Clearing the Plains: Canada’s politics of starvation

Highly-recommended reading on Canadian genocide.  “The narrative is so chilling that it leaves its reader stunned and disturbed. This is fearless, evidence-driven history at its finest.”

Clearing the PlainsJames Daschuk
Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation,
and the Loss of Aboriginal Life

University of Regina Press, 2013

Discussing his book, James Daschuk writes:

Researching my own book forced me to reconsider many of my long-held beliefs about Canadian history. A professor of mine at Trent University once explained that Canadian expansion into the West was much less violent than that of the United States’, because in that country, “the person with the fastest horse got the most land.” By contrast, in the Dominion’s march west, the land was prepared for settlement by government officials before the flood of immigrants.

What we didn’t know at the time was that a key aspect of preparing the land was the subjugation and forced removal of indigenous communities from their traditional territories, essentially clearing the plains of aboriginal people to make way for railway construction and settlement. Despite guarantees of food aid in times of famine in Treaty No. 6, Canadian officials used food, or rather denied food, as a means to ethnically cleanse a vast region from Regina to the Alberta border as the Canadian Pacific Railway took shape.

For years, government officials withheld food from aboriginal people until they moved to their appointed reserves, forcing them to trade freedom for rations. Once on reserves, food placed in ration houses was withheld for so long that much of it rotted while the people it was intended to feed fell into a decades-long cycle of malnutrition, suppressed immunity and sickness from tuberculosis and other diseases. Thousands died.

Sir John A. Macdonald, acting as both prime minister and minister of Indian affairs during the darkest days of the famine, even boasted that the indigenous population was kept on the “verge of actual starvation,” in an attempt to deflect criticism that he was squandering public funds.

Reviewing Clearing the Plains for the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, Bill Robertson compares Canadian policy towards First Nations to Joseph Conrad’s account of the genocidal Kurtz in Heart of Darkness.

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.

Elizabeth A. Fenn, author of Pox Americana, says, “The prose is gripping, the analysis is incisive, and the narrative is so chilling that it leaves its reader stunned and disturbed. For days after reading it, I was unable to shake a profound sense of sorrow. This is fearless, evidence-driven history at its finest.”

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