Widespread hunger and malnutrition are defining features of residential schools, but it extends further into violating the bodies of children through testing and experimentation. In the 1940’s and 50’s, the Canadian government employed numerous scientists to conduct clandestine experiments on Indigenous children in residential schools. Throughout six state-funded residential schools around Canada, one thousand children were forcibly starved for the purpose of observing the effects of malnutrition on the human body and were utilized for the testing of products awaiting sale approval.
Most of the residential schools varied in their experimentation methods; however, every study revolved around the testing of nutritional interventions. Schools purposefully starved a controlled group of children and experimented with various dietary supplements to determine whether these methods would diminish the issue of malnourishment, to which they were evidently futile and many children died as a result. Commonly, these experiments would take place in two year intervals. One residential school was found to have been reducing the children's consumption of milk to half the daily recommended amount. They kept the children malnourished for two years, then planned to triple the children's daily consumption. Another experimented with vitamin-C supplements, giving half the children supplements and the other half a placebo. A third school fed the students bread made with a flour mixture unapproved for sale containing Niacin, bone meal, and other vitamins that eventually caused iron deficiencies to develop in many children.
In addition to testing these nutritional interventions, these child test subjects were denied dental care for the purpose of observing oral diseases, such as gingivitis, and its relations to malnutrition. These children suffered complete bodily decay; survival was left to luck. Nancy Walton, a medical ethicist stated that “They didn’t appear to try and prove or disprove any hypothesis that I can see, or make any statistical correlations.”, she continued, “They mostly just confirmed what they already knew,”. Unfortunately, their so-called research led to no advances in this field of science, and there was ultimately no reason to have conducted these pointless and harmful experiments in the first place. Evidently, it wasn’t enough for the Canadian government to assimilate and erase an entire culture; they forced Indigenous peoples and children in residential schools into the lowest class of citizens, and with a complete absence of morality, used them at their disposal.
Having been compared to Nazi doctors during World War Ⅱ, the physicians that carried out such atrocities could not even be stopped by the Nuremberg Code of Medical Ethics created in 1947. This code was created to set a standard by which physicians must conform when performing experiments on humans. In the modern age, the Nuremberg code is enforced but this was not the case when it was first introduced. Though medical research has existed for centuries the concept of medical ethics is still quite recent. In truth, one could argue informed consent was an idea that had not yet been integrated globally.
There are a multitude of long-term effects of childhood starvation which include increased risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, hyperglycemia and metabolic syndrome, just to name a few. Dissociation from cultural foods and traditions - a consequence of these experiments - is a reason for recent generations being so disconnected from their culture, communities, and identities.
Unfortunately, hunger and malnutrition did not begin or end with the experiments from 1942 to 1952. Ian Mosby, an award-winning Canadian historian, recounts stories of residential school survivors in saying, “They have said for a long time that, not only were they part of scientific experiments, but that their experiences of residential school was of hunger,”. Moreover, Indigenous communities have been subject to medical and scientific experiments not just in residential schools, but in racially segregated hospitals, tuberculosis sanatoriums, and other government run facilities. Seeing as the Canadian government has yet to come clean and release all records and information they possess regarding medical and scientific experiments conducted on Indigenous communities and individuals, it would be fair to say this proves their government apology in 2008 to be nothing but a string of empty words that could never encourage reconciliation.
Indigenous peoples over the years have had pieces of their childhood, education, identity, and community ripped from them. It has taken generations to piece these parts of their indigeneity back together and still there are many obstacles that are preventing their ability to be independent. If you would like to learn more about how you can become involved in supporting residential school survivors or to learn more about their stories, visit the Indian Residential School Survivors Society.