Clearing the Plains of Accountability

By Robert Alexander Innes

Dewdney Avenue runs east–west through the entire length of the city of Regina, the capital of Saskatchewan: past the RCMP Academy in the west end, skirting the iconic (new) Mosaic Stadium, and past the downtown Canadian Pacific Railway tracks (CPR) – the same ones that brought great wealth to the street’s namesake, the city, and the province. The street also runs through North Central, a neighbourhood that contains a large population of First Nations and Métis people, many of whom may not know that Edgar Dewdney played a significant role in the genocidal policies that killed their many of their ancestors.

In Clearing the Plains: Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, James Daschuk discusses the transition period of 1878-1885 in the North-West with a specific focus on the Cypress Hills.[1] He contends that Edgar Dewdney, who was appointed the Indian Commissioner and the Lieutenant General of the Northwest in the early 1880s was not responsible for the starvation policy implemented under his watch: a genocide that killed 100s and more likely 1000s of First Nations and Métis people.[2] I will shine a light on Daschuk’s argument and hold it up against the scholars he cites to show he could only make his argument by misrepresenting their assertions.  What Daschuk does not divulge is that all the scholars he cites actually state that Dewdney was the main person responsible for the genocide – though none of them use the term genocide. By utilizing information from these authors’ works but withholding pertinent information, it appears to Daschuk’s readers that these authors share his contention that Dewdney was not responsible for the deaths of Indigenous people.

In his book, Daschuk argues that clearing the west of Indigenous people for settlers was a government priority as he states, “‘Pacification’ of the plains Indians was an integral, if not always explicit, component of the Tory government’s program of development.”[3] Daschuk argues that it was Prime Minister Macdonald who oversaw the policies for the First Nations people in the North-West to meet his goal to complete the CPR and open the west to Canadian development.   Daschuk explains, “On 24 March, 1882, the prime minister announced to Parliament that all Indians in the territory of Assiniboia would be removed by force, if necessary, from the land south of the proposed railway. Within a year, 5,000 people were expelled from the Cypress Hills. In doing so, the Canadian government accomplished the ethnic cleansing of southwestern Saskatchewan of its Indigenous population.”[4] Interestingly, though Daschuk uses the phrase “ethnic cleansing” to describe Macdonald’s plan, he is careful not to associate it with genocide. Benjamin Lieberman notes that ethnic cleansing and genocide are related, “ethnic cleansing is focused more closely than genocide on geography and on forced removal of ethnic or related groups from particular areas.”  However, according to Lieberman, “The greatest overlap between ethnic cleansing and genocide takes place when forced removal of population leads to a group’s destruction.”[5] Daschuk does link the starvation to the CPR as he states, “[Canadian] Officials were merciless in their use of food to control the First Nations population after the decision to use the southern route for the CPR.”[6]

In Daschuk’s interpretation, Edgar Dewdney did not play a significant part in the starvation of Indigenous people. In fact, numerous times he points out that Dewdney did what he could within the confines of federal policy to alleviate their suffering, stating at one point, “Dewdney responded to the increased tension with a temporary softening of the rule restricting assistance…”[7] Daschuk almost absolves Dewdney of any responsibility, stating that, “During the winter of 1881, Dewdney, who had no real interest in Indian administration, passed on the management to Hayter Reed.” Daschuk cites Robet Nestor’s MA Thesis, in which Reed was instructed “to use his discretion with regard to the issues of rations to the hungry’ while being ‘as economical as possible.”[8] From Daschuk’s perspective, the responsibility of the starvation experienced by Indigenous people in Cypress Hills rests solely upon Macdonald, as Daschuk’s states, “Macdonald’s plan to starve the uncooperative Indians onto reserves and into submission might have been cruel, but it certainly was effective.”[9] Of course genocide is usually cruel but effective.

In 1983, John Tobias published his foundational article, “Canada’s Subjugation of the Plains Cree, 1879-1885,” provides a different view than Dashcuk’s of the role of Dewdney in the starvation of Indigenous people in the Cypress Hills.[10] According to Tobias, Dewdney feared that a large number Indigenous people gathering in the Cypress Hills would be too difficult to control and that the only way “Canada could enforce its law on them would be via military campaign,” an action the government could not afford.[11] Accordingly, Dewdney, as Tobias states, “recommended a sizeable expansion of the Mounted Police force and the closure of Fort Walsh and all government facilities in the Cypress Hills. This action would remove all sources of sustenance from the Cree in the Cypress Hills.”[12] Tobias explains that Dewdney was fully aware of what he was doing – not only was he violating promises he made to the Cypress Hills Indians in 1880 and 1881, but he was also ignoring First Nations’ treaty right to select their reserve location.[13] Though Daschuck states that Dewdney decided to give more rations, Tobias states that in the summer of 1882 Dewdney was not happy with the NWMP, against his order, provided starving people food.[14] Tobias concludes by asserting that, “Dewdney hoped that starvation would drive them from the Fort Walsh area and thus end the concentration of their force.”[15] Whereas Daschuk downplays Dewdney’s role in the starvation policy, Tobias places the blame squarely on Dewdney: “Dewdney believed that to accede to the Cree requests would be to grant the Cree de facto autonomy from Canadian control… Rather than see that situation continue, Dewdney wanted to exploit the opportunity presented to him by the hunger crisis…”[16]

Though her timeframe, from 1880-1940 is slightly different then Daschuk’s, Maureen Lux also explores the role of disease and health of Indigenous people on the prairies. Lux’s research was published 9 years earlier than Daschuk’s book, however, it received far less attention.[17] Like Daschuk, Lux examines the situation at the Cypress Hills in the early 1880s. Lux maintains that the numbers of Indigenous people relocating to the Cypress Hills was of great concern to the government, and specifically Dewdney. Like Tobias, Lux notes that Dewdney recognized the negative impact of an Indigenous-held territory in the Cypress Hills would have on the development of the North-West. As she states, “This would effectively preclude Canadian control over the area – an area that the new transcontinental railway would have to cross.”[18] For Daschuk, Macdonald was the sole architect of the starvation policy. Lux, however, arrives at the same conclusion as Tobias. For Lux, it was Dewdney who 1) dismissed first hand accounts made by other officials of the dire food situation, 2) forced Indigenous people out of the region, and 3) violated treaty promises by not allowing First Nations to select reserve locations.[19]

There are compelling reasons to favour Tobias and Lux’s interpretation of the events that transpired in the Cypress Hills. Brian Titley’s biography of Dewdney is helpful here. He provides contrary information to many of Dashcuk’s claims about Dewdney’s role in the starvation of First Nations and Metis people. For example, citing Titley, Daschuk states that Dewdney offloaded his responsibilities of Indian Affairs on to Reed in 1881. In the quote Daschuk used from Nestor’s MA thesis, stated above, “Reed was told ‘to use his discretion with regard to the issue of rations to the hungry,” [20] it is unclear who gave Reed these instructions. However, the full text of Nestor’s original comments makes it abundantly clear, as Nestor states: “Reed was responsible for implementing the rules and regulations of Edgar Dewdney then the Commission of Indian Affairs. Dewdney’s watchword was that Reed ‘must be as economical as possible’, ‘to use his discretion with regard to the issue of provisions to the destitute Indians, you will have to be governed by your own good judgment being in mind that wherever possible work should be extracted in return.’” [21] Titley notes that Reed was at the time the Indian agent in North Battleford and did not become the assistant Indian commissioner until 1883 well after the starvation policy was implemented and therefore Dewdney could not offload his responsibilities to Reed. [22] In other words, from the time Reed began his service with Indian Affairs he followed the orders of and examples set by Dewdney and not by Macdonald or any other bureaucrat. As Titley states, “Reed, working closely with the Mounted Police, used the familiar carrot-and-stick tactics that Dewdney favoured. He cut off rations and promised help to those who settled in the desired areas.”[23]  Though in 1881 Dewdney did express, as Daschuk states, some dislike for his job as the Indian commissioner, Titley points out that in October of that year, Macdonald persuaded him to remain the Indian commissioner by offering him a raise and the position of lieutenant governor.[24]

Daschuk also appears to have overstated the role Macdonald played in the day-to-day running of the North-West and overlooks Titley’s assessment of how much the prime minister trusted and depended on Dewdney. As Titley points out, upon hearing from federal inspectors about the conditions of the people in the North-West, Macdonald “expressed concern” to Dewdney. Dewdney’s response to Macdonald was that he “felt his firm stand was necessary to put an end to the tendency of uncooperative Indians to congregate at the Cypress Hills.”[25]  This response satisfied Macdoanld’s concerns. Moreover, Titley outlines that once Dewdney became lieutenant governor, he was involved in power struggles with Lawrence Vankoughnet, the deputy superintendent general of Indian Affairs, the top-ranking Indian Affairs bureaucrat based in Ottawa. Macdonald clarified Dewdney’s jurisdictional limits, as Titley explains:

Macdonald was supportive as ever [of Dewedney], noting that while Vankoughnet was ‘a zealous officer,’ he could hardly be expected to ‘run the North-West from Ottawa.’ General regulations would continue to emanate from headquarters, he explained, but Dewdney would have ‘discretionary power to alter them for the occasion.’ Except for the extraordinary circumstances, agents would receive their instructions through the Indian commissioner’s office.”[26]

Macdonald’s response is telling, as he not only expressed his confidence in Dewdney, but also his expectation that Dewdney not just interpret and implement federal policies but also implement his own as he saw fit. This is important; as Dewdney became the lieutenant governor in 1881 precisely at the same time he was attempting to assert his dominance over Indigenous people and implementing the starvation policy.

Though scholars acknowledge that displacing Indigenous people from Cypress Hills had important economic benefits to both the country and to Dewdney himself, none mention the other economic interests Dewdney held in the region. As Daschuk and Titley point out, the CPR had decided to relocate its proposed transcontinental railway away from the northern route through North Battleford towards Edmonton in favour for a southern route from Winnipeg to Calgary and Vancouver. Titley explains that as a result of this change, it became necessary to relocate the territorial capital to the south from North Battleford. As the railway was a partnership between the CPR and Canada, it was up to Dewdney, as the government representative, along with a CPR official to determine a new location for the capital. The land they selected was “Pile of Bones,” as Regina was known as then. The land they chose was adjacent to land owned by Dewdney.[27] Dewdney made a considerable profit by selecting this location for the new capital near land that he owed. Titley explains, “The selection of the site of the new territorial capital adjacent to his personal landholdings in 1882 was the most egregious example of self-serving opportunism.”[28]

It is difficult at this point to ascertain the degree to which the decision to locate the new territorial capital in Regina was connected to the starvation policy. However, given that in1882 the starvation policy was right in midst of being implemented as a means to remove and assert control over Indigenous people greatly benefiting Dewdney and the federal government, it seems unlikely that the decision was made in isolation from Dewdney’s Indian policy.

The CPR hastily built the railway to Regina and points west. As Daschuk explains, in January 1883, the construction crews were approaching the Cypress Hills.[29] By that time, many of the Indigenous people had been forced to leave the area to settle on reserves in the Qu’Appelle Valley or in the North Battleford region or were starving to death in the Cypress Hills or on the prairies.  In the summer of 1883, Fort Walsh was closed entirely.[30] This would seal the fate of the remaining Indigenous people while ensuring the passengers on those trains would not come into contact with them. The southern CPR route worked in Dewdney’s favour: he exploited, and perhaps even fueled, the settlers’ fear of hostilities from First Nations and Métis people congregating in large numbers that could prolong settlement of the west, to implement his starvation policy. Settlers moving west wanted assurances of their safety, which could be guaranteed only by asserting control over the Indigenous population, and the government was sure to publicize their efforts. Even though the CPR was Macdonald’s dream, the fulfillment of his dream meant a lucrative payoff for Dewdney. This discussion is missing from Daschuck’s book.

Daschuk’s book has received overwhelming praise and was named the 2014 John A. Macdonald prize by the Canadian Historical Association as the best book in Canadian history.  It is surprising that historians and other scholars have not raised more critical questions about Daschuk’s argument of Dewdney’s role.  Though some historians have pointed out that much of what Daschuk discusses in his book is not new,[31] most agree that, “this book epitomizes the very best of Canadian history without a dint of bias.”[32]  None mention (as far as I can tell) the fact that though Daschuk relies heavily on information provided by Lux, Tobias, Titly, and others he does not actually engage in their arguments about Dewdney.  This leaves me to wonder how many historians who have praised Daschuk’s book have actually read the foundational literature on the subject?

Genocide occurred in the Cypress Hills in the early 1880s as a result of Edgar Dewdney’s starvation policy and its endorsement by the Canadian government.[33] To imply, as Daschuk does, that Dewdney was simply a faithful bureaucrat following orders from Ottawa ignores the historians he cites extensively. Though Macdonald gave approval to the starvation policy, it is clear from the historical literature that Dewdney had a vested interest in its successful execution.  The historians’ acceptance of Daschuk’s exoneration of Dewdney erases any culpability in the minds of the thousands of people who have read his book and shifts the blame entirely onto Macdonald. However, for those Indigenous people who do know, driving down Dewdney Avenue in North-Central Regina is a continual reminder that in Regina and in Saskatchewan more broadly and within the field of Canadian history, Edgar Dewdney’s role in building that city is more important than his decisions that lead to the deaths of thousands of Indigenous people.

[1] James Daschuk, Clearing the Plains: Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life (University of Regina Press, 2013).

[2] Except for Michel Hogue, most historians have ignored the Metis presence in the Cypress Hills during the period in which the genocide was implemented.

[3] Daschuk, Clearing the Plains, 107

[4] Ibid, 123

[5] Benjamin Lieberman, “Ethnic Cleansing’ versus Genocide?,” in The Oxford Handbook of Genocide Studies, Donald Bloxham and A. Dirk Moses, editors (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010): 42-60

[6] Daschuk, Clearing the Plains,”

[7] Daschuk, Clearing the Plains, 122

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid 127-128

[10] John L. Tobias, “Canada’s Subjugation of the Plains Cree, 1879-1885” Canadian Historical Review 64, no. 4 (1983): 519-548

[11] Ibid 530

[12] Ibid

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid 531

[15] Ibid

[16] Ibid

[17] Maureen Lux, Medicine That Walks: Disease, Medicine and the Canadian Plains Native People, 1880-1940 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004)

[18] Ibid. 37

[19] Ibid. 38-39

[20] James Daschuk Clearing the Plains, 122

[21] Robert Nestor, “Reed, Severalty, and the Subdivision of Indian Reserves on the Canadian Prairies,” MA thesis University of Regina, 1997: 33

[22] Brian Titley, The Frontier World of Edgar Dewdney (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1999), 51

[23] Titley, The Frontier World of Edgar Dewdney, 51

[24] Ibid 48

[25] Ibid 52

[26] Ibid 55

[27] Ibid 83

[28] Ibid 143

[29] Ibid.

[30] Tobias, “Canada’s Subjugation of the Plains Cree,” 531

[31] Paul Borrows, Clearing the Plains Book Review,” Briar Patch March 10, 2014 (Retrieved

[32] Godfred O. Boateng, “Book Review: Daschuk, J. (2013). Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life,” The International Indigenous Policy Journal, 7, no. 1 (2016): 2 (Retrieved from:

[33] For a more in-depth discussion of the genocide in Saskatchewan during the 1880s caused by Dewdney’s starvation policy, see Robert Alexander Innes, “Historians and Indigenous Genocide in Saskatchewan”