Experiments on aboriginal people 'monstrous,' Paul Martin says

Former prime minister Paul Martin says Canadians are entitled to the full story of what starvation-level nutrition experiments were conducted on aboriginal children in the 1940s and 1950s. He says poverty and other social problems that plague aboriginal communities today are a direct link to past abuse.

Former PM urges federal government to disclose all records on testing 'horrors'

Former Prime Minister Paul Martin and former AFN chief Phil Fontaine listen to a question during a discussion on Indigenous governance in a new century at Ryerson University in Toronto Tues. Jan. 25, 2011. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Former prime minister Paul Martin is urging the federal government to clear the air on "monstrous" reports of nutritional experiments carried out on malnourished First Nations children – and tackle the poverty and discrimination that persists in aboriginal communities today.

In an interview with CBC News, Martin said there must be a full disclosure of all relevant records to get a complete picture of the "horror" that took place in the 1940s and 1950s – and how the legacy of that harm continues now. 

"Canadians are entitled to know the whole story, and they're entitled not to have it leak out to them in dribs and drabs this way, but they're entitled to have the story out, and the people who are good analysts who understand this kind of thing put it into context," he said. "Because it is simply too horrible to contemplate, and the only way in which the vow of 'never again' can have any substance is if people have a full awareness of what happened."

Shocked by revelations

Martin was shocked by revelations from the research of Canadian food historian Ian Mosby, which found that at least 1,300 aboriginal people, most of them children, were used as test subjects in the 1940s and 1950s by researchers probing the effectiveness of vitamin supplements.

It began in 1942 on about 300 Cree in Norway House in northern Manitoba, with plans subsequently developed for research on about 1,000 aboriginal children in six residential schools in Port Alberni, B.C., Kenora, Ont., Shubenacadie, N.S., and Lethbridge, Alta.

Subjects were kept on starvation-level diets, and given or denied vitamins, minerals and certain foods. Some dental services were also withdrawn because researchers thought healthier teeth and gums might skew results.

"When you read or hear about horrors that took place 200 years ago, to a certain extent you say maybe they were different, those people," Martin said. "The kinds of things that happened in the 1940s – we could have known those people – and that they would take those kinds of decisions, do those kinds of things … it's almost impossible to imagine that could have happened."

Legacy of harm on descendants

Martin said thousands of descendants of the victims are likely still hurting as a direct result of past abuse. And he said more funding for health care, trauma care and education is critical for addressing wrongs of the past.

"When you realize the effect that it had not simply on those people – where it must have been terrible – but on the generations that followed, you begin to understand why treating aboriginal Canadians fairly and funding not just on an equal basis but recognizing the need, and the need for 'catch-up,' becomes crucial," he said.

"The fact that education funding, health care funding, welfare funding is still substantially below the funding that non-aboriginals receive is just simply unspeakable. It's despicable, and there is no excuse for this."

When serving as prime minister, Martin endorsed the Kelowna Accord, which pledged $5 billion over 10 years to improved education, employment and living conditions for aboriginals. It was subsequently scrapped by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Even though education is a universal right in Canada, Martin said persistent funding gaps have led to "unacceptable discrimination." While he said he did not want to get partisan while speaking about the sensitive historic issue of experimentation, Martin called it "unforgiveable" that the Conservative government won't address current funding gaps.

Determine scope of experiments

NDP aboriginal affairs critic Jean Crowder called the experiment revelations "shocking" and urged immediate action by the government to determine the scope of what happened.

"To treat First Nations like a lab experiment and as less than human is pretty appalling," she told CBC News.

Crowder said the government must deliver an apology and swiftly engage with victims' families and aboriginal leaders in the affected communities to determine if, and how, compensation should be awarded. She also demanded a full disclosure of relevant records.

"They need to go through their archives and pull the documents. And I would suggest while they were at it they should take a look to see what else might have gone on," she said.

Address wrongs of past and problems that persist

Liberal aboriginal affairs critic Carolyn Bennett called it "stomach-turning" that hungry children would be used as guinea pigs.

She said the government must immediately engage with the affected aboriginal communities and families of victims to determine the best course of action for remediation. But along with a commitment to address the wrongs of the past must be a commitment to tackle the problems that continue to plague aboriginal communities right now, she said.

"This is about acknowledging the past and engaging with the people in a meaningful way, but it is always about dealing with the situation right now," she said. "This is something all Canadians need to better understand, this appalling chapter in our shared history."

The Prime Minister’s Office referred requests for comment to Minister of Aboriginal Affairs Bernard Valcourt. His spokeswoman, Andrea Richer said the minister is travelling and unavailable for an interview.

Instead, she issued a statement on his behalf:

"We are concerned about these allegations and officials are looking into the matter. If this story is true, this is abhorrent and completely unacceptable," she said.