Denial of Proper Dental Care `May Never Have Happened': Residential Schools Records Termed Notably Incomplete

Article excerpt

AFTER READING Ottawa Experimented on Native Kids (May Journal), and related articles in daily newspapers, I conducted my own research at the National Archives of Canada. I was left with quite different conclusions.

In fact, a plausible case could be made that these children received exceptional dental and nutritional care relative to standards at the time for both Native children who did not attend Indian residential schools and poor non-Native children in Canada. (Between 1900 and 1969, only about 20 per cent of status Indian children attended these schools.)

Studies to determine the effectiveness of fluoride were being undertaken at the same time in several Canadian settings so this work was not an isolated study with status Indian children. The deprival of dental care to residential schools students as described in some letters may have never happened. And the net result of the "experiment" in at least one of the schools (Port Alberni), was increased nutritional care for the children.

For five years I have been wading into the extensive federal government document holdings in the National Archives, first as a staff person with the national office of the United Church from 1992 to 1998, then as a self-employed research consultant to various church organizations facing civil litigation.

The first thing you notice about the available documentation on these nutritional/dental studies is that the record is incomplete. Most significantly, the final report, or even a draft report, on the results of this five-year study (1948-1953) by Dr. L.B. Pett of National Health and Welfare has not been located and may in fact have never been written. As a result every interpretation, including my own, must be tentative.

A memo from Dr. Pett dated Oct. 18, 1948 reports that six residential schools were visited and 824 children examined (to grow to 1,000) for the baseline of the five-year study. Some of the schools were to receive enriched flour, some therapeutic supplements, and some only educational efforts.

Central to your reporter's conclusions to make the case for deliberate deprival of dental services to residential school students are two letters in 1949 and 1950 from Dr. H.K. Brown, Chief, Dental Health Division, National Health and Welfare to his colleagues in the department.

The two letters confirm that students were getting regular visits by a dentist and all normal dental procedures were not to be stopped for this nutritional study. In fact, other documentation indicates that this study was also an opportunity for increased education of students on the use of toothbrushes and regular dental hygiene.

Dr. Brown's two letters request withholding specialized dental care such as "sodium fluoride and dental prophylasix" at the six schools involved in the study.

Since the study began in 1948, one wonders why Dr. Brown, who was Dr. Pett's superior, had to send these letters one and two years after the study started. One explanation could be that the treating dentists assigned by the federal government to its resdential schools were doing the specialized procedures anyway and this was threatening to spoil the nutritional study's results.

Why was no final report preserved? It may be that it was never written because this study was doomed from the start and thus not completed. Children in residential schools would appear at first glance to have been ideal study participants in a five-year nutritional project, since their diets were controlled in a central kitchen. But there was a great deal of turnover among students. In addition, students went home for summer vacations and many could go home on weekends so their nutrition was not as controlled as might be expected. …