The Prairie: Disease, Alcohol and Starvation

Whiskey shot glasses in a frontier saloon scene.
An 1800s Blackfoot warrior.
A modern-day map of Canada and its provincial borders. The western prairies are located in the southern parts of the green areas.
Indigenous American woman belonging to the Assiniboine people.

Almost all European settlers arrived in North America on its eastern shores. As a consequence, eastern Canada came under European control long before the western territories did. Few white people, as a matter of fact, ventured into the remote western prairie until the latter half of the 19th century, which meant that indigenous tribes could live here as free people until the late 1800s.

Disease and alcohol

However, even before large-scale European settlement on the western prairies began, First Nations there were affected for the worse by Europeans. This was because European diseases spread quickly throughout the continent and white whiskey peddlers guaranteed a constant supply of alcohol even in remote areas. Moreover, the bison, which was vital for the prairie nations’ food supply, was shot almost to extinction by frontiersmen with modern weapons.

Quite naturally, over time, deadly epidemics, alcoholism and starvation — all purposely or inadvertently inflicted on First Nations by Europeans — led to indigenous populations dwindling. Strikingly, too, due to addiction to what the First Nations called “firewater”, many of the indigenous people who remained alive failed to do productive work and carry on the culture of their ancestors.