The article ‘Two Acres and a Cow: ‘Peasant’ Farming for the Indians of the Northwest, 1889-97’ written by Sarah Carter is a well-documented account of public colonial policy during the title years in the area of modern Saskatchewan. Back then the province did not exist so it was the Northwest Territories.
The main issues that Carter highlights extensively are regulatory practices which hampered, regressed and discriminated against those of indigenous peoples of the area who were beginning to practice farming. During this time indigenous farmers commonly came together in groups deemed the ‘tribal’ system (also called communist at the time on page 30) which directly competed with newly settled white pioneers from the east.
Reserves under certain bands, part of the ‘tribal’ system, maintained large cultivation fields which also enhanced the indigenous production into the new grain markets springing up around the territory. Competition for the newly arrived white farmers which, under normal standards, were held under an ‘individualistic’ ideal of the independent and self-sufficient homesteader model which the colonial commissioner has so vehemently championed.
As a way to curtail the pooling of resources by the bands in the territory, Hayter Reed, the commissioner in question, forwarded anti-indigenous agriculture policy in the form of the titled ‘Peasant Farming Policy’. The other aims in the area was to bring ‘civilization’ to the perceived local ‘barbarians’ as seen on page 34. As Carter describes on the same page, “The Indians were perceived to be many stages removed from the nineteenth-century civilization, and while they could take the next step forward, they could not miss the steps in between.”
Such racist and very often discrimination of indigenous peoples at the time by both the colonial government and local settlers is what lead, in part, to large-scale land sales by reserves to the government because of the hostile policies enacted upon them. As the policy suggests, a classical sense of peasant would be self-sufficient and maintain a relatively small amount of land to use for their own sustenance with little to no machinery. In many ways ‘Two Acres and a Cow.’ As such, machinery once used widely as a collective by indigenous peoples was off-limits with additional labour requirements coming from the reserves.
Widespread complaints by the indigenous people was common and Reed knew very well of their growing concerns by completely ignoring their claims even by his own staff which oversaw the indigenous farming practice. At the time indigenous farming was regulated in the field by agents and instructors of the state which helped the bands to farm. Reed labeled his staff as on page 45, “… they [staff] were inclined to be too lenient with the Indians” later saying that, “Indians and their overseers prefer to take the method easiest for themselves…” which goes to show the mindset of the commissioner towards those of indigenous descent.
As previously stated, with such grossly hampering conditions imposed to the indigenous farmers crops routinely failed due to poor weather conditions in those decades on top of the overly burdensome laws. Too much land with only the use of hand tools to collect the crops meant that not enough time was available at harvest. This ultimately means that crops overgrew and were lost if not collected on-time. Indigenous farmers felt like the system was totally against them and that is because it very much was has Carter explains in the article. The objective underlying all the ‘independent’ and ‘sufficient’ talk about the indigenous folks was government attempt to break up the farming bands discussed previously.
Carter states that John A. MacDonald loved the idea of severalty (individual) farmers as it was a means of acquiring surplus land from the reserves which would help initiate widespread settlement of the west. These kinds of policies and discrimination actively regressed the indigenous farming initiatives in the late 19th century. Indigenous people were effectively uprooted in any attempt to be efficient farmers in ways with many previous farmers opting out and quitting the profession altogether. In essence, MacDonald and Reed got what they wanted with independent homesteaders of the white variety with much surplus land from those areas surrounding reserves. Carter highlights that early indigenous efforts to farm were very successful but with obscuring laws these efforts were crushed. This article perfectly summarizes Canada’s institutional racism and systemic discrimination toward indigenous people in the hopes, I would imagine, to bring awareness to those issues of the past so that they can be avoided in the present and future.