Dispossession, Destruction, and the Reserves

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By the 1830s and 1840s, when the colonization or settlement of the Canadian region began to shift into high gear, the European settlers pursued laws and regulations to manage the populations with whom they came into contact. The reserve was a common colonial strategy for managing the local indigenous population. Reserves existed in Africa, in the British American colonies, and in Canada, where the colonizers had to address the people they dispossessed— people who seemingly stood in the way of the political and economic plans of European settlers.

By the nineteenth century, Indigenous Peoples in North America found themselves in a deepening crisis. They faced imminent destruction. At the arrival of Christopher Columbus, there may have lived more than 100 million indigenous people in the Americas.1 By the end of the nineteenth century, 90 to 99% of them were gone.2 Recent studies show that, contrary to the belief that “Canadian expansion into the West was much less violent than that of the United States,” Canadian colonialism was quite deadly.3 In fact, many thinkers at the time noted the combined effects of European colonialism and feared that the Indigenous Peoples in Canada were marching toward extinction.4

The Indigenous Peoples in Canada were killed in the largest numbers by European diseases such as measles, smallpox, and influenza for which they had no immunity. But they also were killed by European blades and guns and factors directly connected to colonialism—land theft on a gigantic scale, forced removals, and exhaustion of natural resources. Indeed, from the 1830s onward, the indigenous groups were encouraged—at times forced—to give up their old migratory habits, settle on reserves, learn farming and trading, and receive religious instruction.5 The Crown became the trustee of indigenous lands for protection against illegal sales, poaching, and encroachment (this arrangement, however, took away the rights of Indigenous Peoples to their land; legally, it was not theirs anymore). Other laws forbade the sale of alcohol and protected reserve members from legal actions, taxes, and property seizure. By the middle of the nineteenth century, European settlers began to arrive in North America in droves. They came for gold, for the land, and for the minerals, wood, and fisheries; they no longer sought local partners or needed them.

Nor did they have much use for the bison. James Daschuk of the University of Regina and other scholars suggest that the catastrophic destruction of Indigenous Peoples in North America reached its peak with the decision by the US and Canadian governments to clear the bison herds in the Prairies for the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway (which was to serve as the main commercial artery to the West). By 1869, the destruction of the bison herds that the Indigenous Peoples relied on for food and other resources was almost complete.6 Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald decided to clear the areas of the Indigenous Peoples whose land European settlers coveted. According to Daschuk,

[a] key aspect of preparing the [province of Saskatchewan] was the subjugation and forced removal of indigenous communities from their traditional territories, essentially clearing the plains of aboriginal people to make way for railway construction and settlement. Despite guarantees of food aid in times of famine in Treaty No. 6, Canadian officials used food, or rather denied food, as a means to ethnically cleanse a vast region from Regina to the Alberta border as the Canadian Pacific Railway took shape. For years, government officials withheld food from aboriginal people until they moved to their appointed reserves, forcing them to trade freedom for rations. Once on reserves, food placed in ration houses was withheld for so long that much of it rotted while the people it was intended to feed fell into a decades-long cycle of malnutrition, suppressed immunity and sickness from tuberculosis and other diseases. Thousands died.7

Daschuk goes on to explain that the largest forced removal, aimed at clearing all indigenous people, was in the territory of Assiniboia, where “within a year, 5,000 people were expelled from the Cypress Hills.”8 Although officially promoted as a protective place for the endangered population, the reserves served one significant goal: to make room for new European settlers and create a new economic system based on farming where the traditional indigenous ways of living had no place. And so reserves set up later in areas such as British Columbia were “reserves of grace and charity, not of natural or legal rights.”9 In fact, scholars suggest that these reserves served as “social laboratories” where First Nations inhabitants were to become productive, civilized Canadians.10

Moreover, “once European settlement began in earnest,” Alan McMillan and Eldon Yellowhorn write, “treaties shifted from ‘peace and friendship’ to land surrender.”11 The new treaties, signed between 1871 and 1921 and known as the Numbered Treaties, were therefore drastically different from what had come before. Europeans viewed the land as a vast empty space (in legal terms, terra nullius), ready for their taking. Thus, a Department of Indian Affairs officer told a crowd of First Nations listeners in 1876:

Many years ago you were in darkness killing each other and making slaves was your trade. The Land was of no value to you. The trees were of no value to you. The Coal was of no value to you. The white man came he improved the land you can follow his example—He cuts the trees and pays you to help him. He takes the coal out of the ground and he pays you to help him—you are improving fast. The Government protects you, you are rich—You live in peace and have everything you want.12

At the conclusion of the Numbered Treaties, writes James Daschuk, a “blueprint was set for conversion of the indigenous population to agriculture and settlement of the prairies with European farmers.”13 As a result, in the course of clearing the way for European settlers, about half of the land was taken away from First Peoples. In many cases, where the peaceful means did not provide the best way to rid the Prairies of the starving and diseased indigenous groups, the government resorted to deception. Government agents wrote the treaties in a technical language with which indigenous leaders were not familiar, and large discrepancies often existed between the verbal agreement—achieved with translators—and the English written treaties. First Nations received a one-time payment, a relatively small parcel of reserve land, and a yearly cash payment to each group member. The previous nation-to-nation treaties were replaced with new agreements that were, in effect, sales documents.14

  1. Citations

    • 1 : David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 51, 101, 267–68. The estimates of the pre-Columbian population have been studied by many scholars. In recent years the numbers have been revised upward quite dramatically. As mentioned previously, Alan Taylor argued that most scholars think that as many as 50 million people lived in the Americas and 2–10 million lived north of the Rio Grande before contact. See Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of North America (New York: Viking Penguin, 2002), 40. Charles C. Mann discusses the assumption of a 95% death rate (or 5% survival rate) in his book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (New York: Vintage Books, 2006), 113–14.
    • 2 : David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World, x.
    • 3 : James Daschuk, “When Canada Used Hunger to Clear the West,” The Globe and Mail, July 19, 2013. For more, see Daschuk’s Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life (PCS) (Regina: University of Regina Press, 2013).
    • 4 : George M. Dawson (1849–1901) was one of them. He was a Canadian geologist, geographer, anthropologist, and civil servant. See George M. Dawson, “Sketches of the past and present condition of the Indians of Canada,” The Canadian Naturalist and Quarterly Journal of Science . . . etc., vol. 9, ed. Elkanah Billings, Bernard James Harrington, James Thomas Donald (Montreal: Dawson Brothers, 1881), 158–159.
    • 5 : John L. Tobias, “Protection, civilization, assimilation: An outline history of Canada’s Indian policy,” in As Long as the Sun Shines and Water Flows, 41.
    • 6 : Andrew Woolford, “Ethnic Cleansing, Canadian Style,” Literary Review of Canada [book review], accessed December 1, 2014.
    • 7 : James Daschuk, “When Canada Used Hunger to Clear the West.”
    • 8 : James Daschuk, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life (PCS), 123.
    • 9 : George F. G. Stanley, “As Long as the Sun Shines and Water Flows: A Historical Comment,” in As Long as the Sun Shines and Water Flows, 10.
    • 10 : John L. Tobias, “Protection, civilization, assimilation: An outline history of Canada’s Indian policy,” 41–42.
    • 11 : Alan D. McMillan and Eldon Yellowhorn, First Peoples in Canada (Madeira Park, BC: Douglas and McIntyre, 2013), 319.
    • 12 : Quoted in Cole Harris, “How Did Colonialism Dispossess? Comments from an Edge of Empire,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 94 (2004), 170.
    • 13 : James Daschuk, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life (PCS), 99.
    • 14 : Alan D. McMillan and Eldon Yellowhorn, First Peoples in Canada, 320.

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