Clearing the plains

James Daschuk, Clearing the Plains
James Daschuk, Clearing the Plains

The countdown is on to celebrate the 200th anniversary in 2015 of Sir John A Macdonald’s birth. Author James Daschuk, however, says that 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.

Daschuk is an assistant professor at the University of Regina. His book, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, is the culmination of research that began 25 years ago for his PhD thesis.

He says that prior to the arrival of Europeans (in the late 1600s) indigenous people on the northern plains enjoyed generally good health, based mainly upon their harvesting of bison. By the 1890s 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.

Macdonald had been tossed out of office by voters as a result of a financial scandal in 1873 but was back in power by 1878. He devised a new National Policy based on building a railroad and agricultural settlement in the West. Macdonald, who also appointed himself Indian Affairs minister, wanted Indigenous people out of the way so that the railway could proceed. By then most of the chiefs had sadly accepted that their people would have to shift from a semi-nomadic life based upon hunting bison to one where they engaged in agriculture. They petitioned the government for treaties providing a formal agreement for the future but they clearly believed that the land belonged to them.

Within two short years the bison had virtually disappeared and the famine had arrived. Daschuk says, “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.”

Verge of starvation

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.”

Daschuk says that the deliberate withholding of food to hungry people led to hundreds of deaths by starvation but it also created the conditions for a tuberculosis epidemic in indigenous communities.

Glorifying Macdonald

He adds, “A glorification of John A Macdonald is underway as we come up to the 200th anniversary of his birth. How do we process this? 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 has been awarded the Sir John A. Macdonald Prize for a Canadian book of history judged to have made the most significant contribution to an understanding of the Canadian past.

This piece was carried in slightly modified form in the United Church Observer in  November 2014.   

6 thoughts on “Clearing the plains

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  1. I recall a Canadian Historian saying Sir John A. MacDonald intentionally ignored the letters and petitions of Louis Riel in Batoche in the hope that an uprising of some sort would occur. When the Metis reacted in an aggressive way to the land survey intrusions, this gave Sir John a reason to secure further funding from Parliament to complete “The National Dream” of a railroad across the country for National Security reasons. If this is true, it seems clear “the end justifies the means” for our first Prime Minister.


    1. Thanks for posting my piece to your Facebook page. I know that you are coming at this from a different angle than author James Daschuk and I appreciate your being open to publishing a different opinion.


  2. Dennis, I agree strongly that European imperialism was achieved via genocide at worst, extreme marginalization at best. I’m wondering what to make of claims that in painting MacDonald as a genocidal criminal, effectively, the authors are guilty of something called “presentism.” I gather this means judging historical people by today’s standards.


    1. Thanks Jim for your comment. I would be interested to know what other readers think about your query regarding “presentism”. I will ponder your question, as well, and perhaps write something in response a bit later on.


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