As It Happens

Book critical of Canada's first prime minister wins Sir John A. Macdonald Prize

It's yet another accolade for author James Daschuk and his 2013 book, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politcs of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, but also an ironic honour. Clearing the Plains is an indictment of our first prime minister. It blames him for systematically starving aboriginal people to make way for the railroads and his national dream....
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It's yet another accolade for author James Daschuk and his 2013 book, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politcs of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, but also an ironic honour. Clearing the Plains is an indictment of our first prime minister. It blames him for systematically starving aboriginal people to make way for the railroads and his national dream.

"I've been working on that project for over 20 years, so I was very humbled and gratified that my peers... recognized the quality of its work... but there was a little bit of irony in receiving the John A. Macdonald prize," Mr. Daschuk tells Carol.

But how did Prime Minister Macdonald's pursuit of a transcontinental railway lead to a an "imposed famine" on nearly 20,000 aboriginal peoples?

"The Prime Minister, who also acted as the minister of Indian Affairs at the time, his main priority was to get the Canadian Pacific Railway built as quickly as he could," Mr. Daschuk tells Carol.

As the railway headed through western Canada, it ran into the Plain and Wood Cree Treaty Six territory. At the time, First Nations groups in the area were facing a famine due to the loss of bison -- and although their 1876 treaty had included a clause for government support during times of famine -- the Dominion used the situation to their advantage.

A map of Numbered Treaties of Canada. Treaty Six is highlighted in green.

"[Sir John A.] may have perceived First Nations people to either be a threat to the construction [of the railway] or even an impediment to the construction, and he ordered his people to withhold food until they moved several hundred kilometres away from the proposed construction project," Mr. Daschuk says.

Hear Carol's full interview with Mr. Daschuk by selecting the "Listen" button.

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