The Prairie: Farming and Boarding Schools

Settlers making their way out west in Canada in the late 1800s.
Three people of the First Nations looking out over a prairie.
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 man standing in front of piles of hay.

As explained in the previous chapter, indigenous prairie peoples suffered from disease, alcoholism and reduced bison populations even before white people had significant settlements on the prairies.

In the 1870s, when Europeans began to arrive in large numbers and put down roots on the prairies, an already tough situation for prairie nations like the Cree and the Blackfoot became worse. Now, in addition to environmental and health threats, the nomadic indigenous nations also faced shrinking living space, with the Canadian government aiming to bring their nomadic lifestyle to an end altogether.

Reluctance to farming

As a way of controlling the increasingly desperate prairie nomads and ending their migrant ways, Ottawa allotted small plots of land to indigenous families and strongly urged them to become farmers. However, the First Nations were reluctant. They did not comprehend how the government could deem itself allowed to carve up and distribute any land. According to the First Nations, all land was the creator’s land and it did not belong to governments nor to individual people.

In defiance of government policies, groups of indigenous warriors wanted to take up arms against the arriving white settlers, but their chiefs warned them that the whites were too many and too powerful to be defeated. In the long run, the chiefs would be proven right.

Reliant on handouts

Within a few decades, in line with what the chiefs had predicted, the indigenous people in the western territories had been forced to adopt a farming lifestyle or accept government-control and life on reservations. Feeling anything but excited about their new lifestyles, the former bison hunters, quite understandably, now became demotivated and often reliant on government handouts. First Nations children, moreover, were now compelled to enroll in government-run boarding schools, and even though many indigenous people scorned it, the process of adjusting them to Western culture had begun.