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Manitoba History: Review: Sarah Carter, Lost Harvests: Prairie Indian Reserve Farmers and Government Policy

by D. N. Sprague
Department of History, University of Manitoba

Number 22, Autumn 1991

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Sarah Carter. Lost Harvests: Prairie Indian Reserve Farmers and Government Policy. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University press, 1990, x, 323 pp. ISBN 0-77350755-8.

Dramatic changes are occurring in the prevailing view of the agricultural history of Prairie Indians in late nineteenth century Canada. The old explanation of the slow development of field agriculture on reserves (that there was some supposed aversion to farming “inherent” in Indian culture) is now almost universally rejected. The current standard interpretation is that the slow progress is attributable to government parsimony. Indian people were willing to farm from the time of negotiating the treaties, but the Canadian Department of Indian Affairs was unable to provide the capital investment on the scale needed to make a rapid, lasting transition. Carter’s Lost Harvests takes revisionism one step further. Where the current view is that the government hoped for the best with too little funding, Carter sees slow, then arrested development as a result of deliberate policy. The difference is major. Revisionists less advanced than Carter still believe that Canada had a development agenda—the policy repeated in the annual reports of the Department of Indian Affairs. Sarah Carter, however, reads such annual declarations as empty rhetoric, a smokescreen, in fact, for a hidden agenda.

Lost Harvests shows that while specific policy initiatives varied from time to time, whatever was tried at the reserve level had to pass a test of compatibility with two guiding assumptions in the “official mind” at headquarters in Ottawa. The first was that there was no place for Indian people as reserve farmers in the commercial development of the West. The second was whatever Canada would do for its “wards” outside mainstream society had to be subordinate to the interests of the non-Indian “settler” population. Consequently, in the geographical area that defines the focus of Carter’s study, the area of Treaty 4 (dating from 1874), Indian people received “little encouragement” to develop agriculture until the early 1880s (p. 77-78). Then, as Indians did begin to receive some paltry assistance in grants of capital equipment and seed grain the result was unexpectedly successful. According to the figures in Carter’s statistical appendices, per capita acreage under cultivation in the Treaty 4 agencies increased from negligible amounts in the late 1870s to more than one acre per head of population by 1889. That created a problem for officials in Ottawa because settlers became increasingly strident about Indian “competition.” Residents of Battleford, for example, complained in a petition to Parliament in 1888 that “Indians are raising so much grain and farm produce that they are taking away the market from the white settlers” (p. 188). The solution was setting limits on Indian productivity, restricting each family to a single acre of wheat, a plot of vegetables, and a cow or two for meat and dairy needs. The method for imposing the restriction was turning the clock back to pre-industrial technology. “They were to broadcast seed by hand, harvest with scythes, bind by hand with straw, thresh with flails, and grind their grain with hand mills” (p. 210). Publicly the policy could be justified as the approach “best calculated to render [the Indians] self-supporting when left to their own resources” (p. 210). Privately, officials found another reason to prefer the “peasant farming” formula. Arrested development was an ideal foundation for making future radical reductions, perhaps even total dissolution of reserves turning the land over to settlers.

The “Prelude to Surrender” theme, a complete chapter of the book, shows that the “central concern” of the Department of Indian Affairs was making certain that Indian people did not utilize the full potential of their reserve land. The policy of deliberate discouragement worked well. By the mid-1890s per capital acreage under cultivation had fallen to about half of the 1889 level and mar y serious farmers had given up farming altogether. By 1906, Canada was prepared to take wholesale surrenders of the under-utilized reserve lands; by 1908 the surrender process was well underway. At that point the Department announced a “recognition” that Indian people held land well “beyond their possible requirements.” (p. 244). Locking up valuable farm land on reserves was “impeding the growth of settlement.” Surrendering the land for sale to serious farmers was a magic solution. Surrenders would clear the way for more rapid development of the West in general, and the large sums promised for the sale of reserve lands were supposed to be more than ample to develop the full potential of the portions of the reserves left to Indian people. Thus the deceit of deliberate arrested development led to the later crime of coerced dissolution of reserve lands.

While the evidence in support of the conclusions of Lost Harvests is overwhelming (and presented with far more subtlety and qualification than this review would suggest) some scholars will want to cling to the less biting revisionist stance that blames neither Indian people nor the government for the arrested development of agriculture. They will prefer to say that because the times were hard, the Department’s budget was too small for even the most well-intentioned officials to achieve better results.

In such an anti-critical stance it will be argued that Carter’s research is impressive but the author’s interpretation of the data borders on conspiracy theory confusing results with intentions. The difficulty with application of the anti-critical bias to the Carter thesis, however, is that the policy of official discouragement of commercial agriculture hatched in 1889 was concocted with future surrender of reserve land clearly and explicitly in view. Direct quotations confirm the fact. On that account, Sarah Carter’s Lost Harvests is a work of critical history that should withstand the blasts of even the most artful anti-critical criticism and, therefore, serve as an enduring model for anyone seeking a realistic approach to native policy in Canada, yesterday and today.

Page revised: 11 April 2010

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