Forum to probe experiments on Alberni residential school children
Tseshaht tribe member Randy Fred finished eating an orange and was about to dispose of the peelings when the pangs of an old experience struck him.
Fred paused after eating his orange then bit into the peel, just as he had done so many times in 1956 while a student at the Alberni Indian Residential School (AIRS). “It brought tears to my eyes not because of the acidity of the orange, but because of the memory of eating leftover orange peels and apple cores when I was a kid,” he said.
“Some of those experiences never leave you; they’re with you for the rest of your days.”
The Somass River, teeming with salmon, lay 400 metres from the school. Forest rich with venison and wild berries lay beyond the school’s fence. And farms with cows, chickens and produce dotted the landscape nearby.
Despite the bounty, AIRS students resorted to eating others’ leftovers and even garbage because their daily food portions were minimal at worst and bland at best, Fred said.
“We used to trade marbles for leftover food,” Fred said. “Hungry. I’ll always remember having been so hungry.”
The lack of food at AIRS wasn’t an anomaly. It was part of something more sinister.
Last spring University of Guelph researcher Ian Mosby revealed that more than 1,300 students were test subjects in a decade-long experiment about the effects of malnutrition on residential school students.
The experiments were designed and implemented by the federal government, and carried out at six residential schools in the 1940s and 1950s: Alberni, Lethbridge, Alta., Kenora, Ont. and Schubenacadie, N.S.
The experiments involved deliberately suspending milk rations; giving vitamin and mineral supplements to some students and not others. Using a type of enriched flour that food laws forbade being sold elsewhere in Canada was used in another school.
“It makes it even more clear how wrong all of this was,” Fred said. “We were just little kids. We were powerless over the people who controlled our lives.”
The Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council (NTC) wants answers about the long-term effects of the experiments and it wants to help create the “what’s next” chapter about the issue.
The NTC and Tseshaht First Nation are hosting a one-day forum about the experiments on Wednesday, Dec. 11 for survivors, health professionals and counsellors. The forum is from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Maht Mahs Gym.
More than 200 people have already registered to attend.
Mosby has accepted an invitation to be the keynote speaker. A spokesperson from the Canadian Red Cross, which was involved at some level with the experiment, will also be present.
Holding a forum to get to the bottom of what happened is a duty owed to AIRS students, Tseshaht Chief Councillor Hugh Braker said.
“They have a right to know how they were experimented on and what the long-term effects are,” Braker said.
The revelation is different from others relating to sexual abuse in the schools. “This was something planned, sanctioned and carried out by the federal government,” he said.
Students are entitled to an apology over and above the one made by the federal government in 2008, Braker said.
“There needs to be a complete disclosure of what happened. Students have a right to know all the facts, and they have a right to have peace of mind.”
A medical professional and lawyer will be at the forum and available for attendees to discuss long-term impacts of the experiments as well as legal options.
Fred, 62, makes his life in Nanaimo with his family now, and has done so since leaving AIRS. He’s making the time though on Dec. 11 to attend the forum.
“It’s important because it will add to the public record of what happened, and that’s key to creating the understanding that’s needed for reconciliation,” he said.
Fred knows of where he speaks with the public record. He was a plaintiff in a court case against former dorm supervisor Arthur Henry Plint, who was convicted of indecent assault and assault causing bodily harm against Fred and others.
Two memories stand out vividly from that period, Fred said. One was being part of a medical experiment that involved having a special syringe with 12 needles injected into his arm. “I got 12 different vaccinations at once—just like that,” he said.
“They only ever used it on me once.”
And second, how some students would eat their meagre portions with one arm wrapped around their plates to ward off having their food stolen by other students.
“One guy I knew still ate his food like that after he grew up. It never let go of him,” Fred said.
Residential schools were fertile ground for such testing, Fred said. Hordes of students were captive in isolated federally run schools that had little to no supervision or oversight.
“These weren’t just places where kids slept, ate and did homework. These were places where we were damaged, and in this case damaged by being deliberately starved.”
The federal government has said that compensation was already paid to students as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement agreement, something Fred disputes. “No one knew about those experiments yet when those payments were made so how could that be?”
An important part of the forum is creating the next chapter in this story. “Something has to become of this. This can’t have taken place only for nothing to happen,” he said. “This was a crime and a criminal has to pay for their crime.”
Childhood memories of hunger, scrounging and stealing food are like ghosts that still haunt Alvin Dixon, who attended AIRS between 1947-1955.
“The food was inadequate and poor quality so we stole bread, potatoes, carrots as well as apples from a farm nearby to eat,” Dixon, 76, said from his North Vancouver home.
Dixon, who is from Heiltsuk Nation in Bella Bella, and other AIRS students also stole food from the nearby Riverbend Store, something that still troubles him today. “You know, the old man who owned it then was nice to us and we stole from him, but we were so hungry,” Dixon said.
“I still feel guilty about that.”
Students were unwittingly made to document their own starvation. “We had to fill out these forms every day that itemized what we ate and when,” Dixon recalled. After the experiments came to light “I felt like a guinea pig, I mean how low could they get?”
Dixon was one of a few aboriginal students who graduated from Alberni District High School in 1955. At the time he was gaunt: “I weighed 128 pounds when I graduated from high school — that’s the average weight of a 14-year-old kid,” he said.
Dixon succeeded after residential school. He was one of six aboriginal students who attended the University of BC, where he took English, geography and art before graduating with teaching credentials.
He taught for two years before working in the management end of the commercial fishing industry until he retired. These days he busies himself working with residential school survivors.
Dixon knows about the forum in Port Alberni but health issues prevent him from attending. “I’ve had several different cancers and I’m on chemo and radiation now,” he said.
“I don’t know how much longer I have to live.”