Ottawa experimented on Native kids

Dr. H.K. Brown writes that dental services for residential school students ought to be limited to filling and removing teeth.
Dr. H.K. Brown writes that dental services for residential school students ought to be limited to filling and removing teeth.
Published May 1, 2000

The federal government denied basic dental care and experimented with the diets of Native children in order to study the effects of Vitamin C and fluoride treatment. The controlled experiment took place in the late 1940s and early 50s in at least four Indian residential schools, documents in the National Archives reveal.

Although the aim of the five-year ‘nutritional study’ was supposed to benefit Native communities, many parents weren’t even informed of the experiment.

In a letter of Oct. 3, 1949, Dr. H.K. Brown, chief of the dental health division, requested certain dental treatments be halted at the United Church’s Port Alberni residential school.

‘No specialized, over-all type of dental service should be provided, such as the use of sodium fluoride, dental prophylaxis or even urea compounds.’

Dr. Brown explains that, ‘In this study dental caries [tooth decay] and gingivitis are both important factors in assessing nutritional status. The caries index could be upset by such specialized dental measures as those referred to above; and dental prophylaxis could alter the gingival picture sufficiently to make it of questionable value as a possible index of Vitamin C deficiency.’

The one-page letter goes on to note that pulling bad teeth or filling cavities wouldn’t interfere with more cavities developing. ‘The regular filling and extraction service which has been provided in the past will not interfere with the nutritional study as it will not materially reduce the occurrence of new caries lesions or affect the gingival conditions.’

But the physician who supervised the Department of National Health and Welfare (now Health Canada) study defends the experiment and withdrawal of dental treatment.

‘It was not a deliberate attempt to leave children to develop caries except for a limited time or place or purpose, and only then to study the effects of Vitamin C or fluoride,’ said Dr. L.B. Pett in a recent interview.

But he admitted parental consent was not always obtained for those children involved in the study.

Even by the standards of the day, that was unacceptable. Not only was consent required, it had to be understood, according to a leading medical ethicist.

‘The statement that consent has been obtained has little meaning unless the subject or his guardian is capable of understanding what is to be undertaken and unless all hazards are made clear,’ wrote bioethicist and former Harvard Medical School professor Henry Beecher in an essay, Ethics and Clinical Research, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1966.

Consent is essential for moral, sociological and legal reasons, Prof. Beecher concluded.

But Dr. Pett said the findings of the study were made readily available to the schools and communities involved so that nutrition could be improved. Dr. Pett, now 90, was formerly chief of the nutritional division of Health and Welfare.

Correspondence between Dr. Pett and those working with him indicates the government study was designed ‘to evolve methods for improving health, not only of school children, but of the whole Indian population.’

The scientists also tinkered with the students’ diet. In 1952, Dr. Pett wrote to the director of Indian health services, Dr. P.E. Moore, making reference to the study and changes to diet.

‘In 1949 and 1950 the Indian Health Services arranged for a supply of flour containing added vitamins iron and bone meal to be provided to St. Mary’s (Roman Catholic) Indian Residential School, Kenora, Ont.’

But then the vital supplements were stopped. ‘The school has now been reverted to ordinary white flour for the purposes of further control of the results …,’ wrote Dr. Pett.

Ironically, the legal and moral issues concerning consent aside, the findings of the study were often ignored, including the most basic nutritional changes that were recommended.

As noted in Prof. John Milloy’s submission to the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, and adapted in his book, A National Crime, poor nutrition continued to be a problem in schools through the late 1950s. It wasn’t even until 1956 that Dr. Moore was asked by Colonel H.M. Jones, director of Indian affairs, for annual inspections of schools.

And, while Dr. Moore was in charge of the controversial study, he and Dr. Pett constantly pressured authorities in Ottawa to improve students’ diet.

As Prof. Milloy noted in his research, because of the cost of getting fresh food to remote schools, in 1960 the federal government decided to let residential schools principals choose whether to give students Vitamin C capsules in order to overcome the known deficiency in their diet.

Malnutrition wasn’t the only food-related issue at the schools. Correspondence of June 29, 1951, from Dr. Moore to a colleague at the Indian affairs branch of Citizenship and Immigration addresses this issue of milk served at the Mohawk Institute – an Anglican school – at Brantford, Ont.

‘As you know it is against provincial law for institutions to use unpasteurized milk. It is also illegal to sell it in Ontario… I would strongly urge that pressure be brought upon the school to pasteurize their milk.’

The chief concern about unpasteurized milk was that it could contain tuberculosis. Seven years later, however, the problem still had not been addressed.

‘It has been brought to my attention that you are using unpasteurized milk at your school which is contrary to Provincial Health Regulations,’ wrote R.F. Davey, chief of the education division in Ottawa to Rev. W.J. Zimmerman, principal of the Mohawk Institute.

‘I must therefore insist that effective immediately you make arrangements to use only pasteurized milk at your school.’

Given such conditions, it is little wonder that malnutrition and tuberculosis were rampant at many of the Indian residential schools that were operated by various churches and the federal government.

Anglicans operated 26 residential schools. The conditions at these institutions as well as current issues pertaining to residential school are detailed in a special report in this issue of Anglican Journal.


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