Gerry B's Book Reviews

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

A must-read for students, and a should-read for others.

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Click on the cover to purchase.

Click on the cover to purchase.

Story blurb: In arresting, but harrowing, prose, James Daschuk examines the roles that Old World diseases, climate, and, most disturbingly, Canadian politics—the politics of ethnocide—played in the deaths and subjugation of thousands of aboriginal people in the realization of Sir John A. Macdonald’s “National Dream.”

It was a dream that came at great expense: the present disparity in health and economic well-being between First Nations and non-Native populations, and the lingering racism and misunderstanding that permeates the national consciousness to this day.

About the author: My research focus is on the impact of environmental change on the health of indigenous people. My historical work investigates the role of disease, changes to subsistence practices and climate change in the historical development of western Canada. My current research projects include the impact of introduced species, horses and domestic cattle, on the well-being of First Nations.

Recent Publications

James Daschuk, Paul Hackett and Scott D. MacNeil, “Treaties and Tuberculosis: First Nations People in Late 19th Century Western Canada, A Political and Economic Transformation.” Canadian Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 23 (2006): 307-330.

James Daschuk, “An Examination of Common and Contested Ground: A Human and Environmental History of the Northwestern Plains.” In G.P Marchildon, ed., The Early Northwest: History of the Prairie West Series. Volume 1. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, 2008. 35-47

James Daschuk, “A Dry Oasis: The Northern Great Plains in Late Prehistory,” Prairie Forum 34(Spring 2009).

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Review by Gerry Burnie

As most everyone knows, my passions are 1) Canada, 2) Canadian history, 3) history, and 4) everything else. When I was going to school, right through my university days, Canadian history was colonial history, i.e., a sub-category of English history, populated by kings and generals and dry as chalk.

Unfortunately, with the exception of people like James Dashuk  and a few others, Pierre Burton comes to mind, very little has changed. However, now the focus is on multicultural history, and once again Canadian heritage history is being brushed aside.

It is not to say Canadian history hasn’t been without its dark side, which James Dashuk so capably points out in Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal life [University of Regina Press, August 1, 2014].

An actual pile of buffalo skulls. Slaughtering the buffalo was part of a plan to starve the Natives off the land.

An actual pile of buffalo skulls. Slaughtering the buffalo was part of a plan to starve the Natives off the land.

In it, Dashuk presents an indictment of meticulously researched evidence to show that the catastrophes visited on many of the Native People were state sanctioned. That is to say that John A. MacDonald, his government, speculators, and lobbyists like the Canadian Pacific Railway, indulged in systematic starvation, as well as the spread of infectious diseases to eradicate ‘the Native problem’ on the western prairies.

I will not take any examples out of context, for they are best read along with the supporting evidence; however, suffice to say that Dashuk presents a very compelling case with scalpel-like precision.

A word must be said for the writing style, as well. This is an academic treatise, to be sure, and yet it is readily readable by the average person with an average vocabulary. Indeed, the author’s prose is as precise as his topics he presents.

However, I will also add a caveat to those who would attempt to apply these ‘atrocities’ to the Canada of today, or to Canadians of the assign blame to future generations – As Stephen Harper did regarding the poll tax of the 1880s (imposed by John A. MacDonald, by the way)

We can justifiably accuse the governments and people who participated, now dead, but the crimes of our ‘forefathers’ do not appropriately apply to the seventh generation.

This is a great book: A must read for students, and a should-read for others. Five bees in the nonfiction category.

***

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Interested in Canadian history?

Want to know more? Then visit my new page:  In Praise of Canadian History.  It is a collection of people, facts and events in Canadian history, and includes a bibliography of interesting Canadian books as well. Latest post:  The McMichael Art Collection, Kleinberg, Ontario: The collection that love put together.

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October 6, 2014 - Posted by | Canadian content, Canadian frontier stories, Canadian historical content, Native history, Non-fiction

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