Confronting the ugly truths of Canadian history

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Lionel Pett was a scientist with the precursor of Health Canada, a leader in his field and in charge of the program of apparently half-starving aboriginal children in an experiment to measure nutrition in the 1940s and '50s.

Amid the national revulsion over this revelation, his son has emerged to defend his reputation, telling the Toronto Star that his father "was just trying to do good work" as he was tasked to study the effects of vitamins and minerals in order to keep Canadians healthy, especially in the context of wartime and post-war privation.

He was a "progressive." Although it didn't come to pass, he advocated a national lunchroom program in the schools (whether he meant to include aboriginal children is unclear), and, under his initiative, Canada became the first country to keep national statistics on height and weight.

So he was a scientific leader doing "good work"' for the country, but using aboriginal children as lab rats. What's wrong with this picture?

If Pett had been an evil schemer, this could be kept in a box. But because he was doing it with the society's implicit blessing, and apparently according to non-eyebrow-raising scientific practice, it engages the entire society.

For one thing, it calls into question our very notion of progress -- in which science and technology mostly trump ethics. Meanwhile, other examples of poor and helpless people being used for medical experiments are being brought to our attention, with some saying it's still going on, especially in the U.S., where some people who can't afford medical insurance can get care if they sign up to participate in drug company research.

But the issue is the treatment of aboriginal populations, and of the mind-numbing kind that would produce the series of historic evils of which this is only the latest -- but hopefully the last -- dirty surprise at the bottom of the barrel before we move up.

Looking the ugly truth full bore, and where it comes from, is not easy. But here's one way of putting it.

The British historian Arnold Toynbee argued that on the negative moral scale on which we must judge the European powers' treatment of the "new world's" hapless peoples, the English Protestant must be at the very bottom, slightly below the Spanish Catholic.

Whereas the Anglo-Saxon world is usually aghast when it contemplates the murderous Spanish assault on Latin America, with such hideous practices as baptizing victims then executing them, the Spaniards "only" wiped out a few island tribes before intermarrying with their victims within a generation, and the baptizing indicated that they at least considered their victims human beings like themselves.

The English Protestant made no such concession, said Toynbee, seeing the original inhabitants as merely part of the flora and fauna to be cleared from the land, which was done with relentless effectiveness in the eastern U.S. and was meant to be done in Eastern Canada as well by Edward Cornwallis and others, but was largely thwarted by forest, winter and remote terrain.

As for the "English Protestant" part, some will note that many residential schools were run by priests and nuns, also believing they were doing "good work" -- which shows that on some unfortunate things, Europeans are all of the same feather.

Indeed, my own Acadian tradition began on a far better note. After his first contact, Champlain wrote to France that he had met "les gens du pays" -- the people of the country.

Charles de La Tour, the first governor of Acadia, took a Mi'kmaq woman for his second wife. The Acadians had elaborate protocols of friendship with the Mi'kmaq, intermarried with them, and even asked them for permission to hunt and fish.

The first "Acadian," one André Lasnier, was born of a Mi'kmaq woman and a Frenchman at Port LaTour in 1620. Yet, in the last century or two, I can't say French Canadians have been any less racist than anyone else.

Is there any daylight here? Actually, I've been impressed with the stately reaction of First Nations leaders to the revelations, which has basically been "Yes, we know -- we have seen your ugly side for centuries, masquerading as virtue. Now that you are unmasked, can we talk?"

In his statement, Shawn Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, after running quickly through the history of murder, forced relocations, residential schools, starvation, neglect and other inhuman treatment ("How can you sound so matter-of-fact?" I thought), said "Canada, this is your history. We must confront the ugly truths and move forward together."

He then ran through the remaining challenges and some positives, including systems that "support our children's successes and value our own languages and cultures." He added: "This is already happening in Nova Scotia, Alberta and elsewhere …"

So hopefully that was the bottom of the barrel after all.

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County. This article was first published in the Chronicle Herald.

Photo: Darren Kuropatwa/flickr

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