In the middle of the 19th century, the Plains Nations lived on an abundance of bison, which provided them with a seemingly endless source of quality meat and clothing. Their diet was high in protein and low in fat – and they were among the tallest people in recorded history. Yet within 20 years, Professor James Daschuk explained to a capacity crowd in Ottawa, doctors were describing illness and starvation as intrinsic to their culture.
Daschuk, who teaches in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Health Studies at the University of Regina, travelled to Ottawa November 1 to receive the John A. Macdonald Prize from the Canadian Historical Association for his book, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life. The prize honours “the non-fiction work of Canadian history judged to have made the most significant contribution to an understanding of the Canadian past.”
The irony was lost on no one: Clearing the Plains is a brutal indictment of Macdonald’s deliberate use of starvation as a means of moving Indigenous people from their land to reserves, in the process weakening their power and subjugating them to the Canadian federal government.
“There’s no question that Macdonald is the Father of Confederation, but he’s also the father of the dysfunctional country we have lived in for 140 years,” Daschuk told the crowd that packed the hall of Knox Presbyterian Church in downtown Ottawa. He delivered a 20-minute lecture, spent nearly an hour in an on-stage interview with journalist and mediaINDIGENA founder Rick Harp, and another hour answering audience questions and signing books.
As a health researcher, Daschuk said the elimination of the bison herds through over-hunting both for meat and hide was an important piece of the machinery used to drive the Industrial Revolution in England and directly caused the starvation that followed.
It also had many secondary effects. For one thing, the loss of the bison deprived Indigenous nations of the hides they used to clothe themselves during winter. In the cold and weakened state, their immune systems were unable to fight against the influx of new illnesses ravaging their communities. Around Treaty 6 territory in Saskatchewan and Alberta, many communities lost 80% of their populations to famine and disease.
It is very hard, Daschuk noted, for white Canadians to accept the harm that Canada did deliberately to its Indigenous people, even as his research in the Canadian Archives uncovered “a goldmine of human misery.”
“First Nations people know this story,” he said. “This is a mixed crowd, and I see people nodding. But what I’m really surprised about is that white Canadians haven’t heard this story, because it’s not taught in schools.”
Canadians, he noted, are ready to accept that other countries’ national myths about themselves are ridiculous, but when it comes time to look critically at who Canadians have been, historically speaking, the public is very uncomfortable.
“What is being ‘Canadian,’ aside from the guy in the beer ad? It’s decency, it’s friendliness, it’s helping out our neighbours – those ground-level ideals. But if you think about the relationship we as ‘mainstream’ Canadians have had with Indigenous people, that’s not true at all. As an unintended consequence, that makes us – I don’t want to use ‘mainstream,’ I’ll use ‘white’ – it makes us question ourselves. Because we haven’t been decent.”
Speaking about discovering his own privilege, Daschuk was moved to tears during his interview with Harp, noting that his research had forced him to reconsider his relationship with his country. On multiple occasions, he said, Indigenous readers had told him they were glad he was finally telling the story – because if he’d been Native, no one would have listened.
All of this may seem strange coming from a professor who isn’t a historian, but a specialist in environmental health. But Daschuk says his research led him where he is today – and it all started near James Bay. Growing up in Timmins, he was an avid hiker and encountered many locals in the Moose Cree communities of the west coast. That got him thinking about food security.
“Even back then, on the west coast of James Bay, it cost $10 for a head of lettuce, and milk was outrageous,” he told the Nation after his talk. “The same issues – the availability of nutritious food at a reasonable price, that’s out of reach for so many people [today]. And in some communities, this issue has gone on for probably 100 or more years: entire generations of people have been malnourished. These days, malnutrition has changed from not enough food to too much low-quality food. Malnutrition can work both ways – not enough calories, or too many empty calories.”
Any research into the history of First Nations and food, it seems, comes up against the ugly history Daschuk outlined in his book. But even shocking information, he said, is not enough: Indigenous people and non-Aboriginal Canadians alike need to take action.
“There are a whole lot of things that seem to be converging right now,” he said. “I’m enjoying my 15 minutes, for one, but it’s 2014 – maybe it’s time we can all get together on this and push our politicians, get involved, and stop putting up with things that have gone on for so long that have been keeping people down. We can’t wait for our leadership. Other than us pulling us along, maybe it’s time to push them along.”