Bookreview - "Lost Harvests: Prairie Indian Reserve Farmers and Government Policy"

August 16, 1991, Lubicon mail-out on Carter book

Enclosed for your information is a review of a book entitled "Lost Harvests: Prairie Indian Reserve Farmers and Government Policy." The book is particularly interesting in light of current Canadian Government efforts to "dismantle" the Lubicon society.

The book quotes Canadian Government policy from 1885 as intended "to dismantle the tribal system and promote individualism", "to erode further the Indians' land base" by segmenting tracts and denying native farmers access to necessary farm machinery", and to apply "considerable political pressure to coerce land surrenders".

As William Faulkner said, "the past is not dead, it is not even past."

re-printed without permission from "The Edmonton Journal", Sunday, July 21, 1991


Daniel Ray


LOST HARVESTS: PRAIRIE INDIAN RESERVE FARMERS AND GOVERNMENT POLICY, by Sarah Carter, McGill-Queen's University Press, 323 pp., $34.95

There is a certain mythology that has grown to be commonly accepted among Canadians in regard to native peoples and government policies towards them.

A pervasive element in this mythology is the belief that native culture and religious beliefs are at the core of their lack of success in modern economic pursuits. To put it bluntly, many Canadians are convinced that natives are indolent and backwards. It is believed that native refusal to abandon hunting and trapping, and other vestiges of a nomadic lifestyle, point towards an unwillingness and inability to adapt to the exigencies of a modern economy.

When it comes to government native policies, it is generally accepted that governments have been excessively generous in supporting this indolence and backwardness at the taxpayer's expense. Natives are widely perceived as the ultimate "welfare bums" -- those who feel they deserve a free ride on the backs of the rest of us.

Sarah Carter's examination of the historical record in LOST HARVESTS suggests a different scenario altogether, at least as it applies to prairie reserve agriculture. In her book, Sarah Carter scrutinizes the post-treaty era in terms of native agricultural development. She warns in the introduction that, "Those who stress that the fundamental problem was that Indians were culturally or temperamentally resistant to becoming farmers have ignored or downplayed economic, legal, social and climactic factors."

Carter's research shows that from early on in the process, the Plains Indians recognized a need to turn to an agricultural base in order to feed themselves in the future. Not only did they display a strong willingness to learn and desire to succeed as farmers, but also, they showed an admirable perseverance and patience in the face of misguided and paternalistic government policies that served only to subvert their best efforts.

Despite persistent protests by native leaders and spokesmen, things began on the wrong foot and continued apace. Adequate implements and stock were not made available to reserve farmers despite government promises. Indians were consistently denied the right to sell what surplus they could grow, and hence were unable to enhance their operations by their own hands.

Government policy from 1885 on was primarily intended "to dismantle the tribal system and promote individualism." This was to be accomplished through "increased supervision, control, and restriction of the activities and movements of the Indians." Policies such as the allotment of land in severalty and peasant farming were designed "to erode further the Indians' land base" by segmenting tracts and denying native farmers access to the labor saving machinery essential to prairie dryland farming. The restrictive permit and pass systems governing Indian movement effectively denied them access to the market economy. Finally, as white settlers worked their way west, considerable political pressure was applied to coerce land surrenders.

Sarah Carter's LOST HARVESTS takes a long, hard look at Canada's policies and native responses over the past century as they apply to western agricultural development. Her book succeeds in dispelling the myths of indolence and cultural inferiority that pervade attitudes towards the failures of native farmers. It is a history of which we cannot be proud, but it is a history that needs to be read and acknowledged.

(Daniel Ray is an Edmonton freelance reviewer.)