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Clearing the plains

How John A. Macdonald starved Indigenous peoples 

By Dennis Gruending

The countdown is on, as Canada is set to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Sir John A. Macdonald’s birth next year. But as author James Daschuk points out in his book, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, Macdonald deliberately used “the politics of famine” to force Indigenous people into submission so that Canada could build a railway and populate the West with European settlers. Dashcuk is an assistant professor at the University of Regina. His book is the culmination of research that began 25 years ago as part of his PhD thesis.

Daschuk writes that prior to the arrival of Europeans — in the late 1600s — indigenous people on the northern plains generally enjoyed good health, based mainly on their harvesting of bison. By the 1890s, however, they had become so sick that it was thought they were doomed to extinction. The reasons are many and complex, including famine and epidemics of smallpox and measles, which the Europeans brought with them and to which indigenous people had no immunity. 

Coming out of a financial scandal in 1873, Macdonald was back in power by 1878 and devised a new National Policy based on building a railroad and agricultural settlements in the West. Also appointing himself Indian Affairs minister, he wanted Indigenous people out of the way so that the railway could proceed. By then, most chiefs had sadly accepted that their people would have to shift from a semi-nomadic life — one based on hunting bison — to one in which they engaged in agriculture. Sure, they petitioned the government for treaties providing a formal agreement for the future, but they clearly believed that the land belonged to them.   

Author James Daschuk gives a talk in Ottawa in November. Photo by Dennis Gruending
Author James Daschuk gives a talk in Ottawa in November. Photo by Dennis Gruending

And within two short years, the bison had virtually disappeared and the famine had arrived. Daschuk writes: “At this point, crisis turned into opportunity for Macdonald. The treaties had been negotiated nation-to-nation, but now the First Nations were weakened. The government would provide food only if they took reserves, and even then, they were fed at minimum rations.”

Macdonald described his government’s policy in the following terms in the House of Commons: “We cannot allow them to die for want of food . . . [We] are doing all that we can by refusing food until the Indians are on the verge of starvation, to reduce the expense.” 

Instead, this deliberate withholding of food to hungry people led to hundreds of deaths by starvation, Daschuk argues. What's more, it also created the conditions for a tuberculosis epidemic in indigenous communities.

"White Canadians have this myth of decency, friendliness, and helping our neighbours, but in our relationship with Indigenous peoples we have not been decent. I live in hope that we will become more open-minded about what is going on in Canada.”    

Ironically, Daschuk was awarded the Sir John A. Macdonald Prize for a Canadian book of history this year. The award goes to writers judged to have made the largest contribution to understanding Canada's past.

Author's photo
Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based author, blogger and a former Member of Parliament. His work will appear on the second and fourth Thursday of the month. His Pulpit and Politics blog can be found at www.dennisgruending.ca.
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