Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Experiences with Homestead

The word "homestead" stirs up shameful memories for me now that I've become aware of what the creation of "homesteads" meant to the people who already lived here.

Growing up the word meant "deprivation", "hard living" - my grandparents lived for two years in a 12 by 12 foot hole in the ground with his brother. They worked long hours to "break" the ground. All four grandparents were already second or third generation residents on Turtle Island moving West to the prairies following promises of the federal government in 1880. They were not particularly adventurers; the Dewar side was moving away from a family that disapproved of Christine and Donald's marriage. The Ward side simply overflowed with too many children.

My father became aware of racism in the 1950's. Dad discovered that his Cree hired men could only cash their cheques through the Indian Agent; he didn't want "his" cash going to that "drunken sot" - he thought it was bad enough to have to go through the agent to hire the guys in the first place! 

Awareness moved onto the next generation, amplified.

The term, "homestead" antedates North America. It comes from an old English (some argue Scottish) word, "hâmstede", used before the year 1000 CE. "Hâmstedes" were owned by people who were not well off and often struggled for their sustenance - but could call a place that included a parcel of land and outbuildings their own. This distinguished them from peasants who lived on the someone else's land.  As British common law transitioned into a formal legal system, the "homestead" was often exempt from forced sale.

Bill Curry, my partner, was of the first generation born in North America on both sides of his family. His father's ancestors moved to a homestead in Ireland acquired in the 1680's. They  were Scots who were unhappy with their lot in Scotland. From that time through the 1700's, the Scottish diaspora spread around the world - Ireland, Australia, and North America especially. It is rumoured that poverty-stricken men and women even committed minor crimes so that they would be jailed and then shipped to "the colonies" at the government's expense! In the 1700's, big land owners in Scotland, usually various nobles, "cleared the lands of peasants" for herds of sheep to provide the wool to feed the newly industrialized fabric industry; the largest Scottish invasion of North America occurred at this time..

Experiencing the "clearances" might explain why so many Scots became allied with First Nations. However, it does not explain John A MacDonald, a lawyer that rose beyond his level of competence  He drank heavily and many of his decisions were controversial even in their day - including the execution of Louis Riel and the starving of the Cree in what is now the North Battleford area. (That he rose to prominence is a warning to those who think that our "democratic" process is failsafe. We cannot weed out sociopaths or psychopaths who lack empathy and promote violent solutions at every opportunity - they are often great manipulators and brilliant charmers. 

The word "homestead" moved across the Atlantic and came to mean "a quantity of land adequate for the maintenance of a family". Not specified but understood was that only white men and families need apply. No one with black, yellow or red skin could apply. Women could not apply. Furthermore, the 160 acres could only be "developed" using rather strict European farmer/peasant cultural expectations. 

The notorious "Homestead Act" in the United States was signed into law by Abraham Lincoln in 1862.  Almost ten years later, Canada in 1871, "negotiated" Treaties 1 and 2 with First Nations. This made way for the "Dominion Land Act" in 1872. The provisions of the treaties were never fulfilled; the federal finances did not have enough money to fulfill the financial agreement. John A then proceeded to solve the "Indian problem" by eliminating the people themselves. He became renowned for bringing about his vision of a country sea-to-sea but he was also a drunken sot will delusions of grandeur.