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- Created: Saturday, 19 October 2013 22:00
- Published: Saturday, 19 October 2013 22:00
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Clearing the Plains should be standard text
BY BILL ROBERTSON, FOR THE STARPHOENIX
While reading James Daschuk's meticulous account of the Canadian government's policy to clear the plains of First Nations people to make way for the railway and for white settlement, I was reminded of a 1997 essay by Adam Hochschild in The New Yorker. Hochschild is writing about the Kurtz character in Conrad's Heart of Darkness and the murderous means by which he amassed huge amounts of ivory.
Hochschild writes, "Europeans and Americans have long been reluctant to regard the conquest of Africa as having been on the same genocidal scale as the deeds of Hitler and Stalin." No, he writes, we'd much rather see Kurtz and the horror of his soul as the product of one writer's wild imagination, not as the product of European and American so-called civilization. How could we?That's the uncomfortable sort of question that Daschuk asks in Clearing the Plains, and the inescapable conclusion he comes to again and again, with mountains of evidence to back him up, is that we did. Our government did do the same sorts of things as Kurtz. And possibly even Hitler and Stalin. Though we choose not to see it that way; and not in the same way, of course. Daschuk's not talking about ivory or ovens.
What he does is take us step by step from First Nations health, environment and disease before contact with Europeans up to what he calls the "nadir of Indigenous health," the worst condition to which First Nations health was brought, between 1886 and 1891. And he lays a great deal of the blame for what befell Canadian First Nations people, and what continues to befall them, on Canadian government policy, and on the racist, rigid and often petty interpretation of that policy by local government officials.
Daschuk accomplishes this huge mission by taking what started as his doctoral dissertation and expanding it into this study. In true academic fashion, he lays out his purpose in a detailed introduction, marches us through nine statistically numbing chapters (though the horror of so much of his evidence keeps the pages turning), and then, in a remarkably thorough yet concise conclusion, re-caps everything he's just said.
In the early chapters he touches on an ecosystem built on beavers and their dams - soon to be extirpated - virgin soil epidemics, and how competition among traders both ruined the country in terms of animal populations, but provoked a "social, demographic, and environmental crisis" because of the introduction of alcohol into trading and its resulting addiction, sexually transmitted disease and violence. He concludes these chapters saying the bison economy had run its course and the Dominion of Canada was about to annex the western plains.
To make a long, painful story very simple, the Canadian government wanted land for its railway and for immigrant farmers. It and the Manitoba government were unprepared for the rush of newcomers they'd invited and hurried into treaties with the chiefs who wanted food for their people. As Daschuk points out, though, "the Cree leaders who signed Treaty 6 failed to plan for miserly interpretation of the terms of the treaty" after the bison went. He calls this disappearance "the single greatest environmental catastrophe to strike human populations on the plains."
Now the government was in a position to trade food for compliance: First Nations people were forced onto reserves with food as the bargaining chip. Whole populations were routinely starved until they became diseased, what Daschuk calls "the moral and legal failure of the Crown's treaty commitment to provide assistance in the case of a widespread famine on the plains."
Indeed, prime minister John A. Macdonald is quoted as saying, "We are doing all we can, by refusing food until the Indians are on the verge of starvation, to reduce the expense."
Food spoiled in dominion warehouses while aboriginals starved and sickened (one federal agent even called all the starving people of his reserve to the storehouse to hand out food, then sent them home as he laughed, calling it an April Fool's joke), women prostituted themselves for food and government ministers blithely claimed that so long as First Nations people expected food, they would remain helpless, or, as Daschuk quotes, "it was not intended that the Indian should become self-supporting. He was only to be kept quiet till the country filled up when his ill will could be ignored."
After this litany of "repugnant" incidents and declarations, Daschuk concludes: "In the collective experience of subjugation, hunger, sickness, and death is the origin of the chasm that exists even today between health conditions of mainstream Canadians and western Canada's First Nations population." Letters to the editor and opinion pieces continue to roll in about First Nations people unable or unwilling to care for themselves, but the origins of that very degradation of a people are here.
Daschuk, in shameful and shocking detail, accounts for cases, year by year, of how any kind of autonomy or self-care was taken out of the hands of First Nations people so they could be made wards of the state and shuffled aside. As Thomas King notes in The Inconvenient Indian, they weren't meant to make it. But they defied all odds and attempts to kill them off, and here they are. We may not like to be reminded that our own government - names that ring down through our history lessons and on our street signs - carried out such heinous acts, but they are not the figment of some writer's imagination. The details in Daschuk's book are backed by copious evidence and pages of notes and bibliography. This book should be taught in every school in the land.
Clearing the Plains Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life James Daschuk University of Regina Press $39.95