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Aboriginal Problems Involving Prairie Settlement

The Aboriginals of Canada faced three major problems in the years following Confederation: displacement from their land, the decline of the buffalo herds and diseases for which they had no natural resistance.

Decline of the Buffalo


Aboriginals were thrown off their own lands as white European settlers moved west. During the late 1700s, American settlers started moving into Indian Territory south of the Great Lakes. This was made possible because American Independence nullified the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which had previously ensured Aboriginals the right to their own area west of the Thirteen Colonies.

During the late 1830s, Aboriginals living in the United States were forced to move again in great numbers. Some migrated to Canada, but others - like the U.S. Cherokee Indians - were dispersed south and west during the Trail of Tears circa 1838 and 1839.

Aboriginals were faced with displacement yet again when settlers started moving onto the Canadian Prairies during the 1860s and 1870s. They had to move further west or further north to stay one step ahead of the settlers.

Indian treaty commissioners Alexander Morris and David Laird - who worked primarily from Numbered Treaties Three to Seven (1873 to 1877) - actually supported this expansionist movement. They, along with the settlers and the federal government, wanted to use this land primarily for agriculture.

European settlers supported the British imperialist view that they had right to the land, for they believed they were culturally more advanced that the 'savage' Aboriginals. They felt social reform was needed for the Natives, and that the benefits of being part of an advanced society far outweighed any Aboriginal right to practice their culture.

This view caused considerable conflict in Western Canada. Aboriginals stopped railway and land surveyors from entering the region, as well as settlers. It was also a root cause of the Riel Rebellions.

Decline of the Buffalo

By 1875, buffalo (also called bison) were on the verge of disappearing from the Canadian West. By 1889, only 635 buffalo remained in North America. At the beginning of the 19th century, there had been 50 million freely roaming the Prairies and Plains of North America.

Prairie buffalo nearly became extinct due to:

  • The unprecedented widespread use of firearms on the Prairies, which allowed Aboriginals and Europeans alike to kill them at a rapid pace.

  • Habitat shortage - natural buffalo grazing land was shrinking due to westward European advancement and Aboriginal displacement.

  • The popularity of hunting of buffalo for sport, not survival, by European settlers.

This posed a significant problem for the Aboriginals as the buffalo were the only major source of food and warm clothing. They had little recourse, except to sign the treaties to obtain tools and cash, because:

  • Other big game animals, such as deer and moose, were nowhere near as plentiful on the Prairies.

  • Besides an influx of European settlers, the Prairie Aboriginals now had to deal with other First Nations from the United States and eastern regions of Canada. These other groups of Aboriginals were either being pushed westward by European settlement or moving to find buffalo herds.

By the mid-1870s, most Aboriginals were facing starvation and poverty due to the near-extinction of the buffalo.


Disease had always been a problem since first contact with the Aboriginals. When the Europeans arrived in the Americas, they brought with them illnesses to which the Aboriginals had never been exposed. They had no natural immunities, unlike many Europeans, and would therefore quickly succumb to illnesses brought on by smallpox and tuberculosis.

French settlers first brought smallpox to New France in 1616, where it spread to Aboriginals living in the James Bay region, the Great Lakes and the Maritimes. Between 1636 and 1640, Jesuits introduced it into the region of current-day Ontario west of Lake Simcoe and south of Georgian Bay.

British soldiers also used the disease during the Pontiac uprising of 1763 as a form of germ warfare against Aboriginals: they gave Aboriginals diseased blankets as a kind of "Trojan horse" to make them too ill to fight.

European settlers and trappers introduced tuberculosis, another problematic disease affecting the lungs, into North America in the 1600s and the Prairies in the mid-1850s. This disease further decimated the Aboriginal population. Europeans, on the other hand, were not nearly as affected. They had centuries of contact with the disease and had more time to build up antibodies that could be passed down from generation to generation.

Ironically, the problems surrounding disease were also exacerbated Aboriginals were forced into smaller reserves or residential schools. Sick individuals could have closer contact and, thus, more easily infect healthy-bodied individuals.

Did you know?

Diseases introduced by the Europeans would wipe out perhaps about half the Aboriginal population in Canada throughout the time of the fur trade.

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