When Canada Starved Indigenous Children Just To See What Would Happen

“Feel what it’s like to truly starve, and I guarantee that you’ll forever think twice before wasting food.” —Jami Criss

In A Nutshell

Beginning in 1942, the Canadian government conducted a series of experiments on the native population of Manitoba. At its height, six different schools were a part of the study that impacted more than 1,000 school-age children. It looked at what happened when they were denied things like vitamins, supplements, and other nutritional aid. While no official results were ever published and no breakthroughs or advancements were ever made, the study did confirm what they already knew would happen: Improperly nourished children get sick and sometimes die.

The Whole Bushel

When we think of the countries of the Americas doing some pretty horrible things to their indigenous peoples, the United States and their treatment of Native Americans is usually the first thing that springs to mind.

But the US’s northerly neighbor has its fair share of atrocities buried in its history, too, including some bizarre experiments done in the 1940s and 1950s with the hope of finding out what malnutrition does to a person.

In 1942, representatives from Canada’s government visited some of the remotest of communities in the northern reaches of Manitoba. The people there had long relied on the fur trade for their livelihood, and as the fur trade was collapsing, so was their way of life.

Many were starving, and with much of their government assistance being redirected elsewhere, their world was full of major difficulties.

Researchers used some not-so-nice words to refer to the people they found in these remote communities and went on to suggest that all their apparent problems weren’t part of their genetic makeup after all. Instead, they surmised, the natives were shiftless and suspicious because of malnutrition.

The 1940s also saw a rise in something else: the popularity of vitamins and supplements. In order to find out what benefits these new drugs could give, the Canadian government set up a long-term study that used around 1,300 people as complete guinea pigs. Most of the subjects were children, and only some of them were given the government support they all truly needed.

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In 1942, 300 members of the Norway House Cree Nation became part of the first section of the study. Only 125 were given vitamins, while the others weren’t given aid at all. By 1947, the experiment had extended to include around 1,000 school-age children in six different schools.

Each school did something different. In one, officials took away the kids’ daily amount of milk for two years in order to get what they called a “baseline reading.” In others, half the kids were given things like vitamins and supplements, while extra nutritional ingredients were withheld from the other half. Some students were fed a special “enriched flour” that was so enriched that it wasn’t even legal to sell it anywhere in the country.

A huge number of the children ended up developing anemia, and for the duration of the experiments, dentistry services were also taken away in order to make sure outside interference didn’t damage the final results.

Parents were never informed, and consent was never given for any of the studies. It’s not clear how much damage this medical testing ended up doing, but it’s thought it did contribute to a number of deaths in the community.

University of Guelph historian Ian Mosby, who uncovered the original story behind the terrible studies, says that in addition to the more than 900 documents he found relating to the study, he found absolutely nothing good that came of them. There were never any official studies published, there were never any findings, and there was never any real reason to do it in the first place.

Show Me The Proof

Nature: Canada used hungry indigenous children to study malnutrition
CBC: Hungry aboriginal people used in bureaucrats’ experiments
US National Library of Medicine: Canada’s shameful history of nutrition research on residential school children: The need for strong medical ethics in Aboriginal health research

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