It is almost unfathomable today: that a Canadian government would use at least 1,300 Canadians as nutritional guinea pigs: that, in an effort to understand food issues, scientists would give some subjects healthy food, while denying that same food to others. Give some nutritional supplements: withhold those supplements from others. And throughout the process, deny the unwitting subjects proper dental care, over concerns that care could cloud the results of the experiments.
But that is apparently what did happen between 1942 and 1952 with aboriginal children and adults in six residential schools across the country, in native reserves in northern Manitoba and, perhaps, on a broader scale as well.
Revelations about the studies came in a paper published by University of Guelph food historian Ian Mosby: widely reported on Tuesday, Mosby’s examination says that scientists took children and adults who were living essentially at a starvation level, and instead of getting them food, experimented with other nutritional options like supplements without informed consent for the studies.
You do not have to be a food scientist to understand that withholding proper nutrition has potentially life-changing effects long after the experiment ended, nor do you have to be an ethicist to understand that people have a right to know if they are the subjects of a potentially life-changing experiment.
You can argue that this was a different time, that there were different medical standards, and that we would not allow such work now.
Here’s what Justice Murray Sinclair, chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said to The Toronto Star about the studies: “Everybody who was involved in scientific work (at the time) knew it was wrong to put people into an experimental situation without informing them what they were doing.”
Stop for a minute and think about the subject of human experimentation on a broader level: during the same period of time, much of the world was convulsed in the Second World War, fighting an enemy that we argued was inherently evil. Among the examples of that evil that came to light as the Nazi empire was defeated?
Nutrition experimentation — and far more serious experimentation — on minority prisoners held in prison camps. The Nazis felt their work was justified, because, in their racist logic, these were lesser humans.
It makes you wonder a little bit about the moral high ground we claimed then, and maintain today.
Leave all that aside, stop for a moment and ask yourself a simple question: how would you feel if you were to discover that your children, taken from you for a “proper” education far from home, had been the unwilling test subjects in studies that kept them from being fed properly?
Whether it was happening now, 20 years ago or in 1942, you would be furious with the government for taking an active role in allowing the research to go ahead.
And you would be legitimately asking the question: how did an ethical, caring country allow this to happen?