is we had porridge in the mornings. Always porridge, seven days a week. Through the days, we were always hungry,” he recalled.
Students were required to work in the school’s vegetable garden.
“We’d get so hungry we’d steal potatoes and eat them raw. In the afternoon, they’d line us up and we’d get one slice of stale bread to hold us off till supper.”
That’s in stark contrast to the diet Nookemis was used to.
“We lived off the resources out on the Coast. We ate salmon, mostly, shellfish, crabs and prawns – whatever we can catch. We really enjoyed that type of food. That’s what we grew up on.”
Nookemis said he was fortunate in that he had relatives in the Tseshaht community on the other side of the security fence, including several students his own age.
“Once in a while we’d crawl underneath the fence and go to our relatives and have something to eat.”
Nookemis was asked how he felt after discovering he had been a guinea pig in someone else’s secret experiment.
“I feel angry. Our health hasn’t been normal since we left the school,” he said. “I didn’t know about the experiment but I do remember it seemed like some of us were always sick.”
Nookemis left the school before the milk ration was supposed to triple, and no one is certain if students ever received that proposed 24 ounces beginning in 1949. He does know that, likely as the result of five years of the poor AIRS diet, his dental health deteriorated and he subsequently lost all his teeth.
On the other hand, Nookemis said it was a relief to return to his own community and eat the foods he grew up on.
“My health has improved since I went back to a natural diet,” he said.
Dolly McRae, who arrived at the school in 1945 and spent the first year recovering from rheumatic fever, agreed that the school diet was poor.
“At lunch time, we’d get a spoonful of macaroni and cheese – watery cheese sauce. I couldn’t eat it,” McRae said, adding that she also remembers the single slice of stale bread. And the porridge.
“The kids did most of the cooking. When I got big enough, I stirred the porridge in the big pot every morning. It used to get burned on the bottom and I’d have to wash it later.”
The children were also called on to assist the visiting dentist, who was, McRae recalled, an older man who had practiced in the army. In 1946, after recovering from her illness, and prior to the orders restricting dental visits, she was his regular assistant.
“I was 11, and I was tall, so it was my job to hold the kids’ heads when he pulled their teeth. He didn’t do fillings; he just pulled teeth. He used to ask if any of the kids cried after having them pulled, because it might mean they had ‘dry socket.’ Sometimes the kids cried all night.”
In 1952, the Red Cross Nutrition Services received a series of letters from Alberni children, ostensibly thanking them for the care they received. Mosby’s published study quotes a number of the letters reassuring the researchers that all those “pokes” and “pricks” by the doctors didn’t really hurt that much. Most tellingly, one letter that originally thanked the doctors and nurses “for what they have done to all of us” was changed to “for what they have done for us.”
The previous year, in a paper presented to the Panel of Indian Research of the Indian Affairs Branch, Pett had concluded that Canada’s aboriginal people were caught in a transition where they were unable to obtain “the fully adequate native diet” or “an adequate white man’s diet.” The only solution, he argued, was to expand the sort of nutritional interventions he was testing at the residential schools.
Braker now vehemently rejects the notion that the program, while beset by attitudes of the time, was undertaken for the benefit of Canada’s aboriginal people.
“First of all, these children in the residential schools were held captive,” he said. “They took a group of captives who had been abused already and subjected them to experiments. What were they for? They weren’t for aboriginal people. They were done by the government of Canada for its own purposes. That’s why I reject that completely.
“The word we use for the attitude of the scientists and the government of the time is ‘racism,’ plain and simple. The government officials of the day said that Indians were lazy, they were indolent, they didn’t want to work – the fact that the statement was made in the early 1950s does not erase the fact that it’s a racist statement.”
Along with a meaningful apology and a complete disclosure of facts, Braker and Tseshaht are now calling on the federal government to compensate victims of the program, and to provide funding for further research into the effects of the experimentation on the students.
Braker is also demanding that the Canadian Red Cross Society provide a full accounting of its involvement as well as an apology.