Canada is guilty. AND SO ARE WE: Reexamining the nutrition experiments

Written and researched by Christabel Menezes

*TW: mentions of sexual violence, starvation, trauma and residential schools.

Residential Schools

Federal government funded schools that forced Indigenous children into assimilation.

These schools attempted to ‘educate’ and convert youth, assimilating them into white Canadian society. Approximately 150,000 Indigenous children attended these schools, with 6,000 found dead*.

Psychological impact: PTSD, substance abuse, depression and dysthymic disorder. ‘Residential School Syndrome’ describes a broad range of symptoms associated with victims of residential schools**.

Sexual abuse: Sexual violence was extremely common at residential schools, often by the religious staff leading the classes.

Health and disease: The students were particularly vulnerable to diseases such as tuberculosis and influenza (including the Spanish flu).

Food at Residential Schools

“Hunger was never absent”

During Basil Johnson’s duration at the residential school during 1939-1950, he noted that students were fed just enough to blunt the sharp edge of hunger for three or four hours, never enough to dispel hunger until the next meal. The food was often inedible. Russ Moses described the estimated diet at residential schools was 1260 kcal/day. Energy requirements for moderately active children range from 1400 – 3200 kcal/day.

Nutrition Experiments

Led by The Canadian Council on Nutrition, researchers viewed Aboriginal children as “experimental materials” and research opportunities. The children’s families were not notified and did not give consent to participation. They did not have access to traditional, nutritious foods that they were accustomed to. Prior to the study, researchers deliberately fed the children less than 50% of an adequate diet to induce malnutrition. Some studies examined the relation of nutrition and oral health – 6 schools documented cases of gingivitis and dental cavities.

Supplements given: Vitamin C, thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2).

Food products: “Carrot biscuit“: large amounts of vitamin A.

Flour mix: contained large amounts of vitamin B and bonemeal – could not legally be distributed outside Newfoundland. 85% of total calories was from white flour, lard, sugar and jam.

Control group: Investigations revealed the poor quality of food at residential schools. Rather than working towards a solution, researchers fed the children poor quality foods to compare the effect of experimental fortified foods.

Brasfield, C. (2001). Residential School Syndrome. BC Medical Journal, 2(43).
Henderson, William B.. “Indian Act”. The Canadian Encyclopedia, 16 December 2020, Historica Canada. Accessed 01 June 2021.
Macdonald, N. E., Stanwick, R., & Lynk, A. (2014). Canada’s shameful history of nutrition research on residential school children: The need for strong medical ethics in Aboriginal health research. Paediatrics & child health, 19(2), 64.
Miller, J., Residential Schools in Canada (2021). In The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved from
Mosby, I. (2013). Administering Colonial Science: Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools, 1942–1952. Histoire sociale/Social history 46(1), 145-172. doi:10.1353/his.2013.0015.
Mosby, I., & Galloway, T. (2017). “Hunger was never absent”: How residential school diets shaped current patterns of diabetes among Indigenous peoples in Canada. CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association journal, 189(32), E1043–E1045.
Mosby, I., & Galloway, T. (2017). ‘The abiding condition was hunger’: assessing the long-term biological and health effects of malnutrition and hunger in Canada’s residential schools. British Journal of Canadian Studies: Volume 30, Issue 2.
Shuchman M. (2013). Bioethicists call for investigation into nutritional experiments on Aboriginal people. CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association journal = journal de l’Association medicale canadienne, 185(14), 1201–1202.

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