Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, is a scathing indictment of the Canadian government’s treatment of First Nations people in the late 1800s. The nonfiction book claimed top prize at the 2014 Canadian Historical Association Awards. Canada’s History spoke recently with its author, James Dashuk, a historian and an assistant professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Health Studies at the University of Regina.
Read on for an excerpt, or listen to the full interview here:
Canada’s History: What inspired you to write your book?
James Dashuk: What I was looking for was the origin of the gap between the population of First Nations communities and that of mainstream Canadians. As I looked back, almost as soon as the treaties were signed — they were completed in the 1870s — First Nations people not only lost their health, they had their health taken away from them through federal government policies.
CH: What surprised you the most?
James Dashuk: The vast majority of the Canadian plains — this is the Saskatchewan plains — along the railroad were actually ethnically cleansed of First Nations people in preparation for the arrival of European Canadian settlement. I live in Saskatchewan and that's part of our myth — we are the breadbasket of the world. What I was shocked to find, over the years, is that the breadbasket of the world — the foundation of that society — is based on a famine.
CH: Was the famine inflicted on purpose?
James Dashuk: It was done to be as close to actual starvation — those were Sir John A’s words to Parliament. It wasn’t an accident. This was part of government policy, to essentially displace First Nations people from their territory, from their niche in the environment, and to open up to settlement. By the time mainstream Canadians did set up the breadbasket, they had no idea First Nations people had been occupying that territory, because they had been displaced for a generation or two.
CH: What lesson, if any, does your research offer us?
James Dashuk: With mainstream Canadians, a lot of us just don't know history. It may be a bit presumptuous but maybe (my goal was to stage) a little historical intervention on our view of ourselves as a benign people and a benign state — because an awful lot of First Nations people don't see it that way.
For more about Clearing the Plains, read the review by Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair.
— Text by Mark Reid