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Canada’s Unethical Malnutrition Tests

July 27, 2013

An article published in Social History this month highlights a dark chapter in Canada’s historical relations with its first nations. Ian Mosby, who studies the history of food and nutrition at the University of Guelph, published the article titled “Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools, 1942-1952” (and available through open access). The article highlights a decade’s worth of experiments run by researchers from the Canadian government examining the effects of malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies on Canada’s aboriginal populations.

After discovering that malnutrition was widespread at the state-funded, church-run boarding schools  Native American children were required to attend, researchers ran experiments on nearly 1,000 children at six schools to study the impact of particular nutritional interventions. Among the studies outlined by Mosby were:

  • An initiative to examine the impact of increasing daily milk allowances only after first maintaining milk allowances at less than half the recommended levels for more than two years to establish a baseline.
  • A study using a randomized, double-bind method to examine the impact of vitamin C supplements in which one group was given vitamin supplements and the other was given only a placebo despite knowing that widespread micronutrient deficiencies existed.
  • A third study tested a vitamin-fortified bread not approved for human consumption; many study subjects later developed anemia.

At all the study sites, children were denied access to dental care because oral health was used as a measure of nutritional health. None of the studies employed the kind of oversight and safeguards intended to prevent exploitation of human subjects.

The nutritional experiments highlight the historical legacy of colonial science. As Mosby points out in the article’s abstract,

In doing so, this article argues that – during the war and early postwar period – 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…In the end, these studies did little to alter the structural conditions that led to malnutrition and hunger in the first place and, as a result, did more to bolster the career ambitions of the researchers than to improve the health of those identified as being malnourished.

There were, of course, other equally horrific experiments being conducted on unknowing populations, the most famous of which in the United States were the Tuskegee syphilis experiments which were not stopped until the 1970s.

The publication comes at a difficult time given the efforts of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address the unjust treatment of Canada’s First Nations. Justice Murray Sinclair, who heads the Canadian TRC, commented that the documents highlight the racism of the time. “It’s indicative of the attitude towards aboriginals,” she said. The government “thought aboriginals shouldn’t be consulted and their consent shouldn’t be asked for. They looked at it as a right to do what they wanted then.”

More information is available on Ian Mosby’s blog.

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