Thunder Bay

Ear experiments done on kids at Kenora residential school

A local doctor and the school nurse experimented with 14 different drugs to treat 'ear troubles' at Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora, according to a 1954 report obtained by CBC News.

14 different drugs tried on children with ear infections, school nurse's report shows

Children on the playground at Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora circa 1957. Newly released documents include a report on the "experimentation and treatment of ear disease" among 165 students in the 1950s. (The Presbyterian Church in Canada Archives)

A local doctor and a school nurse experimented with 14 different drugs to treat "ear troubles" in children at Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora, according to a 1954 report obtained by CBC News.

The report, from the Indian and Northern Health Services archive, said that some of the children being treated became deaf.

School nurse Kathleen Stewart wrote the report, entitled "Record of Ear Treatments and Investigation."

"The most conspicuous evidence of ear trouble at Cecilia Jeffrey School has been the offensive odour of the children's breath, discharging ears, lack of sustained attention, poor enunciation when speaking and loud talking," she wrote.

Students at the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora were the subject of nutritional experiments and exposed to experimental treatments for ear infections. Some became deaf. (The Presbyterian Church in Canada Archives)

Stewart said the children were taught to irrigate their own ears, or the ears of younger children, with hot water. A doctor visited the school on a weekly basis looking out for ear infections "and the recommended medicine was used when possible," Stewart wrote.

Damaged ear drums

Former student Richard Green said he remembers the nose drops used to treat what Stewart described as "mouth breathing."

"All these things … we had nose drops, there were some different kinds of pills that we took for nutrition, I don't know what they were, I still don't know what they are," Green said.

In a followup report, entitled "Experimentation and Treatment of Ear Disease Among 165 Pupils," Stewart noted three of the children "were almost deaf with no ear drums, six had [hearing in] one ear gone."

Some of the case files reported the children to be in better health after having had a holiday at home. A handwritten note at the bottom of one file read: "returned to school well, but obviously deaf."

'Lacklustre' government response

"The new information that's coming out now, it's been very troubling for the students who went there," Green added. "It's hard to process."

Green said it's especially frustrating since many former students have already completed their hearings as part of the residential school settlement agreement. He said the legal process placed an unfair burden on survivors to recall what happened when they were children, while the government withheld documents like the ones obtained by CBC News.

"People are done their healing, now new information comes out, you don't know what to do with it," Green said. "That aggravates a lot of things."

A University of Guelph food historian recently highlighted the nutritional experiments at residential schools, including Cecilia Jeffrey in Kenora. In an interview with CBC, Ian Mosby said doctors and scientists around the world regularly used vulnerable populations and took a race-based approach to their work in the 1950s.

But other countries have unconditionally apologized and fully disclosed the details of those experiments, Mosby said.

"The response of the Canadian government in the case of the experiments conducted in Canada has been more lacklustre," he said. "It doesn't seem like there is a thorough attempt to get to the bottom of what was happening during this period and whether these were the only experiments."

Running out of time

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada had to go to court to gain access to more of the 3.5 million documents related to residential schools. Researchers with the commission began combing through them this week.

Murray Sinclair, the commission's chair, has said he is concerned there might not be enough time to get all the work done by June 2014, when the TRC's mandate is supposed to be complete.

Former student Green said survivors are also running out of time to come to terms with their painful history.

The 65-year-old's voice still breaks when he thinks about his younger siblings, whose residential school experiences he witnessed.

"The stuff you're seeing, you witnessed … I think it was just terror," he said. "We were terrified."

Survivors of Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School will gather for a commemorative event on Aug.14 in Kenora.