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

Clearing the Plains

Communities that entered into treaties assumed that the state would protect them from famine and socioeconomic catastrophe, yet in less than a decade the “protections” afforded by treaties became the means by which the state subjugated the treaty Indian population.

Remember when I made a promise to you and also myself that I would use Bookstravaganza to read lighter material than what I study in school?  Well ha-ha, fooled you!  Fooled myself, also.  Turns out when you have a thesis proposal due Monday it’s actually kind of hard to pick up a good old piece of fiction in favour of a demoralizing nonfiction book you would like to include in the proposal bibliography.

I’ve been terribly engrossed, as of late, in the research for my thesis on the subject of cultural genocide in Canada, nevertheless, James Daschuk’s Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation and the Loss of Aboriginal Life has actually been on my to-read list for at least a year.  When my thesis advisor mentioned the book, I realized this was an excellent opportunity to finally read it to add to my bibliography and mark as my first read for Bookstravaganza.

In Clearing the Plains, Daschuk analyzes the history of disease and starvation that plagued Aboriginal peoples on the plains upon the arrival of white people to Canada (and North America.) It felt like a really repetitive read, most likely because his evidence and the history used seems to repeat itself constantly.  This does not speak to Daschuk as a writer or a historian, rather the history itself — the constant cycles of disease, like tuberculosis, that hit repeatedly the First Nations throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries; the constant “mistakes” made by the Canadian government in providing health care and food, over and over and over.  It’s a frustrating read — it’s frustrating because Daschuk shows us that the Canadian colonizers seemed to bumble their way into a genocide: first by accidentally exposing millions of Indigenous people to disease they had no immunity against (naturally also blaming them for it); and then starving the survivors, sometimes to force them into submission, sometimes to cut corners on costs, and sometimes, just out of blatant stupidity.  No matter what the main individual reasons appeared to be in the cases of starvation of each nation, it is absolutely certain that all of the time Canada was not motivated enough to feed the Indigenous people they had promised to in treaty to because they believed these people were not worth feeding.

I found Daschuk’s conclusions to be a little obvious, but when I read over some of the reviews on Goodreads, I realized that to many this conclusions may not be obvious at all.  For any Canadian today who thinks they have a firm grasp on the historical and contemporary situation of Canadian First Nations peoples without having read a single book about what these people have survived, please do check out Clearing the Plains.  And please feel free to comment below, and I can give you some more recommendations.

Books read: 1


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