The story came to light earlier this summer after research was published by Ian Mosby, a post-doctorate student at the University of Guelph.
Vitamins and milk were withheld by federal government researchers in communities experiencing famine and from children in residential schools.
“It's disturbing that Canada has that kind of history of research in Aboriginal communities, as well as the whole experience with residential schools,” said Dr. Sheldon Tobe, the Heart and Stroke Foundation Chair in Aboriginal and Rural Health.
“I think our generation has to learn from the mistakes from previous generations and move forward.”
These revelations also have the potential to make it more difficult for modern-day medical researchers to develop trust with Aboriginal communities, Tobe said.
He said the best way to work with Aboriginals is to see what kind of questions community members themselves want answered, and then design a health study around those questions.
Tobe, a nephrologist by training who joined the medical school July 1, gave the example of a study he did with an Aboriginal community who wanted to reduce its incidence of stroke, heart attacks and diabetes.
“They came to the conclusion that lowering blood pressure was the logical first step,” said Tobe, who spoke at a Sept. 9 forum at the medical school on conducting research in Aboriginal communities.
“I was approached to help put together a protocol and a proposal for how to do that in the community.”
He arranged for health-care providers to work collaboratively to better monitor and control patients' blood pressure. The program developed as a result of that study has now been adopted as a best practice by the province.
Tobe said he hopes having a chair in Aboriginal and rural health research at NOSM will result in strong bonds of trust being built between Aboriginal communities and the medical school.
“People can become confident there's going to be continuity,” he said. “There's going to be the same face in the same position for at least five years.”
Tobe's position is funded by $3 million jointly provided by the Heart and Stroke Foundation and the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, as well as $1 million from NOSM.
The TD Bank Group has also provided $100,000 to support second-year NOSM medical students conducting research in Aboriginal communities over the next three summers.
While he's hoping that the communities he'll be working in will drive the research agenda, Tobe said he is hoping to focus on heart and stroke research.
More specifically, his goal is to improve cardiovascular outcomes, reduce mortality, and increase quality of life for people with, or at risk of developing cardiovascular-renal disease.
Tobe said there's a high incidence of these chronic conditions in Canada, and in Aboriginal communities in particular.
“For example we need to know what is the rate of stroke in the north, and are there pockets where stroke is very high, and is there a linkage between stroke and dementia.”
The Heart and Stroke Foundation invested in Tobe's position because there's unmet needs in rural and Aboriginal communities related to heart disease and stroke, said Vincent Bowman, the organization's Ontario director of research.
“We wanted to support a chair in the north that would help to address some of the issues and barriers and improve health for Aboriginal communities and rural communities.”
NOSM dean Dr. Roger Strasser said he's “thrilled” Tobe has joined the medical school's team of researchers.
“Dr. Tobe has pre-established connections with Aboriginal communities and a very specialized expertise to share with the Northern Ontario School of Medicine,” he said, in a press release.
“Dr. Tobe's research focuses on improving cardiovascular outcomes, with the primary goal of preventing heart attack and stroke – initiatives that I am very excited about.
“Dr. Tobe's passion for research and experience will assist us in working towards the school's vision of innovative education and research for a healthier north. On behalf of NOSM, I congratulate Dr. Tobe and wish him every success.”