08/26/2013 12:22 EDT | Updated 10/26/2013 05:12 EDT

Aboriginal food experiments investigation urged by ethicists

Ethics experts are calling on the Canadian government to launch an independent investigation into the nutritional experiments on malnourished aboriginal people after the Second World War.

At least 1,300 aboriginal people — most of them children — were used as test subjects in the 1940s and '50s by researchers probing the effectiveness of vitamin supplements, according to recent research by Canadian food historian Ian Mosby.

An investigation would honour the children who were mistreated and prevent similar experiments, said Richard Sugarman, chair of the Research Ethics Board at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.

The experiments were unethical even by post-war standards, according to Sugarman.

“The problem that this points out was people didn't know they were in the study, didn't have a choice and didn't benefit,” he said.

Clinical trials today cannot include human participants unless they have been informed about the costs and benefits of the experiment and have given their permission, Sugarman said.

Michael McDonald, professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, echoed Sugarman’s sentiments. He wants an arm's-length investigation similar to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an official independent body that provides residential school survivors with an opportunity to share their experiences.

Code of secrecy?

McDonald said science is all about learning from past mistakes, but the federal government is keeping the scientific documents hidden with a code of secrecy.

“I can tell you where to find out exactly how many animals were used in research. We know that, but we don't know how many human subjects were involved,” he said.

He added the aboriginal experiments are reminiscent of ones done on African-Americans in the United States.

The temptation to conduct the experiments would have been great, McDonald said, because the isolated aboriginal population makes it easier to carry out tightly controlled scientific experiments. Also, there was a widespread sentiment after the war that individual rights could be suppressed.

Nonetheless, McDonald said, scientists should have known better.

“If you were to ask yourself, 'Would these experiments have been run in Rosedale in Toronto or in other upper-class neighbourhoods?' There's no way they would have been run in those places."

A spokeswoman for the federal epartment of Aboriginal Affairs said the government has already released documents related to the nutrition experiments.

"Our historic apology recognized that the Indian residential schools policy is a dark chapter in Canada's history," said Erica Meekes, press secretary for Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt.

"That is why we must continue the important work of reconciliation. We have turned over 900 documents related to this to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission."