On 2 June 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission(link is external) released its findings and calls to action in the hopes of healing the painful legacy of the Indian Residential School system.
Woven between the stories of physical, psychological and sexual abuse are experiences of unimaginable food insecurity and hunger. In the report(link is external), health assessments noted that “the vitality of the children is not sufficiently sustained from a lack of nutritious food” and that “the food supplied has been inadequate for the [development] needs of the children” (p. 56). At some schools, students were “reduced to buying bread to supplement their meals... [which] highlights the government’s failure to provide schools with the resources needed to feed students adequately” (p. 57). It was further conveyed that “resCanaidential school diets did not measure up to the Food Rules” (p.58). Evidently, “no school was doing a good feeding job” (p. 58). The allotted funding per student was rarely enough, and students were expected to provide unpaid labour to support all daily functions of the school.
Ahousaht, British Columbia, students in the school cafeteria. British Columbia Archives, PN-15589.
One school inspection observed that the “menu appears to be short of the recommended two servings of fruit per day” (p. 59), and some students resorted to (justifiable) theft or illicit favours to prevent imminent starvation and illness. The cultural loss of traditional foods and diet at the schools further “added to the students’ sense of disorientation” (p. 59). When the unfamiliar foods made students sick, staff (who feasted in comparison) would force the students to eat their own vomit (p. 93). One survivor was forced to eat “porridge with worms” (p. 75), and brutally beaten when she refused. Under the so-called care of the federal government, more than 4000 children died, and many more were subjected to the ongoing trauma of state-sanctioned abuse and neglect. When families tried to prevent their children from attending the residential schools, officials withheld food rations and Treaty payments (p. 119).
The report resumes that “[t]he federal government knowingly chose not to provide schools with enough money to ensure that kitchens and dining rooms were properly equipped... and, most significantly, that food was purchased in sufficient quantity and quality for growing children” (p. 60). Students succumbed to what was certainly preventable starvation. Severely underfed and malnourished, disease also became an inevitable reality. Not surprisingly, “[t]he tuberculosis health crisis in the schools was part of a broader Aboriginal health crisis that was set in motion by colonial policies that separated Aboriginal people from their land, thereby disrupting their economies and their food supplies” (p. 62). The last school did not shutter its doors until 1996.
Students working in the kitchen at the Cross Lake, Manitoba, school in the early 1920s. St. Boniface Historical Society Archives; Roman Catholic Archbishop of Keewatin-The Pas Fonds; N1826.
If fortunate enough to return home, many survivors spoke of the inability to readjust to the life and language of the reserve. Many were “forgetful of traditional ways and foods” (p. 103). With a strict policy of acculturation and assimilation at the residential schools, students were stripped of their identity and linguistic heritage. One survivor shared, “I can’t cut up caribou meat; I can’t cut up moose meat; work with fish and speak my language. So I was starting to become alienated from my parents and my grandparents; everything.” Too often, “the people that went back had to relearn how to survive. And at that time, survival was fishing, hunting, and trapping... [and] I was never taught that.” Consistently punished and oppressed, the Canadian government nearly succeeded in the erasure of Aboriginal peoples as “distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities” (p. 1). This history is well documented in James Daschuk’s award winning book, The Clearing of the Plains(link is external), which shows how food was used as a wepon of colonization, to control indigenous populations under John A MacDonald at the time of Confederation. Rations were even used to force Chiefs to submit to unfavourable treaty terms, which in any case were often not respected:
"In making the Treaties, the government had promised to provide assistance to First Nations to allow them to make a transition from hunting to farming. This aid was slow in coming and inadequate on arrival. Restrictions in the Indian Act made it difficult for First Nations farmers to sell their produce or borrow money to invest in technology. Reserve land was often agriculturally unproductive. Reserve housing was poor and crowded, sanitation was inadequate, and access to clean water was limited. Under these conditions, tuberculosis flourished (p.63)."
Food Secure Canada is continuing to work on these issues by highlighting the unacceptably high levels of food insecurity amongst First nations, Metis and Inuit peoples, and in particular focusing on the need for a complete overhaul of Nutrition North in our Eat Think Vote campaign. The chart below highlights some of the similarities between Canada’s colonial practices in the past through residential schools and today”s Nutrition North Program.
What can you do? Support the Eat Think Vote campaign by signing the petition for a national food policy that would ensure healthy, affordable food in the North with a food sovereignty policy.