Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

State Sponsored Neglect

Feb 2, 2014

I travelled to Ottawa last week to conduct Her Majesty's business (and to shiver through the Polar Vortex) and I needed something to read on the plane. My choice, Clearing the Plains by James Daschuk, turned out to be both impressive and depressing.

The book has received quite a bit of attention, rightly so. Subtitled "Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life," it is a bleak history of the impact of disease on the First Nations of the Canadian Plains. Daschuk digs back in the archaeological record long before Europeans arrived in the New World, but it is fair to say his most alarming findings have to do with the post-Confederation period.

At that time the federal government took advantage of indigenous people reeling from the disappearance of the buffalo to pressure them into accepting treaties, surrendering control of their traditional lands and relocating their homes. Daschuk documents how in the face of widespread misery and privation, the government of John A. Macdonald withdrew medical services and denied food rations as a matter of public policy in order to manipulate the First Nations.

An important book, and coming on the heels of last summer's revelations that the government was experimenting on First Nations children at residential schools, another nail in the coffin of our good intentions.

Daschuk concludes: “The effects of the state-sponsored attack on indigenous communities that began in the 1880s haunt us as a nation still.”