On July 12, 2013 Ian Mosby, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Guelph, sent out a tweet sharing his latest published work.
“My article on nutrition research and human experimentation in Aboriginal communities, residential schools is now out,” Mosby wrote. “Surely the most emotionally draining research project I've ever worked on but it's a story I think will shock (although not surprise) people.”
He was right. Mosby’s research set off shock waves across the country and fuelled strong actions and reactions from Aboriginal communities, political leaders, academics, and the general public.
Mosby’s research uncovered a series of nutritional experiments that were performed in Aboriginal communities and Residential Schools throughout the 1940s and 1950s.
The first instance that Mosby came across occurred in 1942 when scientists and bureaucrats discovered widespread malnutrition in communities in northern Manitoba, like Norway House and Cross Lake. Instead of calling for relief or improved access to nutritious food, the research team saw this as an ideal opportunity to test the impact of vitamin and mineral supplements on malnourished populations.
Some communities were given supplements of riboflavin, thiamine, or ascorbic acid, while others were kept as a control group — maintaining their level of malnutrition and near-starvation.
"I’ve been struggling to understand exactly where the researchers were coming from [and] I believe that they thought they were making a difference in the lives of the people they were studying,” Mosby says. "Through the lens of the racism of the time, they saw Aboriginal people as being somehow biologically different, or at a higher risk of ill-health. Their solution to the “Indian problem” during this period was through expert and technological intervention.”
Another experiment was carried out from 1948-1952 in six residential schools across Canada. The experiments were conducted in a similar way, with some children receiving vitamins or enriched food, while others were kept as control groups, with either no change to their diet or through the use of placebos. Mosby uncovered photos of children being examined by the researchers and chilling letters from the children that reference “pokes” and “pricks” and reveal a general anxiety about their health and future.
“It’s been a very difficult project to do research on,” Mosby says. “It’s a sad period in Canadian history to uncover what was being done to these children without their consent or knowledge.”
Those who read Mosby’s paper, or heard about it through social media, immediately recognized it as a matter of public interest and concern. In just a few days, the publishers agreed to remove the pay wall and Mosby’s article circulated widely on the web. The pay wall was actually put up and taken down a second time, and Mosby's article is currently available for free from Project Muse.
If there can be a positive angle to this story, Mosby says that there are already signs that it’s making people rethink the legacy of Canada’s colonial past.
On July 22, comedian Ryan McMahon hosted an internet roundtable with University of Manitoba professor Dr. Niigaanwewidam Sinclair, Anishinaabe Elder Fred Kelly and Ian Mosby. Over 150 people logged on for 2 hours to watch and learn more about Mosby’s research and the Indian Residential School System (IRS). The chat window was peppered with personal stories as those affected by the nutritional experiments tried to put all the pieces together. The roundtable was recorded and an archived version is available online.
This was followed by a national day of protest called “Honour the Apology.” Held on July 25 in communities across the country, Canadians came together to call on the federal government to release documents required under the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
The TRC was set up in June, 2008, as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement signed amongst survivors, churches, the Assembly of First Nations, and the Government of Canada. As part of the path to reconciliation, the TRC’s mandate is to “identify sources and create as complete an historical record as possible of the IRS system and legacy.”
With the TRC’s mandate set to expire in 2014, there is growing criticism of the federal government’s failure to cooperate and a concern that they won’t turn over the relevant documents in time.
Adele Perry, a historian at the University of Manitoba, spearheaded an open letter by historians in Canada calling on the Government of Canada release records related to residential schools and the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The letter has since been set up as a petition on Change.org and has over 200 signatures so far.
Mosby's research also contributes to growing evidence that Canada's treatment of Aboriginal people fits within the definition of genocide — a highly contentious debate that has been reignited in Canada in recent weeks.
For Mosby, this experience has strengthened his belief that academic research needs to be shared with the public. “The fact that my article has been reaching people who themselves were involved in these experiments has been really important,” he says. “As historians we need to think about how we disseminate our work and what the value of having our work behind pay walls really is.”
It’s a sad history, and one that is painful and difficult for Canadians to deal with. Mosby’s story brings to light how little we really know about our past. It reminds us that we must continue to learn together, with open minds and open hearts.
— by Joanna Dawson