Survivors of the notorious Alberni Indian Residential School (AIRS), supported by family members, packed Maht Mahs gym on Wednesday for a forum on the “Hunger Experiments” conducted at the school in the 1940s and ‘50s.
For the 200-plus people who attended, their first question was obvious: Why were they subjected to chronic malnutrition and spurious biomedical experiments with the blessing of the Government of Canada?
On hand was Dr. Ian Mosby, the University of Guelph researcher whose scientific paper, published last May, unleashed a firestorm. It revealed a team of prominent scientists led by Dr. Lionel Bradley Pett conducted a series of invasive biomedical experiments at six residential schools across Canada, including AIRS.
Since the revelations first inflamed public sentiment, Mosby has committed himself to hearing from victims first-hand and to supporting the drive for justice and compensation. He recently attended a similar forum for survivors of the Shubenacadie Residential School in Nova Scotia.
“I am truly honoured to be here,” Mosby told his west coast audience. “It’s hard to express the emotions that have occurred while talking to you today, and I hope that I can contribute to some sense of healing,” Mosby said.
Thanking Tseshaht First Nation and the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council for making the forum a reality, Mosby said “ I especially want to thank all of the survivors of the AIRS that are here today. I know this must be a painful experience, and your strength is an inspiration.”
In his paper, Mosby described how Pett and his team, using diet and nutritional studies conducted at the residential schools by the Canadian Red Cross, tailored a series of experiments for each of the six schools. The revelations served to cast a shadow over the Red Cross, which was forced to investigate its own role in the affair. An official from the Red Cross later spoke about the findings.
See our story on the Red Cross presentation at: http://www.hashilthsa.com/news/2013-12-13/nutritional-studies-meant-fix-conditions-residential-schools-not-sketchy-research-re
“These experiments were made possible in the first place because the school administrators were not providing the students with enough nourishment, so the children were already malnourished before the researchers arrived,” Mosby said.
The AIRS experiment, which arose when the Red Cross inspectors discovered a systemic riboflavin deficiency in the student pool, is especially troubling, the researcher said.
Pett and his team decided to maintain the already-insufficient milk ration (eight ounces) at the school for a further two years, then triple it to 24 ounces to see if dental health improved.
“It has never been clear to me why something so widely understood by nutrition scientists around the world – that milk is a good source of riboflavin and that eight ounces is an insufficient daily intake – had to be tested at all. Nonetheless, that is what these scientists decided to test at the AIRS,” Mosby said.
“What is abundantly clear is that Pett and his team of scientists saw [malnourished children in the schools] as a research opportunity first, and not as a medical emergency that needed immediate intervention by government.”
Tseshaht Chief Councillor Hugh Braker, a retired lawyer and member of the prestigious Queen’s Counsel, called the omission “immoral, if not criminal.”
“We had thought that all the stories of residential school had come out. We had thought that everybody had the opportunity to know what had happened in the residential school. We thought that everybody who went here had the full story in front of them when they went to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In June, we heard that wasn’t true,” Braker said.
“When we first found out about the so-called biomedical experiments, all Tseshaht were horrified. I will go further and say all Canadians were horrified. I cannot believe there is a single person in Canada who believes it is all right to experiment on children without their parents knowing about it and without their consent. I cannot believe that in Canada, we can keep children imprisoned and conduct experiments on them.”
Braker said the nationwide horror and revulsion only grew as the revelations expanded. But it also makes a mockery of the Harper Government’s attempts at reconciliation and compensation, he said.
“You put in your claim to the adjudication service, but none of you knew that you were experimented on,” he said. “So how could you go to the adjudication service and say, ‘Part of my claim is that I was experimented on while I was in residential school?’ The federal government should have come forward with this information so that you could properly construct your claim. We condemn the government for keeping this secret at that time.”
Braker re-stated his four demands to Ottawa, which include a full disclosure of all the facts of these and any other experiments, as well as a public apology and compensation program that, unlike the 2008 apology, takes into account the new revelations.
“You can’t apologize for something that the victims didn’t even know was happening. How could that apology apply? It didn’t,” Braker said. “And how can you compensate someone for something they didn’t know had happened to them?”
As the survivors themselves began to tell their stories, it became obvious that many no longer trust the process.
“We’ve been apologized to for so long I’m getting sick and tired of it,” said Charlie Thompson. “You don’t apologize for something if you’re not going to make it right.”
Other survivors, some of whom did not attend AIRS during the critical 1947-1952 years, raised the question of whether the program carried beyond that time.
“Is there a chance the experiments were extended? I was here in the 1960s, and we starved,” Melvin Good said during the Q&A session following Mosby’s presentation.
Good said he knew fellow students who died, perhaps in part due to malnutrition.
“Was that experiment to eliminate us?” he asked, adding that he has suffered serious health effects including diabetes and heart disease for most of his life.
Good said the routine interception of aboriginal children into by the province illustrates how little attitudes have changed since the time of the experiments.
“Residential school is alive today,” he said.
“I don’t know whether there were further experiments,” Mosby said. “Hopefully, that will all come out through the TRC process. But your statement speaks to the after effects of your residential school experience. Being left without adequate food during the formative years of your life can have devastating effects for the rest of your life.”
Archie Little said conditions were no better on the West Coast.
“I was at Christie and we starved. We were dirt poor, but it wasn’t because of a lack of funding for the school, because the staff ate like little kings and queens,” he said, adding his thanks to Mosby for shining a light on the historic injustice. “I am glad that you, as a human being, took an interest in us. Kleco Kleco.”
The miserable diet and living conditions at the schools, which Mosby attributed to government policies and not to experimental research, were fairly uniform across the entire country. That prompted one Gitxsan attendee to ask, “Did they have some sort of guide book to tell them how to run these places?”
Speaking to Ha-shilth-sa outside the hall, Nelson Keitlah Jr. said the revelations about the AIRS experiments, which involved extremely rough dental examinations and in many cases, extractions without anesthetic, had stirred up some puzzling memories. Keitlah said he had a childhood connection with AIRS that he could never quite explain.
“I went to school in town – to A.W. Neill and ADSS – and F.W. Zens was my dentist. But every once in a while, they would round up the Indian kids and bus them up to [AIRS]. They did dental fillings on us, but I don’t recall that they even had an X-ray machine.”
Mosby later said survivors at Shubenacadie raised similar questions.
“The fact that I am on the West Coast of Vancouver Island right now, and I faced the same questions about dentistry in Nova Scotia, suggests to me that it needs to be looked at.”
As for the AIRS experiment, many survivors questioned whether they ever did receive the increased ration of milk. Despite having a commercial (McCoy Lake) dairy just a few miles down the road and milk cows on the school grounds, the only milk anyone could remember drinking was powdered, and that was mostly lumpy and quite often sour.
In his presentation, Benson Nookemis, who attended the school during the time of the experiments, said he constantly thought about the foods he missed: sea urchins, salmon straight out of the Sarita River, cod and halibut. And yes, he also remembered the powdered milk.
“I used to go out and milk the cows in the barn, but I never saw that milk on our table,” he said.
Mosby said the response to his original scientific paper has set him on an emotional journey, and he is now determined to uncover the full truth.
“One of my goals was to communicate this research to the survivors, and to be able to speak to them directly has been more than I ever imagined I’d be able to do, and to have their response, too, has been unbelievable.”