Food as a Weapon in the Residential School System

By Jade Owen

“This is not an Aboriginal issue, it’s a Canadian issue.”

Chief Wilton Littlechild

On 2 June 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its findings and calls to action in the hopes of healing the painful legacy of the Indian Residential School system.

Woven between the stories of physical, psychological and sexual abuse are experiences of unimaginable food insecurity and hunger. In the report, health assessments noted that “the vitality of the children is not sufficiently sustained from a lack of nutritious food” and that “the food supplied has been inadequate for the [development] needs of the children” (Executive Summary, p. 86). At some schools, students were “reduced to buying bread to supplement their meals... [which] highlights the government’s failure to provide schools with the resources needed to feed students adequately” (Executive Summary, p. 87). It was further conveyed that “residential school diets did not measure up to the Food Rules” (Executive Summary, p.88). Evidently, “no school was doing a good feeding job” (Executive Summary, p. 88). The allotted funding per student was rarely enough, and students were expected to provide unpaid labour to support all daily functions of the school.

Ahousaht, British Columbia, students in the school cafeteria. British Columbia Archives, PN-15589.

One school inspection observed that the “menu appears to be short of the recommended two servings of fruit per day” (Executive Summary, p. 88), and some students resorted to (justifiable) theft or illicit favours to prevent imminent starvation and illness. The cultural loss of traditional foods and diet at the schools further “added to the students’ sense of disorientation” (Executive Summary, p. 88). When the unfamiliar foods made students sick, staff (who feasted in comparison) would force the students to eat their own vomit (Executive Summary, p. 89).  One survivor was forced to eat “porridge with worms” (Survivors speak, p. 75), and brutally beaten when she refused. Under the so-called care of the federal government, more than 4000 children died, and many more were subjected to the ongoing trauma of state-sanctioned abuse and neglect. When families tried to prevent their children from attending the residential schools, officials withheld food rations and Treaty payments (Executive Summary, p. 115).

The report resumes that “[t]he federal government knowingly chose not to provide schools with enough money to ensure that kitchens and dining rooms were properly equipped... and, most significantly, that food was purchased in sufficient quantity and quality for growing children” (Executive Summary, p. 90). Students succumbed to what was certainly preventable starvation. Severely underfed and malnourished, disease also became an inevitable reality. Not surprisingly, “[t]he tuberculosis health crisis in the schools was part of a broader Aboriginal health crisis that was set in motion by colonial policies that separated Aboriginal people from their land, thereby disrupting their economies and their food supplies” (Executive Summary, p. 93). The last school did not shutter its doors until 1996.

Students working in the kitchen at the Cross Lake, Manitoba, school in the early 1920s. St. Boniface Historical Society Archives; Roman Catholic Archbishop of Keewatin-The Pas Fonds; N1826.

If fortunate enough to return home, many survivors spoke of the inability to readjust to the life and language of the reserve. Many were “forgetful of traditional ways and foods” (Survivors speak, p. 103). With a strict policy of acculturation and assimilation at the residential schools, students were stripped of their identity and linguistic heritage. One survivor shared, “I can’t cut up caribou meat; I can’t cut up moose meat; work with fish and speak my language. So I was starting to become alienated from my parents and my grandparents; everything.” (Survivors speak, p.107) Too often, “the people that went back had to relearn how to survive. And at that time, survival was fishing, hunting, and trapping... [and] I was never taught that.” (Survivors speak, p.107) Consistently punished and oppressed, the Canadian government nearly succeeded in the erasure of Aboriginal peoples as “distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities” (Executive Summary, p.1). This history is well documented in James Daschuk’s award winning book, The Clearing of the Plains, which shows how food was used as a weapon of colonization, to control indigenous populations under John A MacDonald at the time of Confederation. Rations were even used to force Chiefs to submit to unfavourable treaty terms, which in any case were often not respected:

"In making the Treaties, the government had promised to provide assistance to First Nations to allow them to make a transition from hunting to farming. This aid was slow in coming and inadequate on arrival. Restrictions in the Indian Act made it difficult for First Nations farmers to sell their produce or borrow money to invest in technology. Reserve land was often agriculturally unproductive. Reserve housing was poor and crowded, sanitation was inadequate, and access to clean water was limited. Under these conditions, tuberculosis flourished” (Executive Summary, p.94).

Food Secure Canada is continuing to work on these issues by highlighting the unacceptably high levels of food insecurity amongst First nations, Metis and Inuit peoples, and in particular focusing on the need for a complete overhaul of Nutrition North in our 2015 Eat Think Vote campaign.  The chart below highlights some of the similarities between Canada’s colonial practices in the past through residential schools and today's Nutrition North Program.




Aware of starvation and hunger

Enforced policy of starvation

Elders scavenging for food in Rankin Inlet; shortages in store supplies and access to affordable food

Aware of preventable diseases

Tuberculosis; cut funding to medical aid such as doctors + smallpox vaccinations

Rickets; vitamin D deficiency; diabetes; cardiovascular diseases

Supplied food that was “less-than”

Bands were fed diseased and discarded meat; inferior and contaminated flour to cut expenses and maximize profit; students were fed scraps and “porridge with worms”

Expired or rotten food; imported and processed food

Committed inadequate funds

Austerity; not a priority; committed funds to territorial expansion and transportation networks

Not a priority; eligible communities labelled as ineligible

Subsidized culturally irrelevant and nutritionally-deficient food

Flour instead of protein; macaroni products; assimilate to “white tastes”

Nutrition North Basket

Legislated against inter-community trade and the procurement of country foods

Could not harvest, sell or barter food grown on reserves; conservation status on wildlife; prohibition on food gathering

Only country foods produced commercially in a federally inspected facility are subsidized; most foods subsidized are not locally procured

No education on traditional food practices

Schools were purified of cultural traditions and ceremonies

No follow-through on promises of funded nutrition education activities

Lack of consultation with communities

Aboriginal communities did not even have the right to vote until 1960

No community-based approaches; policies developed in Ottawa by an Ottawa-based consulting firm

No transparency and accountability

Aboriginal families and communities stripped of rights and citizenship

No compliance audits of retailers

Unemployment and underemployment

Work for rations; exclusion from comparable education; educated towards low-paying jobs and dangerous manual labour

Will not subsidize community co-operatives or non-profit organizations