In 1882, Cree chief Big Bear, his people starving, adhered to Treaty 6 in exchange for food from the Dominion of Canada. He had argued for fairer treaty provisions, but rations had been deliberately withheld by the government of Sir John A. Macdonald, whose plan was to “starve unco-operative Indians onto reserves and into submission.” Big Bear began negotiating with other Cree communities to take reserve lands next to each other. Macdonald’s government rejected the chief’s proposal, reneging on an earlier promise. Big Bear later tried to dissuade members of his band from violence against white settlers, helping instead with the release of hostages. Amid widespread indigenous famine, Sir John A. Macdonald focused on his National Dream, his Indian commissioner declaring of rancid rations: “The Indians should eat the bacon or die.”
Who was the true Canadian, Big Bear or Sir John A.?
If the mark of a great work of history is its power to reorient the reader’s sense of identity, then James Daschuk’s Clearing the Plains is colossal. This is excavation of an authentically Canadian past from under layers of colonial myth, performed with a scalpel, and illuminated by searing prose.
Nothing underscores how critical this reorientation is than the statistic presented in the book’s introduction: While Canada consistently ranks among the top nations on the United Nations Human Development Index, the country’s indigenous population would rank 63rd. “How did we get here?” is the question driving Daschuk’s narrative which focuses with deceptive simplicity on what indigenous communities on the central plains ate, how they lived, which diseases they contracted. The book is divided into two halves, the first scrutinizing the pre-European period and the early and later fur-trade eras; it highlights the increasingly negative impact on indigenous life of the violence, alcoholism and greed rife in the fur trade, particularly after the English takeover of Quebec. The second half examines state policy toward indigenous peoples of the plains after the annexation of the west by the Dominion of Canada.
The devastating import of this structure becomes apparent. The horrors of the fur trade pale in comparison with the torment unleashed by the development-minded dominion government on plains communities after the collapse of the bison herds due to overhunting. Daschuk demonstrates that the chronic famine in these communities sprang from the politics of food distribution rather than a lack of food: “…while the Indians were starving, in many cases to death, the authorities withheld food that was available.” One Liberal MP accused the government of “a policy of submission shaped by a policy of starvation.” Attempts by indigenous peoples to become self-sufficient after they had “traded their independence for food” were deliberately thwarted: agricultural experiments were rendered useless by the government’s refusal to provide milling equipment. Indigenous women were often sexually abused by corrupt officials in exchange for food. Rations provided were frequently unfit for consumption and sometimes deadly. As the country was “opened,” government officials expelled thousands of people from their traditional territories and grew “merciless in their use of food to control the First Nations population.”
The author portrays the slow transformation of First Nations peoples from entrepreneurs in a global economy to inmates in de facto concentration camps, denied access to reserve storehouses, confined by the “pass system” to lands barren of game and produce, increasingly sick, dying in droves of “actual starvation.” This depiction is obsessively substantiated: There are 55 pages of notes and more than 50 pages of bibliography, as well as charts, maps and photos, for a text of less than 200 pages. The style is precise, tense, inexorable. The effect on the reader is cumulative and profound. One understands that here was ethnic cleansing and mass murder without documentarians or tribunals. This book, then, is an attempt to bear witness, a retrospective camera held in the hand of a historian aware of the responsibility he is shouldering.
It is hard to do justice to a work this necessary. “The effects of the state-sponsored attack on indigenous communities … haunt us still.” In its scorching entirety, Clearing the Plains suggests that if present-day Canadians stay blind to our true past, if we do not learn to see ourselves in Big Bear, who, malnourished and subjugated, preferred negotiation to massacre, and not just in Sir John A., who would have his railway at any human cost, we are condemned to keep reinforcing the material gaps between our mainstream and our indigenous populations – to remain, in the ugliest sense, a colony and not a nation.
Aparna Sanyal is a writer living in Montreal.