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How Boarding Schools in Canada Made Native Children Less Healthy

Boarding-school records from Canada offer a unique glimpse into native kids’ health from the 1920s to the ’50s.

By Francie Diep


Interior of classroom, Indian Industrial School in Brandon, Manitoba, 1946. (Photo: Canada LibraryArchives/Flickr)

A large majority of Canadian aboriginal children entering boarding schools in the early- to mid-20th century were in good nutritional health, according to a new study. What the kids endured once installed in a school, however, is a different story.

Canada, like the United States, has a long, troubled history of sending native children to boarding schools. In both countries, boarding schools were mandatory, designed to keep native kids away from their families and help them become better assimilated into European-American culture. Students were forbidden from speaking their home languages or practicing their religions while at school, and later investigations found signs of inadequate portion sizes in school meals as well as physical abuse at the hands of teachers.

At the time, Canadian government officials denied the problem. One famously claimed “99 percent of the Indian children at these schools are too fat.” Government and university officials also ignored the criticisms, saying that people on reservations were malnourished anyway. (Though some communities were indeed hard hit by the Great Depression, it shouldn’t matter if kids were starving at home; that doesn’t mean schools should be allowed to starve them too.)

“Our work lays the blame where it should be laid: on the government, on the churches, and on the schools.”

The new study, conducted using the records of more than 1,700 Indian boarding-school students in Manitoba and Saskatchewan between1919 and 1953, provides evidence countering these old claims. Eighty percent of the kids in the study were at healthy heights and weights for their age at the time they came to school. Eleven percent met criteria for being overweight, and 9 percent were underweight.

“Our work lays the blame where it should be laid: on the government, on the churches [that contracted with the government to run the schools], and on the schools, as opposed to the communities themselves,” says Paul Hackett, one of the study’s authors and a geographer and history researcher at the University of Saskatchewan.

Hackett and his co-authors hope their study will offer additional insights into the health of aboriginal kids in the 1920s through the ’50s. These school records contain some of the oldest data on North American native children. Currently, many Canadian and U.S. native communities struggle with some of the countries’ highest rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes, including among children. But Hackett’s research shows things weren’t always that way.

Researchers like Hackett are interested in numbers that would reveal when, exactly, the metabolic-disease epidemic among native people started and what policies may have led Native Americans to suffer from diabetes and heart disease at much higher rates than North Americans of other races.