Clearing the Plains of Accountability


From the Author's article:

“Daschuk’s book has received overwhelming praise and was named the 2014 John A. Macdonald prize by the Canadian Historical Association as the best book in Canadian history.  It is surprising that historians and other scholars have not raised more critical questions about Daschuk’s argument of Dewdney’s role.” “Genocide occurred in the Cypress Hills in the early 1880s as a result of Edgar Dewdney’s starvation policy and its endorsement by the Canadian government. To imply, as Daschuk does, that Dewdney was simply a faithful bureaucrat following orders from Ottawa ignores the historians he cites extensively. Though Macdonald gave approval to the starvation policy, it is clear from the historical literature that Dewdney had a vested interest in its successful execution.  The historians’ acceptance of Daschuk’s exoneration of Dewdney erases any culpability in the minds of the thousands of people who have read his book and shifts the blame entirely onto Macdonald. However, for those Indigenous people who do know, driving down Dewdney Avenue in North-Central Regina is a continual reminder that in Regina and in Saskatchewan more broadly and within the field of Canadian history, Edgar Dewdney’s role in building that city is more important than his decisions that lead to the deaths of thousands of Indigenous people.

In 1983, John Tobias published his foundational article, “Canada’s Subjugation of the Plains Cree, 1879-1885,” provides a different view than Dashcuk’s of the role of Dewdney in the starvation of Indigenous people in the Cypress Hills.[10] According to Tobias, Dewdney feared that a large number Indigenous people gathering in the Cypress Hills would be too difficult to control and that the only way “Canada could enforce its law on them would be via military campaign,” an action the government could not afford.[11] Accordingly, Dewdney, as Tobias states, “recommended a sizeable expansion of the Mounted Police force and the closure of Fort Walsh and all government facilities in the Cypress Hills. This action would remove all sources of sustenance from the Cree in the Cypress Hills.”[12] Tobias explains that Dewdney was fully aware of what he was doing – not only was he violating promises he made to the Cypress Hills Indians in 1880 and 1881, but he was also ignoring First Nations’ treaty right to select their reserve location.[13] Though Daschuck states that Dewdney decided to give more rations, Tobias states that in the summer of 1882 Dewdney was not happy with the NWMP, against his order, provided starving people food.[14] Tobias concludes by asserting that, “Dewdney hoped that starvation would drive them from the Fort Walsh area and thus end the concentration of their force.”[15] Whereas Daschuk downplays Dewdney’s role in the starvation policy, Tobias places the blame squarely on Dewdney: “Dewdney believed that to accede to the Cree requests would be to grant the Cree de facto autonomy from Canadian control… Rather than see that situation continue, Dewdney wanted to exploit the opportunity presented to him by the hunger crisis…”[16]

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Innes, Robert Alexander, "Clearing the Plains of Accountability." Shekon Neechie: An Indigenous History Site. June 21, 2018

Innes, Robert Alexander
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