From Wooden Ploughs to Welfare: Why Indian Policy Failed in the Prairie Provinces

I’ve often wondered, and it’s been said to me, “Why are Native people socio-economically disadvantaged when compared to non-Native people?” Sometimes, the phrasing isn’t so nicely put, but the sentiment is the same.

Well, this book by Helen Buckley effectively illuminates the reader to the history of Native/non-Native disparity in a cluster of reserves on the Prairies.

There are a few ideas that I took away from this book. First was the policy to have First Nations people become farmers. This was a problem for several reasons: 1) Native people had no conception of agriculture, compared to some immigrants who had many generations of experience, 2) Farming teachers were few, and some of them that were available weren’t very good, 3) there was a double standard for loaning practices, it wasn’t until the 1960’s that Natives were allowed to get loans and even then it was far below what White farmers could get from a bank, and 4) Indian Agents acted as middle men/managers whose meddling often undermined the efforts and potential profits of the Native farmers.

The second bit of knowledge I gleaned from this book has to do with the governmental paradox of interference and simultaneous lack of action. As I mentioned, Indian Agents were often able to intercede “on the behalf” of Native people, but this, according to Buckley, generally wasn’t in favor of the Native people themselves. For instance, an Indian Agent might “advise” a Native person to sell their land, because “nothing would grow there anyway,” only to see, years later, that same parcel of land yielding good results for a White farmer. Likewise, an Indian Agent could determine who could leave a reserve and when. This was a serious obstacle to a burgeoning free market economy.

The third area of ideas I came away with had to do with Native self-determination. Essentially, recognizing that First Nations have the right and have had the ability to sustain themselves through their own livelihoods. It was only through interference that that changed. But even that is changing now.

It’s being recognized that Native people are primary stakeholders in their own destiny and have the right and the responsibility to be engaged in economic development and education.

The book was written in 1992 and refers to the Prairies, but I think it generalizes a theme that was prevalent throughout Canada for the better part of the last century. Although the book is just about twenty years old, it contains valuable lessons for Native/non-Native interaction of the present day…especially with the Ring of Fire making headlines!


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