Emancipation and human experiments

By Patrick Hunter Wednesday July 31 2013 in Opinion
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In my mature years, I have never been comfortable with the idea of celebrating Emancipation Day. Perhaps it has something to do with the word “emancipation” and the connotation it has for me. To me, it suggests something given – a gift provided out of the goodness of someone’s heart.


My ancestors did not ask to be enslaved. They did not consent to being enslaved. They were held in bondage, against their will, subjected to some of the most heinous crimes and conduct. Then, through the goodness of their hearts and the growing objection to slavery and the slave trade, the enslavers decided to “emancipate” the enslaved? Really?


Perhaps if the name was changed to better reflect the victory of the enslaved in winning back their freedom – though limited – I would be more comfortable. Even if it were named “Partial Victory over Slavery Day” it would probably have more meaning. Of course, we know that slavery did not necessarily end on August 1, 1834. It just took on other forms.


A somewhat related story caught my sensibilities this past week. The recent revelations that nutritional experiments were carried out on Aboriginal children and adults during the 1940s and 1950s comes as a shock, yet it is not shocking. What it confirms is the White supremacist mindset of governments: non-Whites are expendable.


The revelations come from the historical research of Ian Mosby, a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Guelph. In brief, Canadian government researchers went to these First Nations communities and, finding severe malnutrition and starvation, decided to formalize a research study rather than provide necessary nutrition and medicine. The following quote, taken from the preliminary conclusion of that study, may explain some of the thinking behind this project:


“It is not unlikely that many characteristics, such as shiftlessness, indolence, improvidence and inertia, so long regarded as inherent or hereditary traits in the Indian race may, at the root, be really the manifestations of malnutrition. Furthermore, it is highly probable that their great susceptibility to many diseases, paramount amongst which is tuberculosis, may be directly attributable to their high degree of malnutrition arising from lack of proper foods.”


This is not the first “experiment” of this kind we have become aware of as the stories, long repressed, are now being told. Of the First Nations, we now know of the history around residential schools, and the desire to “take the Indian out of the Indian” (or whatever the terminology was), and for which the Canadian government apologized on behalf of Canadians.


We also know that some women with mental disabilities were sterilized without their consent.


We also know that experiments were conducted on mental health patients, also without their consent. And all this was done in Canada.


Worldwide, we know that similar human experiments were carried out on non-Whites, whether to test emergent medicine or to prove the inferiority of non-Whites. We know that the United States conducted experiments among Blacks by giving them syphilis, and similar experiments were carried out in some Latin American countries.


Somewhere in the pantheon of research findings, throughout history, one is bound to find so-called scientific experiments conducted on humans, because they were not recognized as humans – they were not White.


I expect that soon there will be an acknowledgement by the Government of Canada that the activities in this recent revelation were immoral and wrong. They will offer an apology, again on behalf of Canadians, and possibly compensation. And so they should.


One observation that Mosby makes at the end of his report is worth quoting:


“Perhaps the most significant legacy of these studies…is that they provide us with a unique and disturbing window into the ways in which – under the guise of benevolent administration and even charity – bureaucrats, scientists, and a whole range of experts exploited their ‘discovery’ of malnutrition in Aboriginal communities and residential schools to further their own professional and political interests rather than to address the root causes of these problems or, for that matter, the Canadian government’s complicity in them.”


It does leave one to wonder whether some of these experiments have ended. Given the state of how many of the Aboriginal people live in some of the northern communities today, one has to wonder whether there is a similar study underway – how well can people survive under their current living conditions.


To be fair, other recent historical experiments have also been conducted with human guinea pigs in a mass way. The nuclear tests of the 50s and 60s come to mind. Soldiers were placed strategically close to the blasts to assess the impact.


We also hear of many stories out of Africa where experiments have been carried out on Africans to assess the medical properties of drugs. One outcome of some of these experiments led to the rather bizarre undertaking of seeking to patent genes.


I am sure that we have not heard the last of similar historical experiments. At the root of it all, in most cases, is racism.


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