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Death by design

Sad saga of aboriginal mistreatment should be required reading for Canadians

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Chief Crowfoot and his family, 1884.

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Chief Crowfoot and his family, 1884.

As the bison were driven into extinction in the late 1870s, hundreds of starving aboriginal people begged for food from the Department of Indian Affairs office in Prince Albert.

Officials responded by "increasing security rather than the flow of food." The workers who built the stockade to keep out the hungry natives were given the food that could have saved lives.

It's just one of countless outrages recounted by Prairie academic James Daschuk in this sad, amoral tale of how white people came to Western Canada and wantonly killed the people who were already here.

Clearing the Plains is Daschuk's first book, a two-decades-long reworking of his PhD thesis in history at the University of Manitoba.

Daschuk is an assistant professor in kinesiology and health studies at the University of Regina and a researcher with the Saskatchewan population health and evaluation research unit.

Daschuk concedes that white people might not have intended to kill aboriginal people ... at least, not at first.

The worst killers in the fur trade years were the microbes that Europeans brought with them. The white people had already developed resistance to smallpox, measles and influenza.

But North America's indigenous people were virgin soil for the diseases and hundreds of thousands perished as a result of contact with white traders.

The Hudson's Bay Company established a relatively benevolent dictatorship from the 1820s to the 1860s, providing vaccinations against smallpox and emergency food rations when needed.

Things turned more malevolent when the new Dominion of Canada took charge.

Sir John A. Macdonald, prime minister and minister of Indian affairs, used food as a weapon, forcing bands to relocate to reserves in order to be fed.

Once on the reserves, Indians were locked in. They could only leave with permission of the government's Indian agent, rarely given.

Such policies led to widespread corruption.

One top official awarded hugely profitable government contracts to an American company he part-owned. In return, the American company provided food to the Indians that was contaminated with tuberculosis.

Other officials raped women under their care, with no legal consequences. However, the rate of venereal disease among the officials provided at least some poetic justice.

Clearing the Plains is well-researched and thoroughly documented. One can't help but agree with Candace Savage, author of A Geography of Blood, that it should be "required reading for all Canadians."

The book's overall excellence makes its one omission that much more striking: Daschuk does not mention, even once, the Red River uprising that led to Manitoba becoming a province, or its charismatic leader, Louis Riel.

The armed conflict of 1885 is treated as a series of unconnected incidents, not a "rebellion" as most history books have it. Executions are mentioned, but not the hanging of Riel.

Daschuk does a disservice to the aboriginal story he is telling. Without reference to Riel and the organized nature of armed resistance in 1870 and 1885, the aboriginal people are painted as too passive, almost complicit in their own demise.

Despite that serious shortcoming, the connection between then and now is clearly drawn.

"In the collective experience of subjugation, hunger, sickness and death is the origin of the chasm that exists even today between health conditions of mainstream Canadians and Western Canada's First Nations population," Daschuk concludes.

Sir John A. would be proud of the country we've become. His policies of assimilation and cultural genocide through using food and money as weapons are maintained by his successors.

Only the incredible strength and resilience of Canada's first peoples have prevented their complete extinction.

Donald Benham is the director of hunger and poverty awareness at Winnipeg Harvest.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 15, 2013 A1

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