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Canada’s Forgotten Experiments on Malnourished Indigenous Kids

During this period in history, the Canadian government strongly promoted a reeducation program of sorts for indigenous children

What’s left of a former residential school in British Columbia. Photo: Iwona Erskine-Kellie

In 1942, scientists employed by the Canadian government began paying visits to indigenous communities in Manitoba’s northern expanses. Finding that many people living there were poor and malnourished, the scientists decided to give half the population vitamins and leave the other half to fend for themselves, just to see what happened. This kicked off what would be two decades of dubious experiments on malnutrition at the expense of minority citizens, Nature News reports. Until now, those experiments were largely (perhaps purposefully) forgotten, but an academic from the University of Guelph published a recent paper detailing the events.

Around 1,000 indigenous children at boarding schools, which were administered by the state and church, also fell victim to similar tests. Nature reports:

In one school, where it was found that students were receiving less than half the daily recommended intake of milk, the researchers tested the effects of tripling the children’s milk allowance — but only after keeping it at the same, low level for two more years to establish a baseline against which to compare the effects. At another school, the researchers ran a randomized, double-blind controlled trial — giving one group vitamin C supplements and the other a placebo — again after a two-year baseline period. Children at a third were given bread made with a type of fortified flour that was not approved for sale in Canada; many of them later developed anaemia. The researchers also prevented the children at all six schools from receiving preventive dental care, because oral health was a parameter used to assess nutrition.

While such “science” would never fly today, at the time, an expert source told Nature, things like informed consent and ethics were not taken into consideration.

Past injustices do not stop there. During this period in history, the Canadian government strongly promoted a reeducation program of sorts for indigenous children. At so-called residential schools, Canadian customs, Christian religion and English language skills were emphasized, CBC News describes.

Throughout the years, students lived in substandard conditions and endured physical and emotional abuse. There are also many allegations of sexual abuse. Students at residential schools rarely had opportunities to see examples of normal family life. They were in school 10 months a year, away from their parents. All correspondence from the children was written in English, which many parents couldn’t read. Brothers and sisters at the same school rarely saw each other, as all activities were segregated by gender.

The churches that ran these schools began offering formal apologies for this episode of history as early as 1986, CBC News writes, and in 2007, after nearly two decades of negotiations, the Canadian government offered a $2.8 billion settlement for former inmates of the schools, $1.55 billion of which has so far been distributed to around 75,800 people. One disclaimer, however:

Acceptance of the Common Experience Payment releases the government and churches from all further liability relating to the residential school experience, except in cases of sexual abuse and serious incidents of physical abuse.

More from Smithsonian.com:

In Canada, People Gladly Trade Guns in for Shiny New Cameras 
Today We Celebrate the Time Canada Burned Down the White House

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