Canada’s Food Guide: The Hidden History of Canada’s Nutrition Recommendations

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Canada’s Food Guide: The Hidden History of Canada’s Nutrition Recommendations

By Sydney Richards, RD, BSc Nutrition
Manager, Indigenous Partnerships & Programs
Canadian Feed The Children

Content Warning: Residential School Trauma

The same intent underlies all the guides between 1942 and the present version, guiding food selection to promote the nutritional health of Canadians.
Health Canada, 2019

If you have read the 2019 publication The History of Canada's Food Guides, you will have seen the above quote. While it sounds inspiring, the publication neglects to answer the big question: at what cost? Upon further examination, the publication also avoids using the words Indigenous, First Nations, experiment(s), residential school, and starvation.

But why would this government publication need to mention such topics? Simple. 

The creation of Canada's Food Guide is rooted in the sordid history of exploitation and neglect of Indigenous children and communities.


The hidden history of Canada’s Food Guide

Nearly 50 years after the creation of the Indian Act in 1876, widespread malnutrition was plaguing Indigenous communities and residential schools due to a lack of adequate, safe food.

Instead of addressing this problem head on, government officials and scientists saw this as an opportunity to test multiple scientific theories surrounding malnutrition and nutrition standards. In the 2013 article, Administering Colonial Science: Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities Residential Schools, 1942-1952, author Ian Mosby revealed the horrific experiments conducted on nearly 1,000 children in six residential schools. 


In residential schools, Indigenous children were fed just enough to dim the sharp pangs of hunger, sometimes receiving only 30 percent of the daily calories they required. Schools received half of the funds needed to support a balanced diet. Fruits, vegetables, cheese, eggs and iodized salt were rarely found on the menu.
Meghan McGee, 2022

1942 Food Rules. Full text transcription available here: https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/canada-food-guide/about/history-food-guide.html#a1942

Canada's Official Food Rules in 1942. (via Health Canada)

Abhorrent "nutrition" experiments by "the architect of Canada's Food Guide"

Residential school-based nutrition experiments, among other social and scientific examinations, were part of a more extensive investigation into the diets of Indigenous peoples. These nutrition experiments used the baseline of malnutrition to test both nutrition intervention and non-intervention approaches. 

Overseen by medical doctor and biochemist Lionell Pett, the studies were at the time justified by the abhorrent theory that the "Indian problem" may be caused by malnutrition. Pett not only oversaw the experiments conducted in residential schools, but is now widely considered to be "the architect of Canada's Food Guide."

One particular experiment conducted by Pett and his colleagues included testing  fortified flour in residential schools, despite it being a federally banned substance at the time. Findings suggested an increase in anemia in students who were fed this particular flour.

While today fortified flour does not seem inherently nefarious, imagine for a second that these were your children being subjected to human-testing. How would you feel?


The origin of Canada's Food Rules

Experiments conducted by Pett and his colleagues did not end there, and expanded further into examining the effects of vitamins and minerals on health. With the baseline of malnutrition set, researchers would provide nutrition interventions to children, often using control and intervention groups. This allowed researchers to provide vitamin/ mineral supplementation to some, while others received placebos.

These experiments formed the basis for what would become ‘Canada’s Food Rules’, the predecessor for the Canadian Food Guide. The inhumane nature of these experiments and the treatment at the hands of these researchers would forever alter the health of these children and cause much longer-lasting effects for generations to come.


Where are we today?
Eating Well With Canada's Food Guide: First Nations, Inuit and Métis. The rainbow design directly recalls the guides based on harmful experiments on children in residential schools.

Eating Well With Canada's Food Guide: First Nations, Inuit and Métis. This guide was last updated 16 years ago. (via Health Canada)

Suppose you were to open Google and type in "Canada's Food Guide."

In that case, you will be directed towards the latest version, created in 2019, featuring aesthetically pleasing graphics and encouragement on how healthy eating is more than just food.

Great.

Now, I challenge you to search again, but this time for "Indigenous Canada's Food Guide."

What you will find is something that more closely resembles the previous 'rainbow' publication that was burned into the minds of Canadians. While the general public sees themselves represented through a wholesome, all-encompassing guide, Indigenous communities are directed to a food guide more closely related to the starvation experiments conducted in many schools and communities.

Now you may wonder, why can't Indigenous people follow the same food guide?

The short answer is many do. The long answer is a bit more complicated and requires unpacking the continued effects of settler colonialism in the country.

Simply put, the 2019 Food Guide does not adequately represent the unique traditional diets of Indigenous people in either a culturally- or nutritionally-appropriate manner. Suggesting a person eats half a plate of vegetables and fruits is, quite frankly, unrealistic for many individuals living in rural and Northern communities.

As part of the 2019 revision, Health Canada had promised to release an Indigenous version in collaboration with First Nations, Inuit, and Metis partners. Four years later, we are still waiting on any official word or update on the Indigenous Food Guide's development.

Moving forward

Many Indigenous communities and tribal councils across Canada have begun employing dietitians to help navigate the complex science and social factors of food and nutrition.

Canadian-based organizations and Health Authorities have led the way in recontextualizing the Indigenous Food Guide in a culturally appropriate manner, including, Gifts From Our Relations: Indigenous Original Food Guide (2020), a publication from the National Indigenous Diabetes Association. In addition, groups such as CFTC, the Coalition for Healthy School Food, and the Indigenous School Food Working Group have pushed to advocate for Indigenous people's voices regarding Indigenous Food Sovereignty.

While the food guide reminds us of the painful history endured by Indigenous peoples in Canada, we can continue to push for a more optimistic future in the world of Indigenous-led nutrition and dietetics.

For a more in depth look at the 2019 food guide, CFTC recommends reading Does Canada’s New Food Guide address the needs of Indigenous communities? (2019) written by Kristen Johnson, Digital Communications Specialist, CFTC.


Help is available for survivors

Canadian Feed The Children affirms our commitment to Reconciliation and raising awareness of the effects of Colonization and racism.

For those who need additional support, The National Residential School Crisis Line for survivors can be accessed at 1-866-925-4419 or by visiting hopeforwellness.ca.

We urge our supporters to review the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions 94 Calls to Action, and see where you can take action in your own life and work. Write your representatives to demand governmental action on these Calls to Action.

Learning about this history and continued oppression can be difficult. It is important to move through this discomfort and understand that this is not a “dark chapter in our history” but a system of oppression that continues to this day. But by committing to continued self-education, solidarity and advocacy for Indigenous food sovereignty, you can help break down barriers so that all Indigenous children can thrive.

References:

    1. Canada's Food Guide (Health Canada, 2019)
    2. Administering Colonial Science: Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools, 1942–1952 (Ian Mosby, University of Toronto, 2013)*
    3. 'As a matter of policy, kids were hungry in residential schools’: The dark history of Canada’s food guide (Meghan McGee, Healthy Debate, 2022)
    4. The Dark History of Canada's Food Guide (CBC Radio)
    5. “Hunger was never absent”: How residential schools diets shaped current patterns of diabetes among Indigenous peoples in Canada. (Ian Mosby and Tracy Galloway/Canadian Medical Association Journal, 2017)
    6. Canada’s shameful history of nutrition research on residential school children: The need for strong medical ethics in Aboriginal health research (Noni MacDonald, Richard Stanwick and Andrew Lynk, Paediatrics and Child Health, 2014)
    7. Eating Well with Canada's Food Guide - First Nations, Inuit and Métis (Health Canada, 2007)
    8. Gifts from our relations (National Indigenous Diabetes Association, 2020)
    9. Coalition for Healthy School Food 
    10. Indigenous School Food Working Group

*Available via academic subscription only