Without Sustenance Amid Plenty

1763 - 1867

By the turn of the nineteenth century the Mi'kmaq had been reduced to beggars in their own homeland and were, for all intents and purposes, without viable means of support. With the arrival of hordes of new settlers, their traditional sources of food had practically disappeared. Their former allies, the Acadians, were in bad shape themselves and could offer little assistance. At the dawn of the nineteenth century the Mi'kmaq of Nova Scotia were moving slowly but surely to the brink of extinction.

One settler described in a petition of January 1794 just how desperate the Mi'kmaq position was:

"A great many Micmac have died for want of victuals". Notwithstanding the little they
get from the Superintendent "if they have not some more general relief they and
their wives and children must in a few years all perish with cold and hunger in
their own country."

A paper published by Dr. Virginia Miller in 1982 vividly describes the unspeakable misery that the Mi'kmaq were suffering during this period:

"The lack of game animals and trade items also meant that the Micmac had no way of making or otherwise obtaining clothing. This meant that in the middle of a cold Nova Scotia winter, they were at the double disadvantage of having neither food nor clothing, and this took its toll as well. Reports of Indians naked or "miserably clad" in "filthy rags," and whole families owning only one blanket among them "as they lay in sleep in turns" in the middle of winter abounded.... The situation was so desperate that one settler reported: I have seen them in so much distress that those of large families were obliged while, a part of them put on all the clothing they have to beg around the settlement, the rest sat naked in the wigwams.

Finally, at the Indian Superintendent's urging, in 1780 the government established a committee to study the situation of the Indians and to make recommendation on dealing with it. The only outcome of this committee was the establishment of a small sum set aside annually for relief of the Indians....

The very first year that goods were distributed, the government agent in Antigonish reported that while the Indians in his jurisdiction were certainly in a "miserable condition," some of them "entirely naked," the goods allotted were insufficient to answer the needs of the overwhelming number of Indians who turned up for the distribution. Essentially, his statement spoke for all the Indians in Nova Scotia....

Settlers continued to send petitions on behalf of Natives in their neighbourhoods from all around the province; excerpts from these depict a grim scene indeed for the Micmac people. For example, in 1812, a petition on behalf of the natives around Halifax stated that: "game has become so scarce that they cannot live in the woods...several of them are widows or old and infirm persons, who live chiefly by begging, but have so worn out their benefactor that they are obliged to go every day to town, as they have nothing to eat upon a stormy day if they stay in their wigwams."

By 1827, reports of the Micmac situation drew comment from the Lieutenant Governor who said in a message to the Legislature that "the distresses of these poor people are much greater than is commonly supposed, and there is reason to believe that unless something is done, they must altogether perish.Nothing was done, and petitions continued to come in. An 1831 petition from Rawdon stated that the Indians there were desperate, there being no animals to hunt for food, and only about ten ragged blankets altogether among an encampment of 50 people. An 1834 petition stated that the Micmac camped near Windsor were: Unable to maintain themselves through hunting...many of them are at this instant almost naked and are compelled to sit down in their open and exposed camps without anything to cover or shelter them from the severity of the season," and added that if relief did not appear soon, they must inevitably perish."...

And petitions continued to pour in in ever increasing numbers. To cite just a few more, in 1837 came a petition from Pictou pleading for food and blankets for the Indians in that vicinity....

The situation not only continued, but worsened if that is possible, as in 1846 the natives at Digby were reported dying "for want of food and sustenance." In 1851 it was the Micmac in Cape Breton again, this time alleged to be in a state of "famine." In 1855 the Micmac of New Glasgow "were ready to drop from hunger," while in 1856 in nearby Pictou, the Indians were "actually starving, and crying for food." There can be no doubting an Indian Superintendent's 1861 assessment of all the Indians in Nova Scotia and Cape Breton as "destitute and miserable."

Dr. Miller also provides a description of the horrors the Mi'kmaq suffered from disease:

"But of course Micmac people were dying from causes other than simple starvation and exposure during this time. The malnutrition and cold they suffered, the excessive consumption of alcohol by some Micmac, all contributed to lower the Indians' resistance to diseases, and in the historical records and reports after 1800, we see evidence of much disease among them....

We have seen then, that a great number and variety of diseases were prevalent among the Nova Scotia Micmac people, particularly after 1800 when, because of their impoverished condition, they were forced to come into sustained contact with white settlements to beg for food and as their land base shrank in the face of ever increasing expansion by whites. Indeed, so many of the Micmac people during this half of the nineteenth century required medical attention that several times the province's annual appropriation for the Indians was threatened with being entirely consumed by doctors bills.

.....The (population) decline which had begun with initial contact with Europeans sometime before 1500, was a continual one down to 1840, and it was especially intense (or possibly best documented) after 1745. Judging from the historical records, the principle cause of this decline was disease; as one Indian Superintendent put it, "numbers are swept off annually by complaints unknown to them in their original state." The second most important cause was outright genocide perpetrated by the British, and the third major cause was starvation, once again brought on by the British presence."

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