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The dark history of Canada's Food Guide: How experiments on Indigenous children shaped nutrition policy

Nutritional experiments were performed on intentionally malnourished Indigenous children in residential schools in the 1940s and ’50s. These experiments are directly connected to Canada’s Food Guide, explained historian Ian Mosby
A nurse takes a blood sample from a child at the Indian School in Port Alberni, B.C., in 1948, during a period when nutritional experiments were being conducted on children in residential schools. (Library and Archives Canada/Canadian Press)

This segment originally aired on April 18, 2021.

When historian Ian Mosby published evidence that the Canadian government had conducted nutritional experiments on Indigenous children in residential schools, his findings made headlines across the country. 

Historian Ian Mosby (Submitted by Ian Mosby)
In his academic article 'Administering Colonial Science,' published in 2013, Mosby revealed how nutritional studies and experiments were performed in Indigenous communities and residential schools in the 1940s and '50s.

The tests were apparently done, explained Mosby, without the informed consent or knowledge of the Indigenous people involved. 

What isn't yet widely known, said Mosby, a professor of history at Ryerson University, is how these experiments are directly connected to Canada's Food Guide.

Government policies were creating conditions of hunger

In the 1940s, federal bureaucrats found that malnutrition was widespread in Indigenous communities and residential schools. But this wasn't new information to many Indigenous people.

"Indigenous people had been arguing for a long time that their kids were hungry in residential schools, that government policies were creating conditions of hunger in their communities," explained Mosby.   

The Canadian government began to send researchers to examine these conditions of hunger. In many cases, the researchers found "severe malnutrition," said Mosby. 

Some federal bureaucrats and scientists saw the pervasive malnutrition and hunger experienced by Indigenous people as an opportunity to test their scientific theories.

Lionel Pett 

The federal Nutrition Services Division was established in 1941 under the leadership of a medical doctor and biochemist named Lionell Pett. 

Pett was a "major player" in setting nutritional standards and policy in Canada, said Mobsy. Scientific questions were often on Pett's mind, explained Mosby, questions like what the daily recommended intake for different vitamins and minerals should be. But there was controversy over how to determine dietary standards, said Mosby, and it was challenging to do the kinds of studies that were needed to test Pett's questions. 

The long term impact of that kind of hunger during childhood leads to a whole series of problems.- Ian Mosby

"It's really difficult to do those kinds of experiments because you need hungry people," said Mosby. 

"When Pett began to uncover these accounts of hunger in Indigenous communities and in residential schools, he saw this as an opportunity to put some of these controversies to the test." 

The experiments 

Pett oversaw a series of nutritional experiments in Indigenous communities. Among these was a long-term study carried out in residential schools which used Indigenous students as experimental subjects. 

In 1947, Pett began testing different nutritional interventions on close to 1,000 children in six residential schools across the country. These experiments used the baseline of malnutrition and hunger experienced by Indigenous children in the schools as a way to test "a whole bunch of both interventions and non-interventions," explained Mosby. These experiments included some children, who were known to be malnourished, receiving no changes to their diets in order to act as controls in the experiments.   

You can draw a direct line between the types of experiments that were being done in residential schools and .... the food guide.-Ian Mosby

One intervention included testing an experimental fortified flour mixture on residential school students. There was a federal ban on fortified flour at the time, and there was debate over whether or not to legalize it, explained Mosby. Pett and his colleagues introduced an experimental flour mixture which included substances like bone meal. Pett and the researchers found increased incidences of anemia among the students who were fed the experimental flour. 

The federal government's larger social experiment 

The nutritional experiments were part of a larger series of "investigations" into the diets of Indigenous people during this period, what Mosby described as the federal government's "social experiment" to transform Indigenous people's diets. 
“The most important connection between the nutrition experiments and Canada's Food Guide is Lionel Pett,” said Mosby. “Pett was the architect of Canada's Food Guide.” Canada's Official Food Rules was the country's first food guide. Issued in 1942, it was the precursor to Canada’s Food Guide. (Swift Canadian Co.)

A justification for these experiments, explained Mosby, was a theory going around among scientists and bureaucrats that the so-called "Indian problem" might have been caused by malnutrition and not due to what they saw as "racial traits." 

"They took the extremely racist idea that Indigenous peoples were somehow racially inferior, and they suggested that might have had to do with nutrition. And so they took it upon themselves to solve this 'Indian problem' through expert intervention into Indigenous people's diets."

"At the heart of this was this …. willful attempt to ignore the actual cause of the changes in Indigenous people's diets which was colonialism, which was the Indian Act, which was the forced removal of Indigenous people from their lands, the limits placed on Indigenous peoples' livelihoods through regulations on hunting and trapping, through the effects of residential schools — all of these different elements of Canadian colonialism, which led to problems with Indigenous people's diets."

Direct line between nutritional experiments and Canada's Food Guide 

"The most important connection between the nutrition experiments and Canada's Food Guide is Lionel Pett," said Mosby. "Pett was the architect of Canada's Food Guide." 

Pett was the primary author of Canada's Official Food Rules, which was introduced in 1942 and was the precursor to Canada's Food Guide. 

"The nature of the experiments that [Pett] conducted in residential schools was determined based on a whole series of internal debates among nutrition professionals and bureaucrats about Canada's Food Guide and about what a healthy and nutritionally adequate diet looked like." 

"Pett used the opportunity of hungry kids in residential schools … who had no choice in what they were going to eat and whose parents had no choice in what they were going to eat … to attempt to answer a series of questions that were of interest to him professionally and scientifically." 

"You can draw a direct line between the types of experiments that were being done in residential schools and these larger debates about how they should structure the food guide." 

The ongoing impact of the nutritional experiments 

"What happened to me because of these experiments?" is a question that Mosby has heard from many residential school survivors.

Following the publication of Mosby's 2013 article which revealed that nutritional experiments were conducted in Indigenous communities and on students in residential schools, Mosby co-authored an article that investigated the long-term health impacts of the widespread malnutrition and hunger experienced in residential schools. 

''Hunger was never absent': How residential school diets shaped current patterns of diabetes among Indigenous peoples in Canada' was published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 2017 and was co-authored by Mosby and Tracey Galloway, an anthropology professor at the University of Toronto . 

"We found that the food served in residential schools, that the level of hunger experienced by kids, had long term health effects not just on survivors themselves, but also on their children."

"The long term impact of that kind of hunger during childhood leads to a whole series of problems, starting with stunting and kids not reaching their growth potential, but leading to a higher incidence of type 2 diabetes, a tendency toward obesity later in life, and a whole range of problems that sort of cascade from there." 

These are health problems that impact Indigenous people disproportionately in Canada, explained Mosby. "There's been a tendency over time to argue that there's a genetic basis for this," he said.  

"That ignores the fact that …. a lot of these health conditions are produced by Canadian institutions like residential schools." 

Mosby hopes his research "puts the lie to" the idea that there's "somehow an Indigenous genetic susceptibility" to health conditions like type 2 diabetes. "In fact, the susceptibility is Canadian colonialism and Canadian colonial policy."


Interview produced by Zoe Tennant.

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