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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
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
Territory south of the Great Lakes. This was made possible because
nullified the Royal
Proclamation of 1763, which had previously ensured Aboriginals
the right to their own area west of the Thirteen
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
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,
- 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
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.
Diseases introduced by the Europeans
would wipe out perhaps about half the Aboriginal
population in Canada throughout the time of the
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