Clearing the air of Canadian colonialism: A conversation on Indigenous health and history with Dr. James Daschuk

Originally published:

Prof. James Daschuk, of the University of Regina, has dedicated the past two decades of his career to uncovering the history of the Canadian colonial expedition of the Great Plains.

His recent book, “Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life,” has received academic and public acclaim for its exposition of the atrocities committed against the Indigenous populations of Saskatchewan.

Daschuk, an alumnus of Trent University’s Canadian Studies program, was invited back to his alma mater to give the annual W.O. Morton lecture on October 30, 2014.

He met with Arthur Newspaper to discuss his research, race relations, and the politics of writing about colonialism.

Could you talk a bit about your new book and your research in general?

Sure. What I intended to do with Clearing the Plains was to find the origin of the health disparity that exists between Indigenous Canadians and white Canadians.

What I found was that Indigenous Canadians lost their health early on through government policies. They had their health taken away from them even before the settlers showed up after the construction of Canadian Pacific Railway.

What is the timeframe of the book?

I went back as far as 1200 AD and looked at prehistoric changes in the population. There was a severe downturn in climate beginning in the mid-13th century, and one of the most heretical things I found in the book was that so many Indigenous nations had such a tough time for probably 100 years or more after that changing climate, that I propose the absolute peak of the Indigenous population happened 200 years before Columbus, rather than the day before Columbus tripped over the Bahamas.

I started it in 1200 AD and I ended it in 1891. The reason being that in 1891, back in Saskatchewan, the population was widely infected with tuberculosis and the global flu pandemic that passed around the area at that time.

There was a huge spike in mortality rates. It represents the time when the population absolutely bottomed out. And for the past 115-120 years things have been creeping up and getting better very slowly over time.

Your research takes health as a measurement of political hierarchy and social stratification. What are the Social Determinants of Health and why are they an important measurement?

At the University of Regina, I teach in a health studies program as a historian about the impact of social forces on health, for example: socio-economic status, housing, education, access to clean water, and security.

I teach how those shape three quarters of the health arc of our lives, and just one quarter of our lives are shaped by medical intervention. What that means is that when you end up in a hospital, you’ve already lost your health.

Of course in Canada, the biggest gap is between white Canadians and Indigenous Canadians due to these social forces.

Life expectancy is 5-10 years shorter due to those social forces that have diverged for over 100 years. If we could create a more equitable society, we could create more equitable health outcomes.

How did you come to be interested in this topic?

Thirty years ago I was an Anthropology major at Trent and I was just interested in Indigenous cultures.

I come from Northern Ontario and I spent a lot of time out in the bush, so I probably had a romantic view of Indigenous people out on the land. I eventually made my way to Winnipeg, where the Hudson’s Bay Company archives are; the archive is the largest repository of documents pertaining to the history of Northern Canada.

I went to grad school in Manitoba so I could look at those documents. Very soon after that I got a job at the medical school, because there was an epidemiologist who was interested in historical trends.

That was 25 years ago, and I really haven’t looked back. Since the issue is so big, an army of historians could probably work on it and still not get to the bottom of it.

How did your education at Trent shape your interests?

I’m the first person to go to university in my family. Both of my parents didn’t finish high school due to World War II breaking out.

As the first person in my family going to university I wasn’t really sure what university was all about. I was pretty insecure about the whole situation.

I spent a couple of years at McMaster and I wasn’t really fulfilled there, so I came here. It was the first time I experienced the seminar approach and the personalized interactions that we have with our professors, which is a wonderful thing.

Being a Trent student and being a Canadian Studies student, I developed personal connections with professors. It was John Wadland who helped me out and guided me toward becoming an academic, I guess because he saw promise in me. That was the first time that I really thought about having the potential of being an academic. It was something I’d always dreamed about, but he helped me see how to connect the dots to attaining that goal.

I think that Trent was a very important part of that growing process. I hope that undergrads going through the process today have the same quality of education.

And from what I’ve seen it’s still that system, which is an ideal system for us all to follow. Congratulations to Trent for keeping that up.

How do you feel about the general public becoming more interested in Indigenous issues?

A lot of people have told me since the book has been published that maybe this is the moment for Indigenous issues, maybe now is its time.

I have received a lot of positive recognition from academics, First Nations, and others who are encouraging me to keep things going, spreading the word as best as I can. And maybe it’s a cliche, but maybe soon we’ll reach a tipping point.

Where do you fit in with all of the other people writing and discussing this topic?

That’s a good question. Well, I’m certainly not the first person.

I took so long that one of my first teachers even gave me heck for it. I could have been the first person, but I took so long that I missed that boat.

But one good thing is that I have been able to build upon other people’s work who have published before me. Hopefully, I’m taking it to a higher level.

And I guess because of my privilege as a white academic, a lot of people have heard the message. I’ve been speaking to anyone who will listen to me and in the past year I have spoken to maybe a hundred different groups.

So maybe it’s my time and I’m just trying to take advantage of that by trying to spread the word as best I can, with the goal to improve race relations. Ultimately that’s all of our goals.

What do you feel is the role of research like this in political and activist movements?

I think we should all, as academics, work as hard as we can and to the highest standard, to address these important issues.

I encourage all academics, students and grad students to take on whatever they feel are important topics. I feel that as academics we have a role to inform important debates, it’s just that we have to make our research accessible to people involved in those debates.