It’s simple, colourful, and many Canadians, especially parents, turn to it for advice on nutrition and health. But Canada’s Food Guide has roots in controversial experiments conducted on 1,300 Indigenous children and adults in Manitoba Cree communities and six residential schools across Canada in the 1940s and ‘50s.
Interest in nutrition science began during wartime in 1941, when nearly half of military recruits were being turned away for medical reasons and 60 per cent of Canadians had a vitamin or mineral deficiency. That was the year 32-year-old Lionel Pett was named director of nutritional services at the Department of Pensions and National Health and assigned to study how vitamins and minerals affected human productivity. Winnipeg-born Pett had an impressive academic record: a food science degree from the Ontario Agricultural College, forerunner to Guelph University, a masters and PhD from the University of Toronto and a medical degree from the University of Alberta.
The malnutrition in Indigenous populations was first studied in March 1942, when a group of prominent researchers traveled by bush plane and dog sled to the Cree communities of northern Manitoba.
Percy Moore, Indian Affairs Branch Superintendent of Medical Services, and Frederick Tisdall, the inventor of Pablum and a Royal Canadian Air Force Wing Commander, led the trip with funding from their organizations and the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Upon visiting elderly residents in Norway House, Moore and Tisdall found “conditions were deplorable where the old people were almost starved and were plainly not getting enough food to enable them to do much more than keep alive.” At the time, 85 per cent of their diet consisted of white flour, sugar, lard and jam.
They concluded hunger and deprivation directly contributed to the higher tuberculosis death rate in Indigenous Manitobans – 1,400 per 100,000 compared to 27 per 100,000 in non-Indigenous populations. Infant mortality was also eight times higher than the rest of Canada.
In residential schools, Indigenous children were fed just enough to dim the sharp pangs of hunger, sometimes receiving only 30 per cent of the daily calories they required. Schools received half of the funds needed to support a balanced diet. Fruits, vegetables, cheese, eggs and iodized salt were rarely found on the menu.
In 1944, with assistance from the Nutrition Services Division of the Canadian Red Cross Society, dietitians conducted planned investigations, in which they interviewed staff and reviewed school menus. Survivors reported significant changes made to their usual foods when investigators were present – butter instead of lard, meat and vegetable stew instead of broth.
By this time, the hunger and malnutrition in residential schools was well-known and presented an opportunity for Pett’s experiments.
Beginning in the fall of 1948, with support from the Department of Indian Affairs and Indian Health Services, Pett conducted a series of five-year experiments on roughly 1,000 Indigenous children in six residential schools across Canada.
For a decade, he traveled across the country to run trials without consent, testing homegrown nutritional supplements, such as “blood sausage” and “meat spread,” with unapproved ingredients.
At Port Alberni in British Columbia, Pett tested the effects of tripling the students’ daily milk intake, from eight ounces – less than half the recommendation at the time – to 24 ounces. But for the first two years, he made no changes to the children’s diets so that he could create a baseline to compare to future results.
“Food insecurity is more than just physical – it’s emotional, spiritual and mental. It’s pervasive.”
At the Shubenacadie school in Nova Scotia, many children suffered from vitamin C deficiency and gingivitis. He treated half of the children with a supplement and gave the other half a placebo. These children were denied dental interventions fearing they would interfere with the experiments.
At St. Mary’s in Ontario, Pett tested the effects of a flour fortified with vitamins and minerals – banned at the time for sale outside of Newfoundland. Children fed the fortified flour ultimately developed anemia.
When asked about these experiments, his son has no recollection of them and maintains his father, who died in 2002, was a good scientist.
“His sole purpose for decades was the improvement of individual nutrition, using his science background to find practical solutions for people to use in their daily lives,” Hugh Pett said in an interview from his home in Kelowna, B.C.
“He’s a complicated guy,” says Ian Mosby, assistant professor in the department of history at Ryerson University. “If you put Pett in the context of his time, his attitudes toward Indigenous kids and Indigenous peoples are really common.”
And like the others of his time, Pett concluded the hunger and malnutrition in Indigenous peoples were due to a nutrition transition.
“Indians seem to be caught in a transition state nutritionally, between the fully adequate native diet, and an adequate white man’s diet. Even for white people nutritional adequacy is not easily achieved by purchase of foods alone, yet that is what the Indian is expected to do,” he wrote in a report for the Panel on Indian Research of the Indian Affairs Branch.
“When you actually look at the data, there’s no nutrition transition. There is Canadian colonialism and there’s policies that produce hunger,” says Mosby. “As a matter of policy, kids were hungry in residential schools.”
These experiments and the trauma and violence that survivors experienced in residential schools have lasting generational effects. Some descendants grew up in hyper-controlled environments, where there were locks on fridges, even when there was enough food to go around.
“That food insecurity is more than physical. It’s also emotional and spiritual and mental. It’s pervasive,” says Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, chair on truth and reconciliation at Lakehead University.
“My mom went to a day school,” says Terri-Anne Larry, principal at Natoaganeg School in New Brunswick. “The teacher, the nun, fed them dog biscuits.”
“I still think I’m food insecure. I don’t have a good relationship with food,” says Larry. “I could buy all the fresh vegetables that I can, but I’ll let them just sit there.”
We need to remember the experiments that were conducted on children were never really about the kids, says Mosby.
“We have higher levels of food insecurity in Indigenous communities, lower funding for education, lower funding for health care, lower funding for, you know, all of these things and so it’s worth looking beyond the experiments themselves and at the policies that made them possible.”
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I have an open question.
We know that the incidence of diabetes is high in First Nations communities. We also know that famine conditions appear to be causative for developing diabetes, with evidence ranging from the “Holodomor” in Ukraine, to other areas of Russia from the early 1920s, the well documented Dutch Hongerwinter towards the end of WWll, to Ireland, China, India, Ethiopia, and undoubtedly numerous, if less well documented, other such situations.
Has there been a connection made, or tried to be made, between the nutritional conditions of the Canadian residential boarding schools and current levels of diabetes in the effected communities? Of course it’s not a simple cause and effect, but I have seen little evidence of this line of inquiry being followed.
Thanks for your comment. I think you’ll find this CMAJ paper interesting. It was co-authored in 2017 but Ian Mosby, one of the experts I interviewed for this story.
“Hunger was never absent”: How residential school diets shaped current patterns of diabetes among Indigenous peoples in Canada
Thank you Meghan – I had seen that article. It was the one that sparked my interest in my original question. Unfortunately I am not in a position to do any original research of my own, so I am hoping someone will be motivated to look into it.