Manitoba History: Review: Helen Buckley, From Wooden Ploughs to Welfare: Why Indian Policy Failed in the Prairie Provinces

by Walter Hildebrandt
Calgary, Alberta

Number 27, Spring 1994

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Helen Buckley, From Wooden Ploughs to Welfare: Why Indian Policy Failed in the Prairie Provinces, Montreal, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 216 pp., ISBN 0-7735-0893-7, $34.95 cloth.

The objective of this book is to explain why the First Nations of Western Canada never became full partners in Canadian Society, why they lost their independence and how they can regain it. Buckley’s main argument shows that 120 years of government involvement in Indian affairs has created a dependant population robbed of initiative and self-reliance. She points out that economic development on reserves has always been a low priority for governments and that successive programs have not improved the employability of First Nations people which has resulted in dependent and alienated societies. Buckley suggests that the federal bureaucracy has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, with most of the money going into perpetuating government machinery rather than towards problems of employment and economic development.

From Wooden Ploughs to Welfare is an effective, carefully argued, critique of the dominant society, which has consistently preserved economic opportunities for itself and insisted that the best place for Aboriginal Peoples is on reserves. Non-Native Canadians have continually blamed First Nations people for their poverty and the failure to establish viable economies on their reserves. The prevailing attitude of Canadian society, Buckley argues, is that Nations Peoples were offered the “gift” of “civilization” but failed to take advantage of it. Aboriginal People are marginalized by attitudes that regard them as different and less competent; their lack of education, poverty and relegation to low-paying jobs are used as evidence to reinforce these misperceptions. From Wooden Ploughs to Welfare maintains that in spite of the grim cycle of poverty on most reserves, First Nations people have not lost their identity and choose to stay on reserves to work out solutions to their problems.

The objective of Buckley’s book is not simply to list the woeful record of failed government policy but to suggest solutions for the future. She recommends that government step back from its central role in the lives of First Nations people. Buckley carefully explains the meaning and need for the establishment of self-government and optimistically suggests that once First Nations people regain the ability they once had to run their own affairs, effective economic, and social strategies can begin to repair the lives of the damaged and disaffected.

Buckley’s book is most effective in covering the years 1945-1975. She argues that the higher profile of Aboriginal people after World War II was not the result of greater curiosity about the outside world by returned veterans, but rather the result of collapsing economies and an intolerable housing situation that forced increasing numbers of reserve residents into the cities. Government dependence actually increased during this period rather than decreased. Buckley’s description of the emergence of social assistance, and the social effects of reliance adds an important dimension to our understanding of why these years (up to the very recent past) saw a new downturn in the fortune of reserves.

This study is particularly valuable because of the direct involvement Buckley had in dealing with problems of economic development while working as an economist for the Department of Finance. The book should appeal to a wide audience of academic specialists, particularly because of her insights into the years since the war. General readers will find Buckley’s direct and concise style easily accessible. Aboriginal leaders and advisors to Aboriginal government might well consider evidence presented by Buckley as the basis for claims against the federal government for gross incompetence for failing to establish the viable economies promised by the treaties.

Ojibwa from the Upper Assiniboine River, 1887

Ojibwa from the Upper Assiniboine River, 1887
Source: Canadian Museum of Civilization

Page revised: 29 March 2022