White Set­tler Re­serve: New Iceland and the Col­o­niza­tion of the Cana­dian West

Canada's History - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Matt Hen­der­son, prin­ci­pal of Maples Met School in Win­nipeg.

by Ryan Ey­ford

UBC Press, 271 pages, $32.95

In a mad rush to set­tle the “un­tamed” West fol­low­ing the Hud­son’s Bay Com­pany’s sur­ren­der of Ru­pert’s Land and the cre­ation of Man­i­toba, the fed­eral govern­ment be­gan a sys­tem­atic, al­beit at times mis­guided, at­tempt to pop­u­late this newly ac­quired ter­ri­tory with “de­sir­ables.” At the same time the govern­ment shunted Indige­nous peo­ples, both First Na­tions and those of mixed race, onto re­serve lands fol­low­ing the sign­ing of the num­bered treaties and the pass­ing of the Man­i­toba Act.

At the end of the nine­teenth cen­tury, the re­serv­ing of land was not lim­ited to our con­tem­po­rary un­der­stand­ing; be­sides be­ing a des­ti­na­tion for Indige­nous peo­ples, re­serves were also a means of set­ting aside large swaths of land for de­sired im­mi­grants. In White Set­tler Re­serve, Univer­sity of Win­nipeg his­tory pro­fes­sor Ryan Ey­ford of­fers a com­plex ar­gu­ment re­gard­ing Canada’s in­ten­tions in terms of col­o­niza­tion and how the im­mi­grant re­serve sys­tem was crit­i­cal to cre­at­ing the sense of a lib­eral na­tion-state project in the West. Ad­di­tion­ally, Ey­ford per­forms a num­ber of con­cep­tual analy­ses de­signed to lead read­ers to think his­tor­i­cally about no­tions of lib­er­al­ism, race, set­tle­ment, and col­o­niza­tion.

By 1875, the fed­eral govern­ment was fully com­mit­ted to at­tract­ing peo­ple it thought of as ap­pro­pri­ate set­tlers to the re­gion that is now Al­berta, Saskatchewan, and Man­i­toba. And it acted on the idea that keep­ing im­mi­grants and Indige­nous peo­ples sep­a­rated via re­serves would keep rel­a­tive peace fol­low­ing the then-re­cent tur­moil in Red River and on­go­ing un­rest fur­ther west. Ey­ford care­fully con­structs a his­tory of this re­serve sys­tem, specif­i­cally by delv­ing into the shared ex­pe­ri­ence of the Ice­landic re­serve on the west­ern shore of Lake Win­nipeg. He ex­plains Canada’s at­trac­tion to Ice­landic set­tlers and the sit­u­a­tion that sparked a mass em­i­gra­tion on the part of these north­ern mariners.

The Ice­landers who ven­tured to New Iceland suf­fered ter­ri­bly at first due to dis­ease, poverty, and — ac­cord­ing to the Cana­dian govern­ment — a lack of for­ti­tude and the at­tributes needed to set­tle this part of the world. The fed­eral govern­ment had ini­tially tar­geted Ice­landers based on the as­sump­tion that, as north­ern­ers who were white, they would be eas­ily adapt­able to life in the Cana­dian West. Noth­ing, pre­sum­ably, could have been fur­ther from the truth. Faced with what might have been a com­plete dis­as­ter, the govern­ment of the day even­tu­ally felt some re­spon­si­bil­ity in pro­vid­ing ba­sic care for these poor im­mi­grants.

Most high-rank­ing Cana­dian of­fi­cials of the time re­garded lib­er­al­ism as part of their ap­proach to set­tling the North­west, and they tar­geted new­com­ers who, Ey­ford writes, “could con­trib­ute the max­i­mum amount of pro­duc­tive and re­pro­duc­tive labour while at the same time be­ing amenable to the as­sump­tions about gen­der, race, class, and re­li­gion that pol­icy mak­ers took for granted as the hall­marks of mod­ern, pro­gres­sive civ­i­liza­tion.” Lib­er­al­ism worked, if you were part of the club.

Two re­serve sys­tems co- ex­isted in the West with the same goal in mind — im­pe­rial progress. The im­mi­grant re­serve sys­tem al­lo­cated land to those who were deemed de­sir­able, and the In­dian re­serve sys­tem was es­sen­tially a land grab in the name of progress. Ey­ford’s his­tory speaks to those who fell through the cracks and to the im­prob­a­ble suc­cess of New Iceland. Crit­i­cal com­pan­ions to his work would in­clude James Daschuk’s Clear­ing the Plains and Joseph Boy­den’s Louis Riel and Gabriel Du­mont, which help to paint a pic­ture of the dy­nam­ics in the late nine­teen­th­cen­tury North-West Ter­ri­to­ries.

De­spite the depth and com­plex­ity of his ar­gu­ment, Ey­ford grace­fully ar­tic­u­lates the nu­ances of the re­gion at the end of the nine­teenth cen­tury and pro­vides an op­por­tu­nity for re­flec­tion both by those of us who cur­rently oc­cupy this ter­ri­tory and by those who have had their land oc­cu­pied. As such, White Set­tler Re­serve is an essen­tial wedge in the con­ver­sa­tion re­lated to rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, im­mi­gra­tion, and the con­nec­tion be­tween land and iden­tity.

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