Clearing the Plains

In his recent award-winning book, Clearing the Plains, author and historian James Daschuk sheds light on a dark time in Canadian history and looks at the tremendous cost First Nations people paid for the realization of former Prime Minister John A. Macdonald’s national dream. In this article, he reveals the origins of the continuing gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians in terms of health and economic well-being, starting with a look at his home province of Saskatchewan.


As Canadians, we think of ourselves as decent, even good people. We’re nice. We take care of each other, with universal medical care; we have even enshrined that into the most important institutions of our society. Saskatchewan, where the idea of medical care for all was born, is a province with an ethic of hard but honest work that, in a generation, turned sod homesteads into the breadbasket of the world. Perhaps the quintessential Canadian province in the way that it reflects our values as a nation.

Tommy Douglas, who mobilized the province during some of its darkest days, was voted the “greatest Canadian” ten years ago for epitomizing the values that we aspire to. From humble beginnings, we have achieved so much. Our historic positioning as an honest broker and our commitment to social justice has made our country the envy of the world, and has provided us with the ability to expect some of the highest measures of health, material well-being and life expectancy on the globe. As another politician once said, “a just society.”

There is only one thing. The prosperity and the expectations of the good life that flow from it aren’t available to everyone. Individual health outcomes will vary from person to person, but the ideal situation is to have as small a gap as possible between the rich and the poor with regard to health-care needs, life expectancy and so forth. If we all get sick and die at about the same stage of life, then the system, and society, is working at its most efficient and equitable.

Study after study has shown that Aboriginal communities are the poorest and most marginalized in Canadian society. Not surprisingly, they are the most vulnerable to disease, violence and preventable death. Because of our demographic makeup, the gap between the mainstream and our indigenous neighbours is a particular threat to Saskatchewan’s future. In the next 20 years, the proportion of Aboriginal people is expected to double to 30 per cent. In 40 years, half of the population could be First Nations or Métis. As the population balance shifts, the burden of unequal health and the cost of treatment will eventually bankrupt us – not to mention the snowball effect of human suffering.

We probably don’t like to think about it, but the differences between living conditions for those in the mainstream and Aboriginal people in the province are so striking, they could be living in different countries. In the yearly ranking of countries in the United Nations Human Development Index, Canada consistently ranks in the top 10. If the same measures, like housing, education and health, were applied to the First Nations population, they would be on par with Romania in the 72nd position.

In 2013, two-thirds of all First Nations children in Saskatchewan lived in poverty. Tuberculosis rates in First Nations communities are 31 times higher than the national average. Infant mortality is triple the Canadian average. More than a hundred Aboriginal communities across the country don’t have safe drinking water.

An average funding gap of $3,000 to $4,000 (and as high as $8,000) per student per year between the provincial school system and the federally funded schools on reserve means that many of the buildings are decayed and unsafe. Less than half of the kids who live on reserves finish high school.

More Aboriginal young people go to jail than graduate. A recent article in Maclean’s magazine called them “Second-Class Children” condemned from birth to a poorer, sicker and shorter life than the rest of us. As I write this, people from across the country are calling for an investigation into how almost 1,200 Aboriginal women and girls have gone missing or been killed. In Winnipeg, the families of the missing and the murdered have taken it upon themselves to drag the Red River for the remains of their loved ones.

So, how did we get into this absurd and terrible situation where members of one group can expect to lead a shorter, more violent and sicker life from the moment they are born?

This was the question I tried to answer with Clearing the Plains, the culmination of more than twenty years of research. I knew the story would be grim. Before Columbus, America wasn’t a disease-free paradise; some societies flourished while others floundered, occasionally in violent confrontations with their neighbours. The chain of events that was unleashed with the arrival of Europeans to the continent is hard to fathom. Without previous exposure to a number of Old World diseases, all were equally vulnerable.

In the case of smallpox, the most deadly, eight out of ten may have died in the span of three weeks. Survivors, so sick they could barely move, often succumbed to famine. In an instant, communities lost their elders, the keepers of knowledge and wisdom, the children, their mothers and fathers – a true catastrophe. Some communities buckled under the pressure and disappeared. Some joined together creating new identities.

There was one constant during the days of the epidemics. The bison, the staple food for millennia, provided a diet so dependable and so nutritious that the First Nations of the Plains have been described by anthropologists as the tallest people in the world in the nineteenth century

This was the situation when Canada acquired the West in 1869-1870. To open the land for our immigrant ancestors, the Crown negotiated treaties throughout the 1870s. The completed treaties, an exchange of commitments and responsibilities for both First Nations people and representatives of the Dominion of Canada, are the legal framework that prairie society was founded on. Without them, none who descended from the settlers would be here.

In opening the land for our ancestors, the Plains Cree, recognizing the herds would not be around forever, received a promise in the terms of Treaty 6 that, in a time of famine, Canada would provide humanitarian assistance.

No one foresaw what happened next. Within two years, the bison were gone for good. In the early months, members of the North West Mounted Police – the only real Canadian authority in the region – scrambled to find food while their physicians reported previously unseen hunger and sickness among the First Nations.

As desperation spread, Sir John A. Macdonald was elected on the platform of the National Policy and the promise to build a railway to the Pacific as quickly as possible. Overnight, the famine was turned into an opportunity to clear the land along the C.P.R. and the adjacent plains for the expected rush of settlers.

Instead of the promised food aid, rations were withheld until chiefs led their people to reserves hundreds of kilometers away from the tracks. Once there, government officials controlled every aspect of life, often relishing the daily humiliations inflicted on the people they were hired to serve. Food brought to the region for the hungry rotted in storehouses on reserves while Indian Department employees were praised for their parsimony. The region between Regina, Saskatchewan, and the Alberta and American borders, once some of finest bison range on the continent, was cleared of the people who had hunted there for centuries. A generation after the arrival of Canadian officials, reserve communities were so undermined by malnutrition and tuberculosis that physicians described them as doomed to extinction.

It wasn’t a biological accident that came with exposure to a new disease. Food was used as a weapon. The Prime Minister, who also served as the Minister of Indian Affairs in the years after the herds disappeared, spoke in the House of Commons of his plan to remove First Nations people from Assiniboia. He boasted in Parliament that the hungry were “kept on the verge of starvation to reduce the expense”, even demanding “proof of starvation” before food was distributed. On reserves, any suggestion of political dissent could be met by an order to withhold rations for entire communities for a week or more. Thousands died of malnutrition-related illnesses. Aboriginal people did not lose their health in the decade after they allowed our ancestors to establish the agrarian society that is so much a part of our identity. In thousands of cases, they had their health taken from them.

The settlers from Europe and elsewhere did not drive First Nations people from their land, subjugate them and impoverish them, setting the stage for more than a century of displacement, uncertainty and preventable early death. The government did it on their behalf. Those who came were enticed to the prairies with Canadian promises of “Free Lands for the Millions” and a “Farm for Every Man”, among others. By the time the region was flooded with immigrants, the Treaty population could not leave their reserves without the written authority of a government official, a prohibition on free movement that remained law until 1951. Residential schools institutionalized the marginalization, the violence and the sickness for a century.

In 2014, the gap in health is just as real as it was when Saskatchewan was being established as a farming society more than a century ago. As our immigrant ancestors took up free land and established a society that became the breadbasket of the world, it was the Aboriginal people who paid the price with their freedom, their health and even their lives. As citizens of Saskatchewan and Canada, maybe it is time to come to terms with the uncomfortable parts of our past so we can build a future of which we can all be proud.

James Daschuk graciously allowed Inspire Solutions to post this article, originally published in the University of Regina’s alumni magazine, Degrees (Fall/Winter 2014) . He is the author of Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life and an assistant professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Health Studies at the University of Regina. His book has received numerous awards, including The Governor General’s History Award for Scholarly Research: the Sir John A. Macdonald Prize.

The devastating legacy of Canada’s residential school system has also been well documented by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We recently invited Commissioner Marie Wilson to Dawson College. To watch her powerful talk, click here.

, ,

2 Responses to Clearing the Plains

  1. Matthew Côté May 14, 2015 at 3:48 pm #

    It really is saddening how different aboriginal people are treated compared to non-aboriginal ones.

  2. Vinusan March 31, 2016 at 5:03 pm #

    It is appalling yet rather gratifying that the author has been able to force Canadians reading his work to acknowledge our country’s dark past concerning the First Nations and the ongoing unfairness observable through the statistical comparison of the Aboriginals with the non-Aboriginals. One of the most striking facts were how the statistics are so drastically different between the two groups which the author even claims could be that of another country and not the economically stable and health-wise resourceful Canada. Though looking back to the roots, the events describing the withholding of food up to the brinks of starvation and the inhumane treatment of the Aboriginals by officials are acts equal to that of wanton cruelty. Thus it was most probably caused by the othering of Aboriginals as not only non-Canadians but even non-human. I feel it is essential for us, the citizens to coerce the government to bring about equality in resources and properly compensate the First-Nations in order to atone for our past mistakes and ensure that in Canada, all Canadians have access to the benefits that the world believes us to possess.

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes