The real roots of the prairie economy


By now, we have all heard “land acknowledgements” recognizing the traditional territories of the Indigenous peoples on which we reside. But what about the traditional knowledge and political, economic, and cultural systems on which settler systems relied on to survive? What steps can we take to acknowledge this history?

The economic history of Western Canada that we are often told centres around settler survival in a harsh climate, on seemingly empty lands, and includes the harnessing of resources for economic benefit—namely furs and farmland, and later, forestry, minerals, and oil. Left unacknowledged are the centuries of Indigenous labour, ingenuity, and lands that, at first, supported settler survival, and later, enable settler economies to thrive.

This narrative of the economic development on the prairies supports the concept of terra nullius—the colonial narrative of empty land, which has been used to uphold the Doctrine of Discovery—the idea that the colonization of the land by European settlers was justified by their “proper use of the land.”

But non-Indigenous settlers not only encountered the sophisticated and diverse political, economic, and cultural systems of Indigenous peoples, they relied upon them. As European “explorers” arrived on the prairies—Henry Kelsey (circa 1690), the Palliser Expedition (1857-60), and Henry Youle Hind (1857-58), among others—they were guided by First Nations peoples whose knowledge of their territories dates back thousands of years, if not longer. Groups like the Cree, Blackfoot, and Nakota ferried these European newcomers along well-established river routes and trails that facilitated their hunting, gathering, and trade economies.

These Indigenous Nations did not simply subsist in their environments. They developed survival techniques by applying centuries of scientific knowledge, adapting their surroundings to sustain themselves for generations. They utilized well-developed economic, political, and social networks. Alliances between Indigenous groups for the purposes of trade and access to territory was well-established proper to European settler arrival. These were largely formulated through ceremony and kinship connections. The establishment of the fur trade owes every success to these Indigenous knowledge systems. Relations with settlers began by trading fish and furs for European goods and later developed into economic, political, and family connections.

While the trade and economic systems of First Nations in North America were fully developed at the time of contact, for newcomer European settlers, these systems were in their infancy. Fur traders and others adopted the advanced travel methods of First Nations peoples, using the canoe and the rivers for their own trade and travel purposes. In doing so, they benefitted economically from First Nations systems and technology.

Over the history of the fur trade, traders, voyageurs, and coureurs des bois used water routes and portages that had long been the natural “highways” of Indigenous peoples. The Hudson’s Bay Company’s main route ran from York Factory to Norway House and along Lake Winnipeg to the Red River. The other main route was from Norway House along the northern shore of Lake Winnipeg to Grand Rapids at the mouth of the Saskatchewan, west to Cumberland House, Carlton House and on to Edmonton, over 2400 km in total.

Fur trade posts were established in relation to the location and access to Indigenous Nations. Life at the fort was dependent on furs, food, labour, and environmental knowledge provided by Indigenous peoples in the region. Indigenous women’s labour was central to survival, as they made clothing, prepared furs, and helped to supply the fur trade posts.

In short, European settlers strategically occupied areas on the prairies which relied on or had access to Indigenous ingenuity. The settlement of urban centres is no exception. At the time of John Lake’s 1882 visit to the area that is now the City of Saskatoon in search of a location for a temperance colony he held council with Dakota Chief Whitecap and others from the Dakota community at Moose Woods (today known as Whitecap Dakota First Nation) to ascertain the best location for the colony. Chief Whitecap directed Lake to the area named “Mni Tanka,” [spelled Minnetonka by Lake] as it allowed for easy access to the river. This area had long been used by the Cree, Dakota, Nakota, Anishinaabe (Saulteaux), Métis, and others.

The first white settlers in this area travelled Indigenous trails that were thousands of years old, including the Moose Woods trail to Batoche. It facilitated travel for settlers requiring assistance from their Indigenous neighbours. Trade with members of Whitecap’s community at Moose Woods and the Métis of Batoche saved many of the Temperance colonists from starving during their first winters on the prairies. Early settler records tell of help received from Chief Whitecap’s community, and detail how Temperance colonists travelled to Batoche and Duck Lake to trade frozen wheat for flour in order to make it through the winter of 1884. Later, Saskatoon businesses would establish contracts with Indian Agents to sell supplies and rations to the Moose Woods Reserve. That the settler colonial government later removed all abilities for First Nations to continue to develop their economies through the Indian Act, reserve system, and pass and permits policies is indefensible. Pre-contact Indigenous economies and their persistence has been largely overlooked as a result.

Understanding the central role that the diverse Indigenous political, economic, and cultural systems played in enabling settler survival challenges the notion that settlers “built a life from nothing.” Settler survival resulted from ingenuity—that is, from the Indigenous ingenuity, labour, knowledge, and economies on which we reside.