OTTAWA — Grassroots indigenous activists are calling on the Harper government to honour the 2008 Indian residential schools apology, part of the ongoing fallout from news that aboriginal adults and children were unwitting subjects of nutritional experiments run by government bureaucrats in the 1940s and 1950s.
News of the experiments has provoked mass outrage and also led to renewed scrutiny of what critics see as the government’s lack of cooperation with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s (TRC) efforts to compile a historical record of Indian residential schools.
The experiments, which involved intentionally depriving 1,300 aboriginal people — including children in several residential schools — of important vitamins and leaving them malnourished between 1942 and 1952, were detailed in a research paper by University of Guelph food historian Ian Mosby.
The news provoked horror among non-aboriginal Canadians, and outrage coupled with a sad sense of familiarity among indigenous peoples whose relatives have told them of such horrors that took place at the government-funded, church-run residential schools.
For Wab Kinew, director of indigenous inclusion at the University of Winnipeg, the news of nutrition experiments hit particularly close to home. Kinew said he felt “total disgust and revulsion” when he heard about the experiments; his father and all of his uncles attended St. Mary’s residential school in B.C. during the period when one of the nutrition experiments was conducted there.
“I thought: How can this have happened? How can my dad and my uncles and these people I grew up with have been guinea pigs?” he said.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a historic apology for the Indian residential schools system in 2008. But critics say the government hasn’t followed the apology with meaningful action.
Kinew, one of the organizers of a national day of prayer on Thursday, will call on the government to “honour the apology” by immediately releasing all relevant documents to the commission tasked with compiling the history of the dark period in Canada’s history.
Noontime events will take place in cities across the country; Kinew said they are about honouring the victims and providing an outlet for people who have been upset by the news.
“We’re saying release the documents now,” he said. “I think it’s a real disservice for everybody in Canada if we don’t allow the TRC to fulfil its mandate and thoroughly and critically examine the residential school era. This is the history of Canada. If we go with the watered-down version, or the redacted version, we’re not getting the full truth.”
Delays have plagued the truth and reconciliation process. The government turned over some documents, but withheld others saying they weren’t relevant until a court ruled in the commission’s favour in January. The commission says it has received more than three million documents. The government, however, says it has now delivered 4.1 million documents to the TRC.
Both commission chair Justice Murray Sinclair and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt have said they are optimistic the government can turn over the relevant documents to the TRC before its mandate expires in July 2014.
But Library and Archives Canada has estimated it could cost about $40 million and take 10 years to retrieve and digitize the relevant documents. That means it could take a renewed push by the federal government to dedicate more resources to the job.
“I think that it’s integral that they release these documents to the TRC,” said Andrea Landry, a master’s student at the University of Windsor and co-organizer of the event. “They made the apology … now it’s a matter of walking the talk and following through.”
Erica Meekes, spokesperson for Valcourt, said the government is on track to turn over all “active and semi-active documents” to the TRC by the end of this month. As for the archived documents, Meekes said the department “is working with all involved federal departments to ensure that the remaining historical documents stored at Library and Archives Canada are provided to the TRC.”
The emotional reactions nationwide to the nutritional experiments, including among non-native people, is a reminder that Canada is still grappling with the horrors of the residential schools era, Kinew said.
“This is a very strong reminder that we haven’t totally come to terms with it. The fact that we’re still figuring things out, the fact that there are still documents which aren’t being disclosed, it really leaves a lot of unanswered questions for people,” he said. “How many more things like the nutrition experiments are there in those documents that we haven’t seen yet? Maybe this is the worst of it, but we can’t say for certain.”
Added Landry: “We’ve had so many non-indigenous Canadians that were surprised and shocked about what the federal government and the churches have done to our children in the past. Although some of these stories have been released in the past, I think now more people are paying more attention to it.”
The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) was holding its annual general meeting in Whitehorse last week when reports on the experiments emerged. The news moved “like a firestorm” through the assembly, AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo told Postmedia News last week.
The AFN passed an emergency resolution saying it “will not accept the apology as catch-all recognition for all federal policy past, present and ongoing which have and continue to negatively impact Indigenous peoples.”
Valcourt, however, has said that Harper’s 2008 apology included the nutritional experiments.
Meekes said most of the documents related to the nutritional experiments were disclosed to the commission in 2010, and some in 2011. “These are abhorrent examples of the dark pages of the residential schools legacy,” she said. “We have provided over 900 documents related to this to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.”
Kinew said the government can ensure the commission receives all the documents if it makes the issue a priority.
“I don’t see how you can obstruct the mission of the truth and reconciliation commission and then say you meant the apology,” Kinew said. “But the way I look at it, the prime minister still has time to do the right thing.”
Thursday’s events will take place in cities across the country and will feature people from various faiths and nationalities speaking. That will serve as a way to help bridge the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians, Landry said.