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As a 10-year-old boy, Alvin Dixon remembers having to milk cows during his stay at a residential school in Port Alberni, B.C. Yet, he was always fed only powdered milk.
Dixon, who is now 76 years old, was forcibly taken from his family in Bella Bella, on British Columbia’s northwest coast, when he was a child and relocated to Port Alberni, B.C., where he said he and many of his classmates were starved.
“We would be so hungry and we would steal these potatoes [from farmers' fields] and eat it raw,” he told CBC News.
Recently published research suggests Dixon’s experiences were part of a long-standing, government-run experiment designed by researchers to test the effects of malnutrition.
The research by food historian Ian Mosby has revealed the experiments involved at least 1,300 aboriginal people, most of them children.
In 1947, plans were developed for research on about 1,000 hungry aboriginal children in six residential schools in Port Alberni, B.C., Kenora, Ont., Schubenacadie, N.S., and Lethbridge, Alta.
One school deliberately held milk rations for two years to less than half the recommended amount in order to get a “baseline” reading for when the allowance was increased.
At another, children were divided into one group that received vitamin, iron and iodine supplements and one group that didn’t, according to Mosby’s research.
One school depressed levels of vitamin B1 to create another baseline before levels were boosted. A special enriched flour that couldn’t legally be sold elsewhere in Canada under food adulteration laws was used on children at another school.
And, so that all the results could be properly measured, one school was allowed none of those supplements.
“The term ‘guinea pig’ comes to mind quite quickly and readily, because that’s what we were, I guess,” said Dixon, who recalls having to fill out forms about his food consumption.
By the time he reached high school, Dixon said he remembers being smaller compared to his non-aboriginal classmates.
Malnutrition experiments began in Manitoba
According to Mosby’s research, the experiments began with a 1942 visit by government researchers to a number of remote reserve communities in northern Manitoba, including places such as The Pas and Norway House.
They found people who were hungry, beggared by a combination of the collapsing fur trade and declining government support. They also found a demoralized population marked by, in the words of the researchers, “shiftlessness, indolence, improvidence and inertia.”
The researchers suggested those problems — “so long regarded as inherent or hereditary traits in the Indian race” — were in fact the results of malnutrition.
Instead of recommending an increase in support, the researchers decided that isolated, dependent, hungry people would be ideal subjects for tests on the effects of different diets.
First Nation councillor demands apology
Today, the chief councillor of the Tseshaht First Nation in Port Alberni demanded an apology from the federal government.
“Canada has been sitting on this and hiding this information from the aboriginal people now since it first happened in the ’40s and ’50s,” said Hugh Braker, who added that the band is horrified by the revelations.
“There needs to be an apology done to the victims of the experimentation,” he added.
Cliff Atleo, president of the Nuu-Chah-nulth Tribal Council, said he wants all information about the tests to be made available to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is studying the legacy of Canada’s residential schools.
“It’s hard not to get sick to the stomach, given that we are dealing with children at these schools, ” he said.
“This story … is really going to open up some old wounds, and scars that really run deep in our communities.”