Nutritional studies meant to fix conditions at residential schools, not for sketchy research: Red Cross

Port Alberni

The director for the B.C. & Yukon Region of the Canadian Red Cross spoke to residential school survivors and their families to clarify the role of the Red Cross in the notorious “Hunger Experiments” which took place between 1947 and 1952 at six residential schools, including AIRS.

Kimberly Namrava attended the Dec. 11 forum on the biomedical experiments, hosted by the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council and Tseshaht First Nation at Maht Mahs gym, and acknowledged the longstanding relationship her organization has had with First Nations across the country.

Namrava noted she has been in Nuu-chah-nulth territory many times over the past 20 years to deliver training programs, such as first aid and water safety, and to provide disaster response.

As a result, Namrava said, Red Cross officials felt blindsided when their organization was implicated in the biomedical experiments conducted by Dr. Lionel Bradley Pett and a team of high-profile researchers. The author of the scientific paper that launched the furor in July, Dr. Ian Mosby, had earlier delivered a presentation to the forum.

“Given our ongoing work in First Nations communities and our humanitarian mandate, we were deeply concerned by Ian Mosby’s article, so we took the time to do our own research,” Namrava said.

Speaking to Ha-shilth-sa last July, Mosby said his paper made references to the “Nutrition Services Division” of the federal Department of Pensions and National Health, led by Pett. But the Red Cross also had a Nutrition Services Division, which led to some confusion among readers. Mosby said he was confident, however, that the Red Cross had disengaged from the nutrition program by the time of the experiments.

Last July, Ha-shilth-sa requested full clarification from the Red Cross concerning its role in the hunger experiments. That clarification had to wait until Wednesday’s forum at Maht Mahs gym. Namrava said it took many months of searching the archives to get the full picture.

“In the 1940s, the Red Cross was committed to delivering nutritional services across Canada. Our programs and services aimed at improving public health across Canada. We were not involved in the nutritional experiments that took place later,” she said.

At the residential schools, beginning in 1942, the Red Cross performed dietary and nutritional studies to identify where improvements could be made. Then the Red Cross Nutrition Services Division delivered a set of specific recommendations to the federal government’s Nutrition Services Division, led by Pett.

“The recommendations focused on special training in nutrition, sanitation, food preparation and childcare for staff at all the Indian residential schools,” Namrava said.

What actually happened is now a matter of public record, thanks to Ian Mosby.  The nutritional research by Pett at the schools proved to be inconclusive and drew little attention in the scientific community, with just a few published papers in “marginal” journals, and the program quietly disappeared from the public view.

In April 1952, Pett delivered an address to the American Institute of Nutrition in New York City, where he reported on the effects of introducing an enriched flour to students at a Newfoundland “boarding school,” compared to a control group at another similar school.

In fact, the enriched flour delivered no appreciable health benefits and the control group actually scored better in some of the areas under study. Pett concluded that his experiments pointed out the need for further studies on dietary supplements using human subjects.

“We all know now that what Pett neglected to tell his New York audience was that his experiments on the aboriginal students of St. Mary’s and St. Paul’s Indian Residential Schools were only possible because he had unlimited access to a population of chronically malnourished and vulnerable children who, as wards of the state, had little say over whether they would take part in a scientific experiment,” said Mosby.

Nor did Pett mention that his “control” subjects were deliberately being denied specific nutrients in order to study the harmful effects that resulted.

According to Mosby, however, the systemic malnutrition at all the residential schools was a matter of federal policy. Per capita funding was half what was really required to provide a healthy diet for the children, along the lines of what had already been recommended by Red Cross as a result of its investigations beginning in 1942.

Administrators at the schools did take pains to put on a good show when investigators arrived to assess the food and living conditions.

Mosby cited the testimony of one survivor from Northern Ontario, who wrote that the usual menu at his school consisted of “broth, bread, lard and tea,” but the lard was replaced with butter and the soup was “a little thicker – almost like a stew” when the inspectors came to visit.

“When the inspectors left, it was back to their typical diet, with just enough food to blunt the edge of hunger for three or four hours,” Mosby said. “I think it was also probably true at the Alberni school when the investigators came, and they saw a much rosier picture of what was happening with the students.”

Mosby said there is little evidence that the Canadian researchers ever discussed the ethics of what they were doing. That is despite the creation of the Nuremberg Code, which arose as a result of the notorious experiments conducted by the Nazis in the concentration camps during the Second World War.

“A lot of them felt the Code was for ‘barbarians,’ and not for reputable physicians and scientists,” Mosby said.

As president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, Deb Foxcroft was called on to deliver an opening welcome at the forum, but also took the opportunity to recount the AIRS ordeal of her father, the late James Gallic. Visibly emotional, Foxcroft said she was shocked by the latest revelations about the school.

“I couldn’t imagine a boy like my dad having to go hungry on purpose, having to steal food out of the troughs of pigs and cows – all in the name of science,” Foxcroft said. “I can’t imagine that our government then would let children go hungry – not for a day, but for months and years.

“I can’t believe that anyone in their right mind would let a child go hungry just to see what happens to them, or that they would let them go without medical care. But that is exactly what happened.”

Instead of simply boosting funding to the schools and providing better care for the students, the Canadian government instead sent in the scientists, who were determined to prove that modern, low-cost dietary supplements could take the place of nutrients once consumed through the historic/traditional aboriginal diet.

In the end, Mosby said, the scientists both failed to produce anything of consequence for the scientific community.

Namrava said the Red Cross would continue to work with First Nations communities across B.C. to deliver training and to provide disaster relief as needed. As well, the B.C. & Yukon Branch is also developing a medical equipment loan program, she added.

She apologized for not having all the information on hand for survivors, but promised that Red Cross would keep digging to find out if there are any more dark secrets out there.

“There is a lot of paper on this, and we want to make sure we give you a full answer,” Namrava said.

She then called on survivors and family members to put their questions in writing and forward them to NTC president Foxcroft or Tseshaht Chief Councillor Hugh Braker, and Red Cross staff would do their utmost to provide answers.

Share this: