National Indigenous History Month
June 16, 2021
Author: Marissa Lustri, MPH, RD, Program Assistant at Nutrition Connections
National Indigenous History Month, begun in 2009, and was created as a month-long awareness campaign every June, to encourage Canadians to learn about Indigenous history, cultures and issues facing Indigenous peoples across the country1. This year, Canada has dedicated National Indigenous History Month to the missing children, their families, and residential school survivors2.
It has been devastating to learn about the recent discoveries at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, and at the Brandon Residential School in Manitoba. These discoveries confirmed what Indigenous peoples already knew and has brought global attention to the cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples inflicted by the institutions running residential schools in the 1800s and 1900s. The effects of colonialism did not stop with residential schools, as we continue to witness, hear about and read about ongoing racist treatment of Indigenous peoples.
As Nutrition Connections is committed to supporting knowledge around healthy eating and nutrition, we wanted to use this blog to draw attention to the role played by dietitians in residential schools and highlight where you can find more information to further your knowledge and understanding.
What role did the dietetic profession play in residential schools?
In 2013, historian Ian Mosby published ‘Administering Colonial Science: Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools, 1942-1952’, which revealed insights into the nutritional experiments conducted by the Canadian government in Indigenous communities and residential schools between 1942 and 19523.
According to Mosby’s findings, hunger and malnutrition at residential schools was reported in the early postwar period, though the parents of children attending these schools had been flagging this for decades3. In 1944, the Nutrition Services Division of the Canadian Red Cross Society began conducing investigations3. Most inspections were done by trained dietitians, employed by the Red Cross or the federal Nutrition Division3. Inspections would consist of staff interviews, a review of menu offerings, food purchase orders, the food preparation and storage facilities, and the school agricultural spaces3. Sometimes, dietitians would also join students as they ate in order to learn more about how the students perceived the food being provided3. Though not common practice, dietitians would sometimes include notes in their reports if they saw students living with visible signs of illness3.
What did the dietitians find during the investigations?
According to Mosby, the investigations carried out by trained dietitians “showed overwhelmingly poor conditions in the schools”3. Reports from residential school survivors indicate that the conditions were even worse than reported, as school administrators would offer the children better food when the inspectors visited, in an attempt to try and improve their school’s results3.
The findings in these reports were used to make recommendations3. However, during follow-up residential school visits, investigators were disappointed to learn about the lack of improvement3. According to Mosby, Lionel Pett, the federal Nutrition Services Division director, felt that follow-up inspections and reports would likely come to the same conclusions. Consequently, he began planning a new research study to assess the “effects of dietary interventions on a group of malnourished children” for a variety of different nutrients3. Close to 1,000 Indigenous students across Canada were enrolled in these unethical experiments, without their consent, or the consent of their guardians3. At that time, an interprofessional team of experts were hired to begin running these experiments, including nutrition professionals3.
Where can you learn more about the impacts of these nutritional experiments?
We encourage our networks to join us in sharing and reflecting around the roles that health professionals, including registered dietitians have played in the residential school system and the related harms to Indigenous people. You can learn more by reading Dr. Mosby’s full report, and watch The Legacy of Nutritional Experiments in Residential Schools, hosted by the University of British Columbia, in order to better understand the impact of these nutritional experiments on Indigenous peoples and reflect on how this treatment has impacted Indigenous peoples current health outcomes.
How do we leverage the Truth and Reconciliation Act as dietetic professionals?
Indigenous health, reconciliation, and racism against Indigenous peoples are public health crises. This is particularly true following COVID-19 and the exacerbated risk Indigenous communities face in pandemics due to the social determinants of health and lack of political power they face from the legacies of colonialism, genocide, and racism4. Following through on all 94 of the Calls to Actions in the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada is critical to ensuring health equity is achieved for Indigenous communities, and so that Indigenous people and their communities can live safely and freely. As an organization with a vested interest in supporting knowledge around healthy eating, nutrition, as well as public health more broadly, we want to draw your attention to specific Calls to Action from the “Health” section of the report:
“18. We call upon the federal, provincial, territorial, and Aboriginal governments to acknowledge that the current state of Aboriginal health in Canada is a direct result of previous Canadian government policies, including residential schools, and to recognize and implement the health-care rights of Aboriginal people as identified in international law, constitutional law, and under the Treaties.
19. We call upon the federal government, in consultation with Aboriginal peoples, to establish measurable goals to identify and close the gaps in health outcomes between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities, and to publish annual progress reports and assess long-term trends. Such efforts would focus on indicators such as: infant mortality, maternal health, suicide, mental health, addictions, life expectancy, birth rates, infant and child health issues, chronic diseases, illness and injury incidence, and the availability of appropriate health services.
20. In order to address the jurisdictional disputes concerning Aboriginal people who do not reside on reserves, we call upon the federal government to recognize, respect, and address the distinct health needs of the Métis, Inuit, and off-reserve Aboriginal peoples.
21. We call upon the federal government to provide sustainable funding for existing and new Aboriginal healing centres to address the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual harms caused by residential schools, and to ensure that the funding of healing centres in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories is a priority.
22. We call upon those who can effect change within the Canadian health-care system to recognize the value of Aboriginal healing practices and use them in the treatment of Aboriginal patients in collaboration with Aboriginal healers and Elders where requested by Aboriginal patients.
23. We call upon all levels of government to:
i. Increase the number of Aboriginal professionals working in the health-care field.
ii. Ensure the retention of Aboriginal health-care providers in Aboriginal communities.
iii. Provide cultural competency training for all health-care professionals.
24. We call upon medical and nursing schools in Canada to require all students to take a course dealing with Aboriginal health issues, including the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, and Indigenous teachings and practices. This will require skills-based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights, and anti-racism.”5
Though many of these Calls to Action prompt action at the federal level, we all have a role to play in advocating for these changes. In addition to advocating for acknowledgement and removal of systemic barriers, we can also continue to educate ourselves, by seeking out cultural competency training, and furthering our knowledge and understanding of Indigenous health issues.
- The Canadian Encyclopedia. (2018). National Indigenous Peoples Day. Retrieved from https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/national-aboriginal-day
- The Government of Canada. (2021). Learn More About National Indigenous History Month. Retrieved from https://www.rcaanc-cirnac.gc.ca/eng/1621447127773/1621447157184
- Mosby, I. (2013). Administering Colonial Science: Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools, 1942-1952 Journal of Social History, 46(91), 145-172. https://doi.org/10.1353/his.2013.0015
- Power, T., Wilson, D., Best, O., Brockie, T., Bourque Bearskin, L., Millender, E., & Lowe, J. (2020). COVID‐19 and Indigenous Peoples: An imperative for action. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 29(15-16), 2737–2741. https://doi.org/10.1111/jocn.15320
- Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action. Retrieved from http://trc.ca/assets/pdf/Calls_to_Action_English2.pdf