Food and health on the western reserves: The deep roots of indigenous insecurity

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Prajeena Karmacharya, student blogger at Congress 2015

A passionate and heartfelt presentation from Jim Daschuk, Associate Professor at University of Regina at Congress 2015 highlighted the history of food culture among Canadian indigenous people since the 17th century. His recent book “Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life” talks about the deep injustices, genocide and starvation of natives living on reserves following European settlement.

Daschuk took the audience back to the 17th century, when bison were one of the main sources of food and the centre of native people’s lives. He said, “Métis culture was developed around annual bison hunting. The Métis even fed European fur traders and settlers in the Red River area for decades”. As more Europeans started to settle, numerous treaties were signed with the natives. These treaties promised that Europeans would make sure that native peoples would not go hungry in the case of famine or disease. However, within 18 months of the Treaty 6 signing, hundreds of thousands of bison were killed by the Europeans. The reason for this mass extinction was not for bison meat, but rather to export bison skin for leather making in Europe. This action left nothing for native peoples to eat and resulted in the starvation of native populations.

Daschuk further explained that when Sir John A. MacDonald became the Minister of Indian Affairs in 1878, the policy on “Indians” changed. With his interest in building a nationwide railway system, he enacted a policy that ensured any Aboriginal person unwilling to sign a treaty would not be fed. During this time, many Aboriginal peoples died due to starvation. Healthy strong men were reduced to skeletons.

During the 18 century, the Department of Indian Affairs retained so much control over the food distribution of Aboriginal peoples that there were hundreds of cases of sexual exploitation for food. Rotten and spoiled foods were also fed to the “Indians” which led to the death of hundreds of people living in Manitoba reserves. The department further reduced food distribution to natives so that government money could be allocated for building railways instead. Natives were fed only if they were on the extreme edge of starvation. People who lived next to the railway lines were forcibly starved so that they would move away from the land. “If there was any questioning of authority by any Aboriginal person about the settlers, entire communities were starved of food,” said Daschuk.

Further explaining the exploitation, Daschuk mentioned that by 1885, all Aboriginal peoples were made to live on reserves, following which the government adopted a slavery-like system for natives, imposing rules that would not let them leave reserves without the permission of the white people in charge. If anyone was caught leaving without permission, they would be jailed for two weeks. During World War I, native people’s right to subsistence farming was taken away and their land was given to white soldiers, so that more white men could be recruited for the war overseas. Again, during this time, many natives starved to death.

“In Saskatchewan in 1910, when tuberculosis spread among animals, the reserves were deliberately left untreated. Animal disease spread to the native people. Even when the government was aware of this condition, native peoples were left untreated for 20-30 years, resulting in the death of thousands more,” said Daschuk.

After this presentation, the audience remarked that the real history of food insecurity and exploitation of Aboriginal peoples needs to be known by all Canadians. The real history is not mentioned in any textbooks and the truth is hidden from the people. There is a need for more debates, which will lead to more awareness and help native and non-native people live in solidarity and co-operation in future.



Congress of the Humanities and Social SciencesCongress 2015