Thoughts on today’s hearing on the nutritional experiments conducted on Indigenous children in Residential School, Port Alberni institute.
Firstly I want to thank Tseshaht First Nation and the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council for hosting this important event and to Dr. Ian Mosby for presenting the findings he researched on the “nutritional experiments.” I also want to thank the support workers for being there and their attentiveness to the needs of those who were present and also to each and every Residential School survivor in that room and elsewhere who were unable to attend.
The first poignant thing which needs to be underscored is that although these experiments occurred it must, MUST, be stated that the conditions of starvation were widespread and already a systemic issue long before the experiments started. The experiments capitalized on conditions which were present in each and every Residential School Institution and only slightly modified, for the worse, the nutrition of the children who those particular experiments were carried out on. Starvation diets were everywhere and the experiments merely enhanced the starvation to target specific vitamins and foods for reduction from already substandard nutrition allotments documented far below the government guidelines for proper nutrition for children.
The Canadian Red Cross had no part in those experiments. What the Canadian Red Cross’s involvement with the Residential School Institutions was was to assess what nutrition and conditions were present in the institutes themselves and to make recommendations to the government and the institutes based on those observations. Across the board the Canadian Red Cross made observations about the substandard food provided for the children and their recommendations reflected those observations. It must be noted however that accounts of those visits by the Canadian Red Cross by Residential School Institute Survivors describe an increase in various foods and upgrades in the quality of foods served to the children during the times that the Red Cross visited these institutions. We can conclude that the employees of these institutions knew that the regular nutrition provided to these children would invite criticism and so they put a show on for when outside agencies that were not under the control of the government came to see what was happening at least nutritionally speaking. This has been corroborated through a few surprise visits during the period when observers reported that the food quality was completely inadequate and often harmful due to being spoiled or of a quality so low that it would only be fit for farm animal consumption.
Long term or intergenerational effects of the starvation diets may not ever be completely known. Long term or intergenerational effects of the experimental diets may not ever be completely known as well. Many things may not be ever completely known about the effects of the Residential School System.
You, me, everyone in that room, everyone in this city, everyone in this region and everyone in this world, do not understand what the impacts of the Residential School System are and will continue to be for Indigenous peoples. We may apply words and phrases such as “cultural loss”, “acculturation”, “language loss”, and “cultural genocide” but all of those words and phrases and the very concepts themselves are rooted in a philosophical system which is foundationally unlike an Indigenous way of knowing things. In short, today we do not see things and understand things in the same way that our ancestors did prior to the Residential School System era. In that space between then and now all of this trauma, all of this genocide including Residential School, has come forth and we will not understand what the effects have been. Not in our lifetimes. Perhaps never. But perhaps we will be able to once we regain that fluency of language, that fluency of culture, that we understand that our ancestors used to possess and did their very best to bequeath to us despite the concerted application of genocide across a social, physical, mental, and spiritual spectrum and in continuous existence for at least the last 200 or so years.
We are not going to find those fluencies by using colonial (mumulthni) methodologies in colonial (mumulthni) contexts in colonial (mumulthni) settings, in disconnected groups categorized by age and disassociated from familial settings which are the essential and basic foundations of our peoples. Until we learn together then, and maybe only then… and only maybe, will we be able to fully comprehend what the Residential School System has done to our peoples. That will take generations to find out. Perhaps then there will be reconciliation. But until we have a full comprehension of what has taken place from an Indigenous way of knowing which closely resembles our ancestors, there can be no reconciliation. Not in an Indigenous context from an Indigenous point of view as the very word “reconciliation” is a colonial construct as well.
What are the Indigenous words for reconciliation? What is the Nuu-chah-nulth word for “reconciliation”? What is the Tsimshian word? Or the Nehiyaw?
Perhaps we are very far from what our ancestors knew of reconciliation. So far that we have to do a lot more before we can speak of it and perhaps when we travel that distance, we won’t want to.