Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation and the Loss of Aboriginal Life by James Daschuk

This book charts how contact with Europeans impacted upon the economy and lifestyle, and therefore diet and health, of the original inhabitants of what are now the prairie provinces of Canada from the early fur trade through to the end of the 19th century.

Most people now know that disease took its toll in the west of North America long before Europeans settled in any numbers.  What I had not appreciated is how disruptive the fur trade was from the very beginning, when the fur traders were not settling in the west, but coming to trade with native middlemen and transporting the furs back east.  Not only in terms of disease transmission but it skewed the economy so that it was harder for a family to prepare itself for the winters.

I had been aware of the forced movement of native peoples later on but not that the early disruptions from the fur trade had a knock-on effect of mass migration.  As there became more demand for furs, the social costs (alcoholism, STIs, etc) became worse.  The collapse of the buffalo population was one such effect and had become inevitable when the main action was still in the woodlands to the north rather than settlement on the open prairie.

I’ve read a bit about the North West Rebellion of 1885 (from badly taught high school history, the only interesting thing that ever happened in Saskatchewan) so I was already aware of the new Canadian government’s calculated use of starvation and withholding food rations as a method of social control during this period.  This book outlines how disease moved in in the wake of malnutrition.

The author assumes a little more knowledge than I have (or could remember) about general prairie history, but nothing that isn’t easily looked up on the internet, so it’s  accessible to the general reader.

One goes into any book on Canada’s First Nations knowing it’s going to be depressing and angry-making, and this is no exception.  In particular, being from Regina, I can’t believe one of our main streets is still named after Dewdney.  I was going to say this is one for Canadian history buffs, but it should be required reading for the sort of people who have a terrible attitude to native peoples and/or think colonisation was great.  ie exactly the people who would never read it.

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