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Manitoba History: Review: Frank Tough, “As Their Natural Resources Fail:” Native Peoples and the Economic History of Northern Manitoba, 1870-1930

by Robert Coutts
Parks Canada, Winnipeg

Number 35, Spring/Summer 1998

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Frank Tough, “As Their Natural Resources Fail”: Native Peoples and the Economic History of Northern Manitoba, 1870-1930. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1996. Pp. xvi, 376, illus., ISBN 0-7748-0531-5.

This is an impressive book. Well researched and meticulously documented, As Their Natural Resources Fail makes a major contribution to the economic history of Native peoples in northern Manitoba, both for the breadth of its discussion and the force of its conclusions. Based to large degree upon his PhD dissertation and years of archival work, Tough’s study successfully integrates elements of political economy with the approach of the cultural geographer to illustrate the difficult transition made by northern Aboriginal peoples from the mercantile fur trade to industrial capitalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The study of the economic history of northern Manitoba—other than what can be found in traditional narratives and post-level studies whose perspectives rarely move beyond the palisades—has all too often been ignored by historians and ethnographers. Tough’s use of such terms as “staple”, “labour”, “capital”, and “the material relations of production” is critical to an understanding of the transition that occurred among northern Cree, Ojibwa, Dene and Métis populations after 1870 , and despite the lack of oral history to supply an authentic voice (a shortcoming the author freely admits), they remain important tools of political and economic analysis.

As Their Natural Resources Fail (the title is taken from a letter by J. D. McLean, the Secretary of the Department of Indian Affairs at the turn of the century) is a complex work and Tough eschews a rigid chronological format for a thematic approach that analyzes such interrelated topics as the decline in economic options in the fur trade after 1870, the treaty process and Aboriginal rights, Métis title, agriculture, fisheries, labour, migration, and the demise of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Central to the book’s analysis is Tough’s argument that commercial hunting, as represented by the fur trade, was more than simply one element of subsistence life for Native peoples, and indeed he suggests that the “post and bush economies” of northern life were so interrelated as to form one single economy. Traditional subsistence activities, Tough maintains, “could simultaneously generate commercial and subsistence returns ... [and] shifted to accommodate local resource conditions and the demands of the market.” (p.43) Moreover, it was the tension between these two types of activities, or the tension between subsistence autonomy and the desire of the HBC for commercial profits, that came to characterize northern Native life at the end of the nineteenth century, and defined the changing relationship between Aboriginal people, the government, and external mercantilist agencies.

Beginning with the sale of Rupert’s Land to the Canadian government, Tough describes the efforts of the HBC to cut operating expenses at its northern posts in the face of changing transportation systems and market influences. Here the experience of the Cree people at York Factory after 1870 is explored in some detail. The author documents the efforts of the HBC to rationalize its expenditures and “restructure” its operations at York at the same time that Native people were experiencing a resource crisis in the Hayes-Nelson watershed and throughout much of the Hudson Bay lowlands. York Factory’s decline after 1870 is well known to fur-trade scholars, and my own reading of the records from this period agree with the author’s contention that this resource crisis resulted in considerable destitution among the people of the York hinterland. Without the sustained employment, trade, and provisioning opportunities they once had had at the old entrepot, the York Factory people had no choice but to return to the bush and a subsistence economy that had become increasingly precarious due to the lack of game. Confronted with economic choices that were not of their own making, many simply left the region for the resource opportunities available in the ceded lands to the south. The story of the York Factory people at the turn of the century perhaps best illustrates the author’s thesis regarding the interplay between a post and bush economy, and how market fluctuations and the reliance upon a single resource commodity, along with changing transportation systems and the depletion of game animals, could have severe and protracted impacts upon the lives of a local population.

HBC freighters in northern Manitoba, circa 1915.
Source: Hudson’s Bay Company Archives

Tough’s discussion then moves on to a consideration of Aboriginal title, the treaty policy of the federal government, treaty adhesions, and the complicated question of Métis scrip. He documents how the signing of Treaty 5 in 1875 helped create two distinct economic regions in northern Manitoba. South of the 1875 treaty line, in the communities around Lakes Winnipeg, Winnipegosis and Manitoba, Native peoples developed a diversified resource economy based upon agriculture, lumbering, boating, trapping, and commercial fishing, enabling them to move beyond reliance upon a single staple. North of this line, however, families remained tied to the declining fur economy and suffered the effects of low fur prices, the increased costs of imported goods, and diminished wage labour opportunities that characterized the fur trade of the subarctic after 1890. Pressures from Native peoples and missionaries in these unceded territories were ignored by the federal government until 1908-10 (when treaty adhesions were signed by various bands north of the 1875 boundary), largely to suit the HBC and its need for a dependent surplus labour population. Although competitive fur buyers operated throughout the region, and provided Native peoples with alternative markets for their furs, independent traders were often unable to absorb the costs associated with the transport of goods and furs to and from remote locations, and many either went out of business or were bought out by the HBC. And while Native peoples within the original boundaries of Treaty 5 were more successful in diversifying their economy, and played an important role in the transitional era between the mercantile fur trade and an emerging industrial economy, they too remained wage labourers subservient to capitalist ownership from outside the region.

One of the more significant contributions of this book, and an example of painstaking archival detective work, is Tough’s handling of the complicated question of Métis title, recognized by the federal government in the form of scrip payments. Based upon the provisions of the Manitoba Act, scrip certificates were issued to Métis claimants of mixed Cree, Dene and Scots/Orkney descent in the region. These certificates were redeemable for land entitlements within the areas open for homestead entry throughout the west, including the highly prized agricultural lands of Saskatchewan and Alberta ( but not, curiously, for lands within the unsurveyed territories of northern Manitoba ). Unwilling to move from their traditional homelands, and largely unaware of the market value of their scrip coupons, many of the Métis of northern Manitoba sold their scrip to buyers operating from Winnipeg for grossly undervalued sums. Scrip coupons were then sold by these southern buyers to incoming settlers on the prairies at prices that far exceeded their original value. Attempts by the federal government to put a stop to this exploitation of cash poor Métis claimants were largely unsuccessful as scrip combines were usually able to circumvent Indian Affairs regulations. As Tough’s analysis indicates, the granting of Métis title in northern Manitoba after 1908 illustrates a particularly unsavory chapter in the history of Native-white relations in the north and demonstrates how the Aboriginal peoples of the region were further marginalized and impoverished.

In his discussion of how Native peoples in northern Manitoba (or at least those living south of the Hudson Bay lowlands) benefited from the influx of capital into the region, Tough also shows how this prosperity was transitory. The development of a cash economy in the region, the importation of non-Native labour and ownership, and the arrival of white settlement, eventually undermined Native attempts to develop a self-sustaining economy within their traditional homeland. The economy of the region, Tough argues, remained under the influence of state agencies and private capital, ensuring that northern Manitoba developed largely as a response to the needs of the metropolis.

Within this context Tough tackles the thorny problem of “dependence”, a loaded word which he argues is much misunderstood by ethnohistorians who tend to view it in absolute terms as the complete absence of economic choices. However, “the assumed existence of economic alternatives”, he writes, “tells us nothing about deepening integration, racial stratification, unequal trade, or who benefits from economic growth”. (p. 301) For political economists studying the effects of colonialism, Tough maintains that “dependence” can be used even when economic alternatives continue to exist. He suggests that, “Over time, the declining ability [of a people] to keep responding to externally driven changes (to continue to have to make choices, to being forced to respond) is really indicative of the problem of integration.” (p. 302) How these broader economic changes affected Native peoples at the cultural level in terms of social stratification, kinship, and infra-group relations, can be addressed by local studies that are set within a larger context, as well as by good oral history. Perhaps then the apparent gap between political economy and ethnohistory will be bridged.

As Their Natural Resource Fail provides important insights into the evolution of Native economies in the north and the transition from mercantile to industrial capital at a time of tremendous social, political, and economic upheaval. And if historians sometime shy away from drawing straight line connections between historical events and contemporary economic realities, this book shows that there is no real understanding of the situation of Aboriginal peoples in northern Manitoba today unless one comprehends the impact of colonial economies over the last century.

Page revised: 13 October 2012

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