Canada’s Nutrition Experiments on First Nations: 1942-1952

The Indian School in Port Alberni was one of six residential schools across Canada where vulnerable First Nations children were the subjects of nutrition experiments. Neither the parents nor the children themselves were given an opportunity to provide their informed consent. No one was aware at the time why some children were being fed lard, broth and bread while others were fed flour mixtures containing vitamins. Yet the children were sick and malnourished.

These government sanctioned experiments lasted ten years from 1942 to 1952. How could this happen? The Nuremberg Doctors Trials, which revealed the atrocities of human experiments carried out by Nazi doctors and scientists, was supposed to put an end to using unsuspecting and unwilling patients as guinea pigs. That trial ended in 1947 and resulted in 10 principles that would later become known as the Nuremberg Code. Why did Canada ignore that code and keep doing these experiments?

Nurse takes blood sample of student at Indian School in Port Alberni during nutrition experiments (1940s) - Library and Archives Canada
Nurse takes blood sample of student at Indian School in Port Alberni during nutrition experiments (1940s) – Library and Archives Canada

During the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, prominent North American medical and scientific journals  published the results of experiments that put the life and health of human research subjects at risk without their consent or knowledge. A blatant example of this were the papers published on the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment which, between 1932 and 1972, tracked the effects of untreated syphilis on impoverished African American men – well after the development of effective antibiotics to treat the condition in the 1940s.

What corporate interests benefited from the so-called nutritional studies on First Nations children who attended residential schools in Canada?

Well before the first studies of food in residential schools were conducted by the Nutrition Services Division during the mid-to-late 1940s, reports from children, their parents, and even Indian Affairs employees had indicated that children at Indian residential schools were underfed and, in many cases, severely malnourished. These conditions contributed to the appalling death rates of residential schoolchildren, which in some cases exceeded 50% of pupils.

Instead of dealing with these issues as well as helping the high number of people who were slowly dying from tuberculosis, the Canadian government sanctioned a nutritional study of Aboriginal communities and residential schools.

The most ambitious and perhaps best known of these was the 1947-1948 James Bay Survey of the Attawapiskat and Rupert’s House Cree First Nations. Less well known were two separate long-term studies that went so far as to include controlled experiments conducted, apparently without the subjects’ informed consent or knowledge, on malnourished Aboriginal populations in Northern Manitoba and, later, in six Indian residential schools, including the one at Port Alberni.

Who was behind this research campaign

The first major study began in March 1942, and after months of planning, a group of scientific and medical researchers travelled by bush plane and dog sled to the Cree communities of Norway House, Cross Lake, God’s Lake Mine, Rossville, and The Pas in Northern Manitoba. The trip was jointly sponsored by Indian Affairs, the New York-based Milbank Memorial Fund, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and the Hudson’s Bay Company but had been spearheaded by Indian Affairs Branch Superintendent of Medical Services Dr. Percy Moore and Dr. Frederick Tisdall – Canada’s leading nutrition expert and the co-inventor of the infant food Pablum in 1931.

The Milbank Memorial Fund is a philanthropic organization which at the time, got most of its money from the Borden Company, North America’s largest food processing manufacturer. Borden’s primary product was condensed milk but it also produced a huge variety of processed foods.

The War Years

The Depression years leading up to the Second World War were particularly hard for those living on reserves. The price of furs had dropped significantly and there were few jobs. The 1930s also saw Indian Affairs actually cut back on its provision of unemployment relief.

A lot of us are living in the bush, trying to live off the country, but, for the scarcity of fur and eatable animals, we sometimes have a very hard time to supply our families with food. If it wasn’t for the patience and kindness of the Hudson’s Bay Company, a lot of us would have nothing today…. The Indian Agent has told us, that the Indian Department has asked him not to give any able-bodied man any relief, and the only way we can help ourselves was by getting a treaty debt from the Indian Agent…. The Band feels that if the taking away of the treaty rations will help in winning the war, then we are satisfied, but may hope to have the rations given to us again after the war.

The first experiment

The first experiment began in 1942. Of a group of 300 malnourished Aboriginal test subjects, 125 were provided with riboflavin, thiamine, or ascorbic acid supplements – or a combination of these – while the rest acted as a “control” group. The local nurse regularly visited those involved in the study to ensure that they were taking the vitamin therapy and to remove “unreliable” people from study. The goal was to see whether the physical manifestations of disease could be treated using vitamin supplements alone.

Newfoundland Flour Mix

The so-called “Newfoundland Flour Mix” – a product that contained added thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, and bonemeal – was fed to children at St. Mary’s residential school in Mission, BC.

In 1952, L. B. Pett presented a paper to the American Institute of Nutrition entitled “Development of Anemia on Newfoundland Enriched Flour.” After outlining his five-year study of the effects of a vitamin-and mineral-fortified flour fed to children at an unnamed “boarding school” – along with the analysis done at another unnamed “control” school – Pett described a set of unfortunate results. Rather than an improvement in nutritional status, the students at the experimental school saw their blood haemoglobin levels decline resulting in more cases of anemia.

Dental care denied

When researchers learned that Indian Health Services dentists had visited the Alberni, St. Mary’s, and Cecilia Jeffrey’s schools in the early years of the study, the research team quickly sent off telegrams and letters insisting that, for the duration of the study, “no specialized, over-all type of dental service should be provided, such as the use of sodium fluoride, dental prophylaxis or even urea compounds.” It was argued
that, because dental caries and gingivitis were both “important factors in assessing nutritional status,” any significant dental interventions would interfere with the results of the study.

Family Allowances – no flour allowed

In 1945, the Canadian government provided monthly payments of between $5 and $8 for children up to the age of 16. Family Allowance cheques were cashed by parents or guardians. In the case of children living on reservations, the government limited the kinds of goods that could be purchased with Family Allowances. Food purchases were limited to canned tomatoes or grapefruit juice, rolled oats, Pablum, pork luncheon meat (such as Spork, Klick, or Prem), dried prunes or apricots, and cheese or canned butter. Spork, Klick and Prem were produced by Burns & Co. Ltd, one of the largest meat packing companies in the world, owned by Senator Patrick Burns.

Spork - one of the government approved meats manufactured by Burns & Co. Ltd
Spork – one of the government approved meats manufactured by Burns & Co. Ltd

Flour was not on the list of allowable food items. Indian Affairs officials went so far as to experiment with preventing some families from using Family Allowances to purchase flour – despite the fact that it had long been a key dietary staple – as part of a broader effort both to encourage them to increase their consumption of country food and to discourage families from returning to the local HBC post too often. In Great Whale River, the consequence of this policy during late 1949 and early 1950 was that many Inuit families were forced to go on their annual winter hunt with insufficient flour to last for the entire season. Within a few months, some went hungry and were forced to resort to eating their sled dogs and boiled seal skin.


This page is based on a recently published article by Ian Mosby titled “Administering Colonial Science: Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools, 1942–1952.” This paper was made public.