A group of elementary students are lined up in a school gymnasium.  At the behest of the school, a dentist is in attendance to perform basic work on the children.  Those funding this dental project don’t pay for fillings or anesthetics so, if the dentist finds cavities or other problems, the only option is extraction, done without any pain suppression.  After the visit the children will be required to write a thank you note to the dentist.  Does this sound like something from the ‘third world’ or perhaps ‘The Little Shop of Horrors’?

Ian Mosby, history professor at Ryerson University, discovered this to be a common occurrence for Indigenous children in Canada at residential schools while doing research into Canada’s role in aboriginal health care.  In this case, the government of Canada was the funding agency – too cheap to pay for fillings or anesthetics.  Apparently our past government could justify extracting the teeth of indigenous children without anesthetics because, according to them, natives had a very high tolerance to pain and didn’t need it.   Sure…

Mosby also uncovered evidence that the government allowed a nutritionist (among others) to conduct rather dismaying experiments on aboriginal students at the schools without their knowledge. 

Under the ‘Indian Act’ the government made treaty natives ‘wards’ of the government – for life.  It was a patriarchal system that, in some ways, was treating aboriginal peoples like women in the days when they were supposedly protected by their fathers until given to their husbands like chattel – from birth to death under the control of a man.  At least the women had a chance for a loving father/husband.  Not so with aboriginal people.  Right from the start they got a miserly government that made pre-Christmas Scrooge look like Mrs. Tiggy Winkle.

The discovery of huge numbers of unmarked graves at residential schools across Canada came as a shock to many in our society.  There are others who minimize the deaths, asserting that diseases ran rampant in the schools and, of course, there were many deaths as a result – tut, tut; very regrettable.  This is true; as far as it goes.  It doesn’t, however, explain why mortality rates at residential schools were so horrific compared to regular public schools and it certainly doesn’t explain why the government was so callous and penny-pinching that they didn’t advise parents about the death of their children or make any attempt to return the dead home to their families for burial.

Unfortunately, there is further grim news for those willing to look.  Government funding for health care for their native ‘wards’ was a fraction of the dollars provided to the rest of the populace by provincial health care plans – small wonder at the government’s refusal to pay for fillings or anesthetics.  Before I encountered Mosby’s work, I was unaware that Canada also had deplorably underfunded segregated hospitals, just like the old apartheid system in South Africa.  

So why were indigenous students so susceptible to disease at residential schools?  Rather than just being regrettable, perhaps it had to do with the government’s decision to fund these schools at a fraction of the cost given to students in regular public schools.  Residential schools were also expected to feed and house their students.  Since the amount wasn’t sufficient for basic schooling needs, there certainly wasn’t enough money to provide for adequate food. 

Mosby reports that one of the most common memories of residential school survivors is the constant, gnawing feeling of hunger.  Their diet came close to that of holocaust survivors at the Nazis concentration camps.  He tells of a school that had a dump nearby with children sneaking away from school to scavenge the area for food refuse. 

There were a number of studies done about the effects of the famine during the ‘Dutch Hunger Winter’ in WWII (1944).  A winter of starvation was found to have a profound effect on an individual’s metabolism, mental capacity, fetal development, cognitive abilities and increased health difficulties later in life.  Some of these traits continued beyond a single lifetime, with certain genes ‘silenced’ that never reappeared.  Indigenous survivors dealing with obesity talk about how difficult it became to refrain from overeating when they were finally freed from residential schools.  While there were several long-term studies done using the Dutch single year famine, you won’t need the fingers of either hand to count the studies on the effects of hunger and malnutrition from students surviving years in Canada’s residential schools.

Aside from being subjected to malnutrition and hunger, indigenous youth were taught by religious types who viewed their primary duty as ensuring that native children were stripped of their culture and assimilated into western white ways – no matter how, or what the human cost.  Is it any wonder that indigenous children died like flies in residential schools? 

TL:DR – Foreshadowing the words of Himmler decades later, one of Canada’s leading bureaucrats of the day hoped that government policies would lead to the ‘final solution of the Indian problem’.



  1. brendamw

    It’s truly shocking that we grew up without knowing any of this, goes along with believing that Columbus discovered America and was a good guy.


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