Outraged by revelations that residential school students had been systematically undernourished as part of a government-run experiment, First Nations people and their supporters took to the streets on July 25 as part of a day of prayer and protest.
In Sechelt, about a dozen protesters joined the nationwide call for the Harper government to honour its 2008 apology to residential school survivors by turning over millions of unreleased documents to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“Harper’s got to step it up here, start releasing these documents. He’s always making excuses, right? It’s time to stop making excuses,” said Randy Joe, who lined up at noon with several family members outside the Sechelt Nation’s House of Hewhiwus office complex at 5555 Sunshine Coast Highway.
With only one year left in the commission’s mandate, Joe said the Conservative government has stalled on releasing the estimated five to six million documents, fearing lawsuits will follow.
“We’re good people, you know. I don’t think people are going to go to court for every little thing that happened,” Joe said. “But we want justice, too.”
The protest came almost two weeks after University of Guelph food historian Ian Mosby revealed that federal government scientists had conducted human experiments in residential schools and First Nation communities between 1942 and 1952, denying hungry children milk, vitamin supplements and dental care.
The experiments, conducted without consent or knowledge of the test subjects, involved at least 1,300 children and adults, and were carried out in northern Manitoba and six residential schools across Canada, including one in Port Alberni.
Joe’s daughter, Samantha Baker, who organized the Sechelt rally, said she had heard three stories during the past week from family members that suggested the Sechelt Nation was also part of the experiments.
“My great uncle mentioned it, that they had a huge orchard that belonged to the residential school, and he was picking, picking, picking all the time. But they never got to eat the fruit,” Baker said.
“Also my grandfather, who went to the residential school here, he mentioned he was up at four o’clock each morning milking cows and never had the taste of real milk. So I think they were part of it, too,” she said.
A third example, recalled by Joe, was in the late 1950s when the government told Band members they could no longer hunt.
“My dad was a hunter in the Sechelt Nation — one of the best hunters, by the way: a crack shot,” Joe said. “I remember my father telling my mother that the government stopped them from hunting. He said, ‘Where are we going to get our food now?’
“We went hungry so many times when we were kids,” Joe continued. “Malnutrition. Getting pneumonia. I had pneumonia three times, almost died. We just didn’t have nutrition in our lives. That was one of the hidden secrets that the government was doing to all the Nations right across Canada.”
Joe, his brother Willard and sister Janis were day students at the Sechelt residential school, formerly located on the west side of the current House of Hewhiwus site. They remembered two teachers at the school who provided hungry children with food, but both were eventually replaced.
“They got rid of them. They weren’t following the protocol,” Janis said.
Baker said she expects the mountain of unreleased documents will disclose yet more horror stories, including the way First Nations people received dental care.
“My dad was talking about all their teeth being pulled with no freezing, probably just for torture purposes. So I think that’ll be next — dentists,” Baker said.
“I don’t know,” she added. “It’s just an awful surprise, but it has to come out for our history.”
The federal government said it provided more than 900 documents on the experiments to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2010 and 2011.
In January, an Ontario court ruled that Ottawa is obliged to turn over “all relevant documents” to the commission after the Harper government maintained it had no obligation to provide records from Library and Archives Canada.
Following that ruling, the government said it was working to ensure all remaining documents on the residential school system are turned over to the commission.