By Kevin Plummer
“Those Reserve Indians are in a deplorable state of destitution, they receive from the Indian Department just enough food to keep soul and body together, they are all but naked, many of them barefooted,” Lawrence Clarke wrote in 1880 of near-starvation Cree around Fort Carlton. “Should sickness break out among them in their present weakly state,” the long-time Hudson’s Bay Company employee concluded, “the fatality would be dreadful” (Daschuk, 114).
Sickness did break out, with tuberculosis and other infectious diseases decimating a reserve population made vulnerable to disease by years of famine and inadequate government rations. The loss of life was immense, James Daschuk recounts in Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, and amounted to a “state-sponsored attack on indigenous communities” whose effects “haunt us as a nation still” (186).
Daschuk’s examination of the ecological, economic, and political factors shaping the history of the Canadian plains—and its Aboriginal inhabitants—from the early 1700s to the eve of the twentieth century is divided into two sections. The first, covering up to Canada’s acquisition of Rupert’s Land in 1870, outlines how the spread of smallpox and other diseases through fur trade networks was devastating for some but presented economic and territorial opportunities for others. The Anishinabe expanded their fur trade participation onto the plains, Daschuk illustrates, when the once-dominant Assiniboine were decimated by disease.
The lethality of infectious outbreaks for individual Aboriginal communities was shaped by the type and degree of its contact with traders and missionaries, its population density, and mobility among others. The spread of disease was largely an organic process, rather than the result of the willful malevolence of human actors.
In the book’s second half, Daschuk explores the Canadian state’s growing presence on the plains. First Nations leaders were willing to formalize their relationship to the crown through treaty, which they envisioned as a bridge to a bison-less future that required a difficult transition to farming. The Dominion, however, seemed only open to negotiations when settler development was imminent.
Widespread famine struck the plains with the disappearance of bison caused in part by the herds’ susceptibility to new pathogens—like bovine tuberculosis—carried by the domesticated cattle settlers introduced to the region. Although Cree leaders had succeeded in convincing the crown’s representative to include clauses covering medical aid and famine relief in Treaty 6, when they sought assistance the Dominion, with little infrastructure in the west initially, was ill-equipped to fulfill its treaty obligations.
At the depth of the famine, emaciated First Nations arrived at forts and settlements begging for food. Frequently, the official response was not to provide emergency food, but to construct stockades around ration houses. There were, however, relatively few incidents of law-breaking or poaching of cattle in response to the crisis. Many of those seeking relief were willing to work for rations, but the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) didn’t have enough work to go around.
Daschuk points to the election of the Conservatives in the fall of 1878 as a turning point when the “[m]anagement of the famine took on a more sinister character” (184). An ever-tightening budget at the DIA meant staff cuts, including medical staff who’d proven effective in vaccinating against smallpox, and orders that the file be managed “as economically as possible” (122). When the Opposition still complained about the budget, Macdonald promised that emergency rations would be refused “until the Indians were on the verge of starvation, to reduce the expense” (134). Available food rotted in government storehouses as malnutrition, sickness, and death ravaged the reserve population.
With the government also neglecting the agricultural assistance promised by treaty, there was no alternative source of food on reserves. Furthermore, even if reserve residents managed to achieve a measure of success in farming, government regulations limited their ability to sell their crops or produce beyond the reserve—systematically marginalizing indigenous peoples from the West’s emerging economy. Adding insult to injury, many low-level, but powerful DIA officials and farm instructors abused their positions, exchanging food for sex, or colluding with government contractors for personal gain.
Prolonged malnutrition, the desperate scavenging of tuberculosis-infected animals, and the consumption of subpar or even tainted government rations, eventually made First Nations on reserves vulnerable to emerging epidemics. Staggering rates of tuberculosis mortality—rising from 40 deaths per 1,000 in 1881 to 127 per 1,000 in 1886—were significantly higher than in nearby settler communities. Misreading the evidence and denying a link with malnourishment, medical researchers confidently declared that Aboriginal peoples were simply more susceptible to disease.
This convenient narrative—soon accepted as orthodox in the medical and political establishment—made the incredible loss of life on the plains a question of biological predisposition rather than one of state policy. It’s proven to be a remarkably resilient idea, too, and one which lies at the root of our casual acceptance of deplorable health outcomes—higher rates of diabetes, AIDS, and suicide—among the reserve population today.
Perhaps the most damning evidence Daschuk presents are the few exceptions to this cycle of famine and disease. The Dakota who depended less upon the bison and had transitioned to farming at an earlier stage, and northern Cree communities in Saskatchewan who were able to maintain their traditional economies outside the harsh constraints of the reserve system did not suffer the same rates of tuberculosis seen on reserves. The determining factor in these divergent health outcomes, Daschuk argues, was the degree of Aboriginal peoples’ reliance on government assistance. He concludes that “those with the least contact with the Indian department were the healthiest” (166).
Clearing the Plains is heavy, sobering reading, laced with chilling snapshots of desperation, callousness, and catastrophe. In support of his provocative argument—that the Canadian government stage-managed famine in order to coerce and control the Aboriginal population—Daschuk’s tone is remarkably restrained, never veering into the polemical. He lets his evidence speak for itself, zooming out from explorations of single cultural communities or single infectious outbreaks in the existing historical literature to identify broader patterns. Into his synthesis, he patiently weaves in accounts from diaries, letters, and the records of the HBC and DIA.
As Daschuk moves epidemiological and environmental forces to the forefront—and detailed discussion of key events into the background—of his prairies history, some advance knowledge of the history of the fur trade and the numbered treaties is beneficial to the reader. Swiftly shifting the discussion between locales and First Nations affected—given the expanse of time and territory the book spans—can also be disorienting for the reader at times. But, Clearing The Plains rewards careful reading.
The book merits a wide readership, though it seems so far to have flown under the radar. Daschuk has been earning some attention from the CBC’s The Current, the Globe and Mail , and best-of year-end lists, but nothing compared to the magnitude of the media furor earlier this year that greeted Ian Mosby’s revelations of malnourished First Nations people cruelly used in state-sponsored medical experiments. Such broad discussion of Clearing the Plains in the public arena has the potential to unsettle Canadians’ perception of the country’s historical relationship with First Nations, and to raise troubling questions about the persistent health disparity between Indigenous peoples and the broader population.
A graduate of the University of New Brunswick (B.A.) and Trent University (M.A.), Kevin Plummer is co-author of Historicist, an award-winning weekly column exploring Toronto history.