Book Note: James Daschuk’s Clearing the Plains.
James Daschuk’s powerful book, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life (University of Regina Press, 2013), tells the horrific story of how Canada used famine to clear the western plains of Aboriginal people, facilitating the opening up of that vast territory to settlement by European immigrants and the linking of the country “from sea to shining sea” via the Canadian Pacific Railway.
In the 1870s and 80s, the various Aboriginal communities who lived in the West began to suffer from famine. The immediate cause of this famine was the destruction of the Aboriginal peoples’ staple food, the bison. Some Aboriginal people were over-hunting. Meanwhile, commercial cattle-ranching was developing, and bison were driven out because of competition for forage and the spread of disease from cattle to bison. And the American government was killing large bison herds to force its own Aboriginal peoples under its control.
|Clearing the plains- Wiki Commons|
The result of the decline of the bison herds and widespread disease was starvation. Aboriginal peoples in western Canada were reduced to eating their horses and dogs, the carcasses of wolves, and wild roots. With few if any substitutes for bison meat, they were forced into dependence on the government. The government then threatened to withdraw their rations if they refused to accept treaties, in which they gave up substantial portions of their traditional lands in return for small areas of reserved lands and minimal food rations.
At one point, the government ordered that food would only be given to Aboriginal people on reserves, and forbade those living on reserves from providing food to those still living off-reserve. The Aboriginal people were supposed to learn to farm on their reserves, under the watchful eyes of Indian agents, eventually to become self-sufficient agriculturalists.
Aboriginals were confined to their reserved against their will, only able to leave them if they had an official pass. The pass system meant that they could not look for work off the reserve which might enable them to buy food. Meantime, famine continued. One-third of the original Aboriginal population was estimated to have died in a period of six years, leaving about 15,000 people on reserves, no longer interfering with plans for European settlements.
The official Canadian response to this famine was paltry. Officials debated how much food Aboriginal people should be given. Some argued that food should only be given in exchange for work, but the Aboriginals were so weakened that work was impossible. Women and children could be seen almost naked, having sold their clothes for food; many endured rape by white men as the only means to acquire food. Yet food lay rotting in storage on reserves until officials decided that Aboriginals were sick and starving enough that some should be distributed. Meanwhile, corruption fed indifference to the famine; John A. Macdonald, the Prime Minister, and other senior officials were investors in the railway system that required the confinement of Aboriginal peoples to reserves.
After a rebellion by some of the remaining Aboriginal peoples in the west in the early 1880s, the government retaliated by cutting off even more food rations. The general viewpoint was that Aboriginals should be given just enough food to prevent their actual death by starvation, but no more. Macdonald assured Parliamentarians that the government would be “rigid, even stingy” in distributing food, refusing it “until the Indians were on the verge of starvation, to reduce the expense” (quoted by Daschuk on p. 134). Even the willingness to provide food when Aboriginals were on the verge of starvation was driven by fear of scandal in eastern Canada, if the government actually tolerated starvation.
Daschuk refers to the actions of the Canadian government as “dominion [of Canada] indifference.” This is a generous interpretation of the central government’s actions and decisions. Although the famine was not caused by any actions deliberately taken by the dominion government, the government did contribute to the famine’s prolongation. The government chose to reduce rations because, some officials believed, Aboriginal people were refusing to work for food. It also chose to reduce or suspend rations in order to force Aboriginal people to accept treaties and move onto reserves. Faced with overwhelming evidence of starvation being relayed to it by missionaries, traders, doctors, and government officials, the central government nevertheless permitted Aboriginal people to starve.
It is difficult to imagine that Canada’s government would have been oblivious to similar starvation among the white population. It’s a painful legacy for all non-Aboriginal “settler” Canadians, one that we’ve barely begun to confront, let alone compensate for.