Canada's Ian Mosby tells how he became an "Accidental Public Historian"

Historians in the News
tags: Canada

Ian Mosby is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of History at the University of Guelph. His first book Food Will Win the War: The Politics, Culture and Science of Food on Canada’s Home Front is scheduled to be published in May 2014 by UBC Press. 

When I first heard Alvin Dixon’s voice I was driving along Dupont Avenue in Toronto with my partner, Laural, and our three-month-old son, Oscar. Dixon was talking to Rick MacInnes-Rae, who was filling in as the co-host of the CBC Radio show As It HappensThe interview was about Dixon’s experience at the Alberni Indian residential school (AIRS) where he had unwittingly been part of a recently uncovered nutrition experiment conducted by the federal government during the late 1940s and early 1950s.

In addition to describing his memories of the experiment – in impressive and accurate detail – Dixon talked in a jarringly blunt manner about hunger and about the horrors of life in that notorious institution on the west coast of Vancouver Island. “It was totally inadequate food a lot of the time,” Dixon told MacInnes-Rae. “I remember all of us kids having to steal fruit, steal carrots and potatoes so that we could roast potatoes somewhere off site on a fire and eat them – because we were never full when we left the dining room table.”

Dixon had long suspected that something had been done to them at the school. “As early as 20 years ago,” Dixon told MacInnes-Rae, “I heard that there were these experiments from former students who worked in the kitchens.” And when asked what it said to him that his federal government was willing to do this, Dixon responded that it affirmed what he’d always believed: “That the federal government and most Canadians don’t give a shit what happens with us as First Nations people. They’re on our stolen lands, our holy lands and they’re not going to be happy until they have it all. They were trying to eliminate us. So that’s not surprising.”

By the end of the interview I was in tears – something that would happen with increasing frequency over the coming months as I met, corresponded with, and listened to the stories of survivors of these experiments and of Canada’s Indian residential school system more generally. While I’m still not sure what I expected to happen after I published my research on these experiments, I don’t think anything could have prepared me for how profoundly the strength, courage, and anger of survivors like Dixon would change my life and my perspective on what it meant to be an (active) historian.

The research that first brought these nutrition experiments to the public’s attention was my article, “Administering Colonial Science: Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools, 1942–1952.” It was published in the May 2013 issue of the scholarly journal Histoire sociale/Social history. The article examined a series of controlled experiments conducted, apparently without the subjects’ informed consent or knowledge, on nearly 1,300 malnourished Aboriginal adults and children in Northern Manitoba and in six Indian residential schools.

Most Canadian historians aren’t used to the public paying much attention to our research, particularly our articles. But it seems that the recent rise of a vibrant community of historians on social media may have changed things. ...

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