Newswise — SASKATOON – Indigenous children in Saskatchewan and Manitoba in the first half of the 20th century were at a healthy weight when they entered residential schools, according to new research from the University of Saskatchewan (U of S), a finding that has implications for health policy to address alarming rates of obesity and diabetes among Indigenous people.

“For the most part, children entering residential schools had healthy weights, which suggests they were well-nourished coming in from their home communities,” said Paul Hackett, a U of S geographer specializing in Indigenous health. “A few children coming from communities in the southern Prairies were underweight, but these communities were also experiencing the worst of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s.”

Hackett, together with medical anthropologist Sylvia Abonyi and physician-epidemiologist Dr. Roland Dyck, pored through microfilm records and analyzed data from Canada’s Department of Indian Affairs Record Group 10 Collection (RG-10). Many copies of the collection exist across the country, including one in the Murray Library at the U of S.

The research team looked at body mass index (BMI), that is, the weight for the age and height, for more than 1,760 Indigenous children entering residential schools from 1919 to the 1950s. They found that 80 per cent of these children were very likely to have normal BMIs. This is better than the average Canadian child today, only two thirds of whom have healthy BMIs. Their findings were recently published in the International Journal of Circumpolar Health.

Hackett explained their findings show nutritional health was good in these Indigenous communities and that the current epidemic of obesity and diabetes appears to be a recent phenomenon. Previous work by Dyck, for example, shows that diabetes was unknown among Indigenous people prior to 1937. This latest study also contradicts claims by the government at the time.

“During the 1950s, the government claimed that scientific experiments on Indigenous youth in residential schools were necessary owing to poor nutritional status, but conditions in the schools may have been responsible for creating that crisis,” Hackett said.

The researchers hope their findings will help demonstrate the value of such historical research in informing public policy. Throughout the study, the researchers consulted Indigenous people for advice, and they are reaching out again for guidance on next steps, since they have also discovered just how detailed the RG-10 records are.

“These records include detailed, sensitive and individually identifiable material,” Hackett said. While all such identifiers were stripped from the data for the study, he was able to find and produce personal records for several individuals who asked for his help.

Hackett explained that since these records end in 1953, many of the residential school children are still alive today. As well, the records can provide valuable insights to guide Canadians as the country acts on the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission aimed at redressing the legacy of residential schools.

“These records are both personal history and part of our shared story as Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians,” Hackett said. “We have been privileged to help tell this story, and we hope to continue this work in partnership with Indigenous people.”