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James Daschuk

James Daschuk

The CHA Best Scholarly Book in Canadian History Prize


James DaschukClearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life. Regina: University of Regina Press, 2013.
In this sweeping and disturbing account, James Daschuk chronicles the role that epidemic disease, global trade, the changing environment and government policy had on the lives of Aboriginals living on the Canadian Plains from the early eighteenth century to the end of the nineteenth. Daschuk skilfully draws on ethnohistory, medical history, environmental history, economic history and political economy to present a compelling overall analysis. He situates his discussion in the broader historical context of the Columbian exchange, the Great Land Rush, the rise of a global capitalist economy, and the dispossession of Aboriginal peoples across the globe. As Daschuk persuasively illustrates, the pervasive problems of poor health and poverty facing Aboriginal communities today have deep, complex and systemic roots. Initially, the biological impact of disease that resulted from the expansion of trade devastated some First Nations but presented economic and territorial opportunities for others. But the story of the spread of disease as an organic process gave way to the wilful malevolence of human actors. The demographic collapse of the western Aboriginal population after 1870, due to tuberculosis, can be traced directly to the Canadian government’s decision to use the “politics of starvation” to force Aboriginal compliance with the state’s development agenda and to eliminate what they considered an impediment to “national” development. Daschuk offers a powerful reminder that Canada has an imperial past of its own, in contrast to the classic myth of Canada as the “peaceable” and “lawful” kingdom. The legacy of racist policies that naturalized Aboriginals as unhealthy, physically weak and unable to adapt to the modern world, remains with us today.

Shortlisted Books
Erika DyckFacing Eugenics: Reproduction, Sterilization, and the Politics of Choice. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013.
Kathryn Magee LabelleDispersed But Not Destroyed: A History of the Seventeenth-Century Wendat People. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2013.
Stéphane SavardHydro-Québec et L’État québécois, 1944-2005. Québec: Septentrion, 2013.
Todd WebbTransatlantic Methodists: British Wesleyanism and the Formation of an Evangelical Culture in Nineteenth-Century Ontario and Quebec. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013.

The Sir John A. Macdonald Prize winner also receives the Governor General’s History Award for Scholarly Research.

For the first time the winners of the two highest distinctions given annually by the Canadian Historical Association met for an exchange with the public and between each other. Jim Daschuk, author of the account of the “forced starvation” of aboriginal peoples in the Canadian plains in the 19th century, and Mark Phillips, whose book explores the many ways by which historians and their object are “distant” and close, met for a public conversation on a Saturday afternoon, November 1, 2014 at Ottawa’s City Hall.

Daschuk spoke about the long process of putting this account together, and of the many reactions it has encountered after publications, amongst First Nations and European Canadians, including the uneasy queries of those responsible for the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of John A. Macdonald. Phillips spoke about the genesis of the idea of exploring the relative nature of distance in time and space, between researchers and the people they research. He read the early pages of his writings, and the concluding ones on his personal understanding of the My Lai massacre perpetrated by US soldiers during the Vietnam War, and the attempt to demonize the military officer who denounced it at the time.

The CHA would like to thank Activehistory.ca for posting a recording of the discussion on its website.