In his book, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, James Daschuk chronicles the role that epidemic disease, global trade, the changing environment and government policy had on Aboriginal people living on the Canadian Plains from the early eighteenth century to the end of the nineteenth. Daschuk skilfully draws on ethnohistory, medical history, environmental history, economic history and political economy to present a compelling overall analysis. He situates his discussion in the broader historical context of the Columbian exchange, the Great Land Rush, the rise of a global capitalist economy, and the dispossession of Aboriginal peoples across the globe.
As Daschuk persuasively illustrates, the pervasive problems of poor health and poverty facing Aboriginal communities today have deep, complex and systemic roots. Initially, the biological impact of disease that resulted from the expansion of trade devastated some First Nations but presented economic and territorial opportunities for others. But the story of the spread of disease as an organic process gave way to the wilful malevolence of human actors. The demographic collapse of the western Aboriginal population after 1870, due to tuberculosis, can be traced directly to the Canadian government’s decision to use the “politics of starvation” to force Aboriginal compliance with the state’s development agenda and to eliminate what they considered an impediment to “national” development.
Daschuk offers a powerful reminder that Canada has an imperial past of its own, in contrast to the classic myth of Canada as the "peaceable" and "lawful" kingdom. The legacy of racist policies that naturalized Aboriginals as unhealthy, physically weak and unable to adapt to the modern world, remains with us today.