What do you know about farming among the Prairie nations?
Here’s what I knew. I knew that after the annihilation of our main economic base, the buffalo, native peoples in the Prairies were encouraged to become farmers. I knew that ‘experts’ were sent by Indian Affairs to teach on-reserve populations how to farm. I knew that were specific provisions in the Treaties to provide the people with farming implements and seeds:
the following articles shall be supplied … four hoes per family …two spades… one plough for every three families…one harrow …two scythes and one whetstone, and two hay forks and two reaping hooks [etc]…
…. for each Band, enough of wheat, barley, potatoes and oats to plant the land …also for each Band four oxen, one bull and six cows; also, one boar and two sows, and one hand-mill…
I knew that many people considered us ‘wholly unsuited to farming’, believing us lazy, shiftless and much too nomadic to prosper in such ‘civilised pursuits’. This sentiment in particular was hammered into my head and soul via a thousand comments from teachers, brief textbook descriptions and newspaper articles that mentioned us at all. Although I believed that indigenous peoples are perfectly capable of farming (just look at the many nations who were doing this long before settlers came along to ‘teach them how it’s done), I nonetheless half-accepted the idea that here on the Prairies, perhaps we just weren’t capable of shifting from a buffalo/trapping/fishing lifestyle to a farming lifestyle with any great ease.
Perversely, the above knowledge existed along-side my familiarity with the farming prowess of any number of Métis and First Nations families in Treaty 6 area and beyond. In fact, many Métis families pride themselves on coming from hard working, self-sufficient and talented farming stock, so the stories are not hard to find. In addition, there is good evidence that First Nations in the Prairies were not wholly unfamiliar with farming pre-Contact.
However, I never once read about this or any of these farming families in the textbooks, nor did I hear any ‘expert’ admit their existence. Thus I suppose I felt that our own understandings carried less weight? The ‘official’ story supplanted my own family’s history. Maybe these families were merely exceptions to the rule.
Cui bono (to whose benefit)?
An important fact that gets lost or distorted when indigenous peoples are discussed by settler texts and educators is the issue of ‘for whose benefit’?
For many years, it has been asserted that virtually every government program designed and enacted by Indian Affairs was ‘for the benefit of the Indians’. This has been the official position for everything from the creation of the Gradual Civilisation Act, to the creation of the reserve system, to the institution of Residential Schools. Clearly, as facts emerge and become more widely known, this official position has been altered. Officially, Canada no longer asserts that Residential Schooling was a positive endeavour, nor that the High Arctic relocations were carried out in the best interests of those who endured them. Nonetheless, the belief that Canada did its best for indigenous peoples, good intentions always at the forefront, remains, deeply entrenched in the socio-political consciousness.
It is one thing to not believe this to be true, and it is another to understand exactly to what extent ‘for the benefit of the Indians’ is a lie. We are still taught that the numbered Treaties were signed for our benefit, to address the desperate situation so many indigenous peoples found themselves in when the buffalo were exterminated over a few decades. And if you read correspondence from First Nations leaders at that time, our need is absolutely evident:
“…Our country is getting ruined of fur-bearing animals, hitherto our sole support, and now we are poor and want help – we want you to pity us. We want cattle, tools, agricultural implements, and assistance in everything when we come to settle- our country is no longer able to support us.
Make provision for us against years of starvation. We had a great starvation the past winter, and the smallpox took away many of our people, the old, young, and children. …”
– Chief Sweetgrass
Nonetheless, the numbered Treaties undeniably benefited the Canadian government far more than they have ever benefited us. These Treaties opened up unimaginably vast tracts of land for settlement in return for a pittance.
I do not belabour this point without reason. “For whose benefit” cannot be a question that is pushed aside or believed to be of secondary importance. Keeping this in mind, I want to turn to the push to create farmers out of the people of the Plains nations.
As with so many issues facing aboriginal peoples versus non-aboriginal peoples in this country, the level of control the government has and had over the lives of each must be contrasted to see a clear picture.
The Prairie reserves were created in the 1870s, and at this time settlers who chose to farm had very little in the way of legislative regulation to contend with. In contrast, the Indian Act micromanaged reserve life to a level incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it. This micromanagement of course included all facets of reserve agriculture. To whose benefit, this extreme control? History stands witness to the fact that it did not benefit First Nations.
Many reserves were located in areas not suited to farming, and many grain seeds and farming implements promised to First Nations never materialised. In addition, natural phenomena such as floods and frost turned a bad situation even worse. Agriculture on the reserves took a back seat to focusing on increasing numbers of settlers flooding into the Prairies.
However, even with these impediments, farming was at first very successful in a number of First Nations communities (p.5-6):
During the early 1880s … many First Nations farmers were successful in competing in the farming economy along with the non-aboriginal farmers. Utilizing newly developed dry land farming techniques and acting as a collective, many First Nations won local prizes and awards for their crops
Despite the lack of any real effort to support reserves in implementing an agricultural lifestyle, many First Nations managed, through communal effort, to make it work. You might expect that the federal government would be pleased by this, but instead, it went out of its way to sabotage these efforts by implementing a number of harmful policies (from the previously linked document, pages 5-8):
- severality – reserve farmland was divided into 40 acre plots and no one farmer could own more than 160 acres. The intention was to promote ‘individualism’, directly undermining successful collective efforts. Also, any ‘left over’ land could be surrendered and made available for sale to non-natives.
- peasant farming – this is when ‘experts’ were sent in to teach native farmers what to do. The purpose was to reduce output to subsistence levels, essentially just enough to support a single family. Thus expensive large-scale machinery would be unnecessary, and aboriginal farmers would become ‘more self-sufficient’ by using peasant-methods of production instead of the more advanced techniques they’d been using.
- the pass and permit system: these systems restricted the ability of First Nations peoples to leave the reserve, as well as severely curtailing their ability to sell their products or purchase farming implements. In essence, these systems ensured that aboriginal farmers could not compete with non-aboriginal farmers.
The Greater Production Campaign
The early twentieth century saw attention focused further abroad as WWI broke out. At the same time, great efforts were made to first lease and then alienate reserve lands for cultivation by non-natives. The Greater Production Campaign was announced in 1918 at the end of the war. During this time, vast amounts of Indian lands were already being taken up and provided to settler veterans resulting in significant erosion of aboriginal lands. (This, as aboriginal veterans were denied benefits afforded to their non-native counterparts, and often left without ‘location tickets’ which would have entitled them to settle back on their home reserves.)
The Greater Production Campaign (p. 57) resulted in many amendments to the Indian Act, making it easier to alienate (take) lands that were not being cultivated.
Can we just take a moment to think about that? The most unsuccessful First Nations were given land unsuited to farming, or were not given the farm stock, seed and implements promised in their Treaty. When some First Nations did well despite this, an entire system was put into place to ensure their farming ability, including methods, would only be the most ineffective and small-scale possible. After that, any lands not properly cultivated according to Indian Affair’s standards were essentially ‘up for grabs’ because the lazy Indians just couldn’t handle farming.
Oh yes. That is bitterness in my tone.
Non-native farmers didn’t care much for the Greater Production Campaign as it applied to them, and it was pretty much scrapped in 1919. It had held a mostly advisory role anyway. On the reserves, however, Indian Affairs had absolute power via its office of the Commission for Greater Production up until 1924.
Sweeping and absolute power
The Commissioner for Greater Production was given the power in 1918 to use as much Prairie reserve land as he liked, and to spend Band monies, including all the profits from decades of agricultural efforts if he wished. The plan was threefold (p.74 of last link above):
- lease as much reserve land as possible to non-native farmers
- create government-run Greater Production farms on reserve
- stimulate agricultural activity among reserve residents.
No monies were expended to help individual farmers. Most of the financial focus was on the Greater Production farms. For example, a farm tractor was purchased for the Alexander reserve (near Onoway, AB) but it was not allowed to be used by native farmers and instead was given to a Mr. Laight who ran a ‘homestyle’ Greater Production farm there.
All purchases desired by individual First Nations farmers came out of their own pockets or Band funds and had to be approved by the Commissioner…approval that was often withheld.
Since no real effort was put into accomplishing the third goal of stimulating agricultural activity among reserve residents, it is unsurprising that it failed miserably. Some managed to find part time work as labourers on their own reserves in the Greater Production farms. The Greater Production farms enjoyed some profits, though not princely in sum (p.139), all of which went back into Indian Affairs coffers.
In addition, the lands on reserve which were taken up for Greater Production farms were not leased to paying tenants, and that loss of potential revenue is immense. Appendix B of the last linked document estimates what that rate of return would have been on a number of reserves between 1918-1924. The land had been released for production without fee during the war time period “as a patriotic gesture”, but its use continued long after the war ended.
Set up to fail
It is clear that the extreme interference in First Nations agriculture in the Prairies led to conditions which made it all but impossible for native farmers to succeed and thrive. As with so many other aspects of indigenous life in Canada, success in agriculture was met with policies which undid all those hard-won gains. When racist opinion columns allude to indigenous ‘laziness’ as a reason for current levels of poverty, these facts are never mentioned. It is doubtful that the authors of such vile screeds are even aware of the history.
It is time we are all made aware of the history. It is time to put these lies to bed. I don’t want another generation of native children growing up in the Prairies being told that their ancestors were too lazy and stupid to survive the horrific collapse of their traditional economic base. The fact is, our peoples adapted swiftly to a set of completely new conditions, and we were damn good at it.
Our resilience and ability to adapt is constantly underestimated and glossed over. We are seen as incapable of adopting new technologies, despite the fact that we have demonstrated again and again just how easily we do precisely that.
This centuries-long era of infantalisation can only end when it is recognised that we were adults all along.