Daschuk probes dark period in Canadian history from an environmental perspective

by Gregory Beatty

Clearing the Plains

James Daschuk
Clearing The Plains
U of R Press

When writing about the past, historians traditionally focus on major events and personalities like wars, politicians, natural disasters and business tycoons. But as we well know from our own lives, myriad things happen daily to us, both as individuals and a society, that help shape what will be regarded as history decades down the road.

University of Regina assistant kinesiology professor James Daschuk makes that abundantly clear in his new book Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life (University of Regina Press). While many famous actors from Canadian history such as Sir John A. McDonald, Big Bear, the Hudson’s Bay Company, Poundmaker, Canadian Pacific Railway and Edgar Dewdney are mentioned, the focus is much broader.

“A lot of us, historians included, think of human agency and the role it played in the colonization of North America,” says Daschuk. “But we don’t think of how the environment changed.

“There’s a concept I talk about in my class called the Columbian exchange. Rather than just people moving across the ocean, we’ve got people’s germs, and new animal and plant species. It was more than just people showing up and taking the land.”

At the outset of his book, Daschuk recounts how from 800-1200 C.E. the North American climate was relatively benign and the land fruitful, which enabled the many different aboriginal groups on the continent to thrive in their traditional territories.

In the century preceding the arrival of Europeans in the New World, though, the climate took a turn for the worse. And the impact of what historians refer to as the Little Ice Age, which lasted from 1350-1850 C.E., was profound.

“That was a big revelation for me,” says Daschuk. “The demographic trajectory of indigenous people in the pre-historic period wasn’t a straight-up march of progress and expansion. When the climate changed, things started to break down.”

In central Canada and New York state, he says, “the Iroquoian people went through a 200 year period of warfare and unsustainable harvests. What they did is come up with the League of the Iroquois. There was a visionary who brought them all together in an alliance that remains in place today. So that was a good adaptation to the climate.”

Similarly, the Thule people, the ancestors of the Inuit, had to adapt from being open-boat whale hunters when the Arctic Ocean became covered with ice.

The most dramatic example of hardship that Daschuk cites in his book is Cahokia. Once a bustling city of 20,000 near modern-day St. Louis, he says, “it was depopulated even before Columbus showed up.”

Another area that was impacted significantly was the western plains. “With the upheaval that was going on, they actually became a refuge for displaced people. If you look at the archaeological record, it gets a lot busier after 1300 when people left the woodlands and came west to hunt the bison — which is probably a sign of how secure the bison herds were.”

So even before European explorers, traders and settlers arrived in the New World, aboriginal communities were under stress. And as Daschuk observes above, when the Europeans arrived they brought their germs with them.

Estimating the aboriginal population prior to colonization is a bit of a mug’s game, says Daschuk. Some historians have pegged it as high as 90 million. But in the 300 or so years it took for Europeans to colonize the New World numerous deadly epidemics struck aboriginal communities — small pox, tuberculosis, typhoid, measles, whooping cough, scarlet fever, STDs and more.

“It’s really tough for us to fathom in the 21st century just how bad it was,” says Daschuk. “In the book I talk about the concept of ‘virgin soil’ epidemics where everyone in a community is susceptible.”

With especially virulent outbreaks, the mortality rate would sometimes exceed 50 per cent. Not only were populations decimated, with each death a skill set vital to a community’s survival —  be it hunter, warrior, healer or craftsperson — was lost.

That wasn’t the only the change to the environment that occurred, says Daschuk. When Europeans first began trading with aboriginal groups, beaver pelts were highly prized. In the traditional aboriginal eco-system, beavers, as dam builders, created reservoirs of water which helped communities cope with periods of drought. Once hats and coats made of felted pelts became fashionable in Europe, beaver were trapped to extinction in many areas. Another huge change involved the introduction of cattle that took over the range that bison had occupied on the prairies for thousands of years.

Still, during the first 200 or so years of colonization, aboriginal people did derive some benefits from interacting with Europeans. “In the early days, indigenous people canoed 1500-2000 km to exchange furs for European goods,” says Daschuk. “That had to be in their best interest as they took a great risk in travelling that far.

“But that changed in a fundamental way when Canada acquired Rupert’s Land in 1870. The prairies were seen as a place for settlers from England and Ontario to [immigrate to] and establish agrarian capitalism. The view of government officials, I guess, was that the freedom of indigenous populations was not compatible with the development of a railway and settler society.”

For centuries, Plains Indians had relied on the bison for virtually all their economic needs, from food and clothing to tools and fuel. When it was hunted to virtual extinction to make way for farming and ranching, aboriginal people lost their independence. And government officials and private business interests were quick to capitalize.

“In those days there were no civil service regulations so there were no rules about people not taking advantage of their situation,” says Daschuk. “Edgar Dewdney is notorious in Regina for doing that. Also during this time John A. McDonald was not only the prime minister, he was the minister of Indian Affairs. He actually said, ‘We can’t have the Indians starving to death because it will create too much controversy in the East. So what we’ll do is keep them on the verge of starvation without having them actually die.’”

This may have been politically expedient, at least from a colonial perspective to force aboriginal groups to sign treaties and settle on reserves. But the malnourishment that aboriginal people endured compromised their immune systems and made them even more susceptible to disease.

In Canadian history, the dominant narrative holds that aboriginal people were primitive and unable to adapt to changing technology and other economic realities. That’s another myth Daschuk explodes in his book.

“Treaty Six [which encompassed central Saskatchewan and Alberta] was signed a couple of months after Custer and the Little Big Horn in 1876. Negotiators knew the days of open-range bison hunting were done. They wanted to convert to agriculture. What they didn’t plan for was that the federal government would actively prevent them from doing so to protect the newly arrived settler population.

“By 1881 a First Nations person couldn’t sell a turnip that was grown on a reserve without the express permission of an Indian agent,” Daschuk adds. “There were so many bureaucratic hurdles that undermined attempts by First Nations people on reserve to get a viable commercial economy going.”

More tragic history lay ahead — most notably, the residential school system. But Daschuk’s book ends just as that ominous initiative, designed to assimilate aboriginal people into Euro-Canadian society, is about to begin.

“In his mid-80s book 1885 & After Saskatoon scholar Laurie Barron, who’s since passed away, talked about residential schools,” says Daschuk. “He mentioned that while there were a lot of stories of abuse, they couldn’t be as bad as what some of the rumours were saying.

“The cultural atrocity of residential schools wasn’t really part of our collective memory then. It took a while [to be acknowledged]. The events of my book, like the controlled famine to manage the indigenous population where food was used as a weapon of coercion, is going to be tough to accept. But I think it’s time for people to consider it.”

After all, the repercussions of that terrible time are still being felt, says Daschuk. “The reason I got into this project in the first place was I wanted to find out how one part of our population [aboriginal people] can have health outcomes equivalent to Jamaica or Belarus, and the mainstream population can be right up there with Norway. It’s not like we’re physically separated from each other — we’re neighbours. It’s the economic conditions we live in.”

And as Daschuk ably demonstrates in his book, those unequal economic conditions have roots that extend back centuries.

There will be a book launch for Clearing the Plains at the University of Regina Aboriginal Students Centre (CW115) June 20 at noon.