First Nations Farming

First Nations Farming

 The treaties provided two hoes, one spade, and one scythe for each farming family; one plough for every ten families; five harrows for every twenty families, and for each band, one axe, three saws, files, a grindstone, an auger, carpenter’s tools, seeds, one yoke of oxen, one bull, and four cows (Buckley 35).


In signing treaties with the First Nations, the government promised to provide them with a way of life through farming. Agriculture was not only the government’s plan to develop an agricultural based economy in the west but it was a means to assimilate the First Nations into the rest of society. Following the settlement on reserves, the prairie First Nation’s were eager to establish farming practices on reserve, “it was the Indians, not the government, that showed an early and sustained interest in establishing agriculture on the reserves (Carter preface).” It was clear that the government was not prepared to deal with the new way of life promised to First Nations, the process was slow and the demand was great. First Nations leaders patiently waited upon the government to provide farming implements and farm instructors to the reserves. First Nations were in great need of rations to survive.

In 1879, the government introduced the reserve farm instruction program. David Laird was appointed the Indian Commissioner in the North West Territory (Stonechild and Waiser 34). He was responsible for some seventeen thousand First Nations people over a two hundred thousand square mile area in western Canada. Unfortunately he lasted a short two months and was replaced by Edgar Dewdney, and he introduced a farming policy, a survey for Cree reserves, and appointed twelve farming instructors (Tobias 194). He also used rations to maintain control and gave to Bands who had taken treaty, so those who did not sign treaty or whom had leaders that were seen as trouble makers to the government suffered along with their people. Dewdney’s plan appeared to work, as more bands would adhere to the Treaty thereafter.

In the beginning like any other new pursuit, the transition to farming in the North West was difficult for all people: the land had to be cleared and broken; the climate was not always favorable for crops; and farming implements were primitive. Although the obstacles were present for all early farmers, the First Nations made a genuine effort to farm. The Mosquito band was a good case, settling on marginal land west of the Red Pheasant reserve, they had cleared thirty acres within two years using grub hoes and axes (Stonechild and Waiser 36).

First Nations assisted the settlers upon their arrival to a foreign land, they learned from one another, and benefitted in their survival. Often First Nations people worked for non-First Nations farmer’s the work was as difficult as the climate. First Nations provided settlers with the knowledge of the land especially in a harsh climate and skills necessary for their survival. The Plains people knew much about their environment: vegetation; rainfall and frost patterns; availability of water; care of horses; knowledge of summer pasturage; and winter forage requirements. First Nations also shared their knowledge of the plants, roots, berries, and herbs. The First Nations provided services to the settlers by way of labor, supplying firewood, hay, posts, clothing, mocassins, assisting in harvesting, threshing, cutting brush, picking rocks, and clearing the lands for farming purposes (Nicholat 1).   

By the late 1880’s, farming was thriving, some First Nations were doing well growing crops and testing new ones, using new farming techniques, all with what little they had:

Farmers in the Treaty 4 area were among the first in the Northwestto experiment with summer fallowing – an effective technique for moisture retention. In 1890, the first prize for wheat was won by reserve farms, both at Prince Albert and Regina. On Cowessess, Louis O’Soup’s field of wheat was said to be no different from white farmer’s and he won prizes at the Broadview fair. An inspecto at one of the Dakota reserves declared the wheat crops to be “as fine as any I had seen among the white settlers,” and the farmer’s “a very nice lot of Indians [who] seem to be industrious and therefore are deserving of encouragement (Buckley 52.)”

Some First Nations farmers in Saskatchewan did have success in farming and had commercially viable operations. It became apparent in some cases the First Nations were more successful than non-First Nations farmers, which caused the government to implement policies to benefit the interests of the non-First Nations farmers. Some non-First Nations farmers were concerned with the competition of the First Nations farmers and related this to the government. The government wanted the non-First Nations farmers to be prosperous in the hopes of attracting more settlers to the prairie provinces in pursuit of agriculture.  

In 1889, Hayter Reed, at the time was Indian Commissioner in the Battlefords area and is most known for his Peasant Policy of 1889 introduced a system of farming to be adopted with the western First Nations. Indians were to copy ‘peasants of various countries’ and keep their operations small and their machinery rudimentary. Reed thought that a single acre of wheat, a portion of a second acre of roots and vegetables, and a cow or two could support an Indian farmer and his family. Reed also encouraged some districts to only grow root crops to limit the use of machinery in favour of simple tools (Carter 353). Reed boasted that while undermining the tribal systems he was endorsing in his Peasant Policy a spirit of individual responsibility over the collective ownership beliefs of First Nations people that he thought were too primitive to succeed in agriculture. The peasant farming policy was implemented to protect and maintain non-First Nations farming pursuits.

By the late 1880’s the Pass and Permit system was introduced and had devastating effects on First Nations farming and is blamed for failing their farming initiatives. The Pass system came into effect during and after the Riel Rebellion to monitor and restrict the freedom of the First Nations. It gave the Indian agents and farm instructors great power in flow of goods in and out of the reserve, where First Nations farmers had to attain permits to sell their goods. Sometimes permits were not granted or were granted too late and the goods rotted.

The Pass and Permit systems serve to restrict the flow of goods and services between First Nations people and the settlers, it also effectively limited interactions between the two communities. The Pass system was in use as late as World War II. It was officially removed from the Indian Act in 1951. The Permit system remained in the Indian Act until 1995 (Tang 8).   

In order to leave the reserve, First Nations people had to attain a pass from the Indian Agent or Farm Instructor, giving a reason why they needed to leave, the duration, and whether or not they were travelling with a gun. It was against the law for a First Nations person to be travelling without a pass, and if they were and caught by the North West Mounted Police, they were arrested and put into jail. The pass and permit system had no basis in law for implementation of the treaties, the treaties provided freedom and movement to First Nations (Tang 8).  

In essence, First Nations were just as successful and at times more successful at farming than non-First Nations. The introduction of government policies failed the First Nations treaty right to agriculture. First Nations are now currently making claims against the government for the lack of agricultural assistance as promised in the treaties.