Historian finds hunger at the root of contemporary Indigenous health problems

A historian is in Saskatoon this week with a message about hunger and the role it plays in shaping contemporary health struggles among the Indigenous population.

Ian Mosby blames the legacy of residential schools

A 1945 investigation in parental complaints at the Gordon's Reserve school in Saskatchewan reported that one dinner that children were fed consisted of one slice of bologna, potatoes, bread and milk. (General Synod Archives/Anglican Church of Canada)

A historian is in Saskatoon this week with a message about hunger and the role it plays in shaping contemporary health struggles among the Indigenous population.

Ian Mosby is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Guelph. Mosby studies food, health and colonialism and is speaking tonight at Station 20 West tonight, and then again on Tuesday afternoon at the Gordon Oakes Red Bear Centre at the University of Saskatchewan.

Mosby recently co-authored an editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal drawing connections between residential school diets and patterns of diabetes among Indigenous people.

Mosby spoke to CBC Radio's Saskatoon Morning. Here is part of his interview with Jennifer Quesnel.

Q: How do we know what the diets at residential school were like?

A: Part of the way we know is from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which heard from thousands of survivors and so we have a pretty strong account … and hunger is a pretty constant theme in survivor accounts of their own experiences.

Q: What kind of food are we talking about?

A: Day in, day out being fed the same sort of rotten oatmeal mush in the morning, being fed a bun for lunch with a thin soup and very similar food for dinner.

The kind of hunger being described by residential school students was often somewhere between 1,000 and 1,400 calories per day, and so to give you a sense, a child's actual nutritional requirements are actually anywhere between 1,400 and 3,200 calories a day.  

Q: What do we now know about what that malnutrition did to Indigenous people?

A: The impact of hunger on developing children is really profound and we were really shocked by what we found.

Those levels of hunger that were experienced have a whole range of effects on children that really will define their health going forward, you know basically programming their physiology toward higher rates of obesity, higher rates of Type 2 diabetes and high incidents of things like heart disease and stroke.

Mosby argues that much of the research into high rates of diabetes among Indigenous people does not take into account the legacy of residential school. (Shutterstock / designer491)

Q: These are things that we've heard in past coverage, that perhaps there were genetic links, and you are saying no?

A: There was a tendency up until very recently in the diabetes literature to look for something … this idea that Indigenous people were more prone to diabetes because of some sort of genetic reason.

The problem with all of that literature was that very little of it analyzed public policy and Canadian colonialism … and the fact that residential schools weren't examined as a possible link shows that there was a blind spot, and it's a blind spot that continues.

These are conditions that were programmed by previous experience that children had.

We see very little change, and so we need to see an acknowledgement that this isn't something that happened a long time ago — this is ongoing and Indigenous children are paying the price.

This interview has been edited for length, and is not an exact transcription of what listeners may have heard on CBC Radio's Saskatoon Morning.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Ian Mosby is a postdoctoral fellow at McMaster University. In fact, Mosby is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Guelph.
    Feb 27, 2018 11:21 AM CT

With files from CBC Radio's Saskatoon Morning