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James Daschuk’s Clearing the Plains: A Panel Discussion

Some Reflections of My Own on Clearing the Plains

  • James Daschuk
Cover of Volume 26, Number 2, 2015, pp. 1-172, Journal of the Canadian Historical Association

Article body

I would like to thank my colleagues for putting so much time and thought into their papers along will all of those who attended the roundtable discussion of Clearing the Plains at the 2015 meeting of the Canadian Historical Association. I have been both humbled and amazed at the response the book has received since it was published three years ago. By the time of the 2016 Congress in Calgary, there will be over 20,000 copies in print. As Ian Mosby mentioned, MP Charlie Angus wrote a song about it and the video produced in collaboration with the University of Regina Press has had almost 17,000 hits. [77] Maori artist Brett Graham was inspired to produce the installation entitled Pioneer which was recently purchased by the National Gallery of Canada [78] and, if things were not surreal enough, Clearing the Plains was sold at Costco. [79] In December 2015, the French translation, La destruction des Indiens des Plaines. Maladie, famines organisées et disparition du mode de vie autochtone was launched by Les Presses de l’Université Laval. Over the past two years, I have done more than 100 presentations and interviews including at a dozen universities, public spaces, and schools, among others. Despite the harsh message my work conveys, people seem genuinely interested in hearing it. As Ian said, we all aspire to make a substantive contribution to both an academic and public understanding of the past, and I am thankful to have had the opportunity to do so.

I am grateful too, because it almost did not happen. In the decades (yes, decades) it took to complete this project, so many things happened to undermine its progress that I seriously began to think it was cursed. The first hurdle I encountered was in defending a dissertation that was unabashedly a scholarly synthesis rather than a deep-dig archival study of a specialized topic. “Why make a brick when I can build a wall” I naively thought to myself. I also wanted to do something important. From my perspective, tracing the roots of the chasm between the living conditions of Indigenous people and the rest of us was the issue that was (and still is) dragging us down as a society.

At my defence, a committee member did not consider a scholarly synthesis to be a dissertation and I was lucky to have made it through. For years after graduation, I continued to work on the manuscript, adding my findings from a number of research jobs in medicine, climate change, and others, to the story. In 2009, the manuscript was sent to the Aid to Scholarly Publications Program (ASPP), the final step in a process that had already taken 15 years. An anonymous reviewer concluded with the statement, “zero scholarly value, do not publish.” If Clearing the Plains had been submitted to any of the large university presses (dependent of ASPP funding), it would never have been published.

Fortunately, my regional study of Indigenous health on the plains fit the publishing program of the Canadian Plains Research Centre (CPRC) at the University of Regina and it continued without ASPP support. Unfortunately CPRC was almost closed down completely in 2012. For at least six months, I had no idea if my publisher was going to survive. During those months in limbo, the manuscript underwent a major editing, with copy editor Dallas Harrison cleaving off 20 percent of the manuscript’s volume.

My luck changed with the hiring of Bruce Walsh as Director of the newly-minted University of Regina Press, in early 2013. Bruce had more than 20 years of experience in both academic and commercial publishing before coming to the University of Regina and, as a non-historian, he was shocked by the book even though I told him that it was not as ‘new’ as he thought it was. Bruce backed up his plan to turn Clearing the Plains into a trade book with a $20,000 investment in marketing. Some of you may remember the “wall-of-books” and the full-page ad in the 2013 Congress schedule in Victoria. They The Press produced an online video trailer to promote the book. [80] When asked how I liked it, I had to admit that I did not know what to think of it as none of my friends had had that kind of promotion. The imagery from the trailer was used later in Charlie Angus’ video.

There is no question that the timing was right for the launch of the book. Idle No More brought a new spirit of hope and activism to Indigenous issues and their portrayal in the media. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was working its way across the country, making headlines with the testimony of survivors and their families. Ian Mosby’s explosive Histoire sociale/ Social History article on nutritional experiments conducted on residential school children was front-page news and truly opened the doors to widespread acceptance of my findings. As Susan Neylan observed, it captured the zeitgeist of the times. The success of the book was a combination of hard work, marketing skill, and ingenuity on the part of University of Regina Press and good luck.

Are there any lessons to be learned from Clearing the Plains? One is that there is an appetite for scholarly history in the general public. The challenge is to tell our stories in ways that are understandable to a non-professional audience. In researching and writing Clearing the Plains, I tried to reflect the events that transpired as accurately as I could understand them with the evidence at hand. As historians, this is, of course, our duty. In the three years since its publication, no one has disputed the events and outcomes described in the text. I did not characterize the events as “genocidal” or even “colonial” as those words, as important as they are, would have proved too provocative for some — probably many — readers. I wanted them to understand the story first and foremost. The undeniable brutality described in the last chapters of the book is something that should be recognized by readers across the political spectrum. Indeed, Andrew Woolford praised Clearing the Plains for not using genocide, “because Daschuk does not set himself as both prosecutor and judge, and instead allows the historical record to tell the story, his is a more convincing intervention in these debates than those who seek to impose a rigid Holocaust analogy onto the Canadian context.” [81]

I first used the term in an opinion piece published in the Globe and Mail as a short hand to describe Canadian Indian policy within the paper’s word limit. [82] I admit that I was nervous about distilling a career’s work into a single word that could have had me written off as a radical. But the opposite proved to be true. The national debate over genocide has advanced so far, so fast. The interim report of the TRC, launched at the same time as the 2015 Congress, brought the term “cultural genocide” into the mainstream. As Ian Mosby wrote, recent polls have shown that almost 70 percent of Canadians accept the view that the residential schools implemented a system of “cultural genocide.”

There are of course still many holdouts regarding the label; but the conversation has shifted in a way that the events themselves are now widely accepted and only undeniable to those who are willingly blind to them. As a non-specialist, I will admit that my own position on the issue of genocide in Canada has changed many times, even over the past few years. For anyone still trying to make sense of genocide in the North American context, I recommend Colonial Genocide in Indigenous North America edited by Woolford, Benvenuto, and Hinton [83] for a range of views and meanings.

I agree with the comments that the story told by Clearing the Plains would be improved through the integration of Indigenous knowledge and methodologies. In this perspective, the text is an artifact of the time when it was conceived. Although still an important issue in 2016, the battle over cultural appropriation was a heated, almost visceral, debate in the early 1990s. [84] Although oral history was one of the research fields of my comprehensive exams, I retreated to the documentary evidence available to me that contributed to the policy orientation described in Susan Neylan’s commentary. On many occasions, I have said that Clearing the Plains represents one-half of the story and that the other half should be written by an Indigenous scholar. Mary-Ellen Kelm is right to note that the book should serve as a platform for others to undertake more sophisticated studies. As scholars, we should welcome the fact that our work serves to motivate the next generation of scholars: it means that our work is relevant.

Clearing the Plains represents more than 20 years of work. It is a materialist history in an age where the interest in ideas prevails. It is a synthesis in a field that rewards specialization. It was panned as worthless by at least one peer reviewer. It took so long to complete that my publisher went under. Its reliance on western documentary sources is something of an anachronism in 2016. Despite these weaknesses, the success of the book is as much as any of us can ask as historians. I am grateful for the kind words of the panelists and for all of the people I have met and shared my work with since 2013. I am also optimistic: a few weeks ago, a fourteen-year-old named Anya read Clearing the Plains and used it as the basis for her heritage fair project on Indigenous health. That is a cause for hope.