Comparison of Railway Construction in Canada and India in the 1880s

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In the late nineteenth century, Canada and India had politically similar climates, despite being on opposite ends of the globe. Canada only broke away from being directly controlled by Britain in 1867, and India came under formal British rule nine years earlier in 1858. This paper is concerned with comparing the construction of railways through populated rural areas in both Canada and India, specifically in the early to mid 1880s. In Canada, the Canadian Pacific Railway was primarily constructed between 1881 and 1885, while in India, the majority of railway construction similarly took place in the 1880s. Because of these similarities, they make for an interesting point of comparison in legal history, especially since scholarship in this area is nearly non-existent.

The reason for constructing the railway in Canada was to build up Canada as a nation. It was actually required by section 145 British North America Act, 1867.[1] In India, while the British had discussed the construction of a railway network since the 1850s, and lines between major commercial centres were built in the 1860s and 70s, the impetus to begin construction in earnest came after the Great Famine in 1876. But both countries faced a similar problem when it came to building railways in rural areas: there were people that lived where tracks needed to be laid down. This paper will focus on one area of similarity between the two countries, and that is laws and policies used by the governments to move native populations out of areas needed to build the railway. Its thesis is that governments in both India and Canada used laws that affected food distribution in rural areas, forcing native populations in both countries to leave their homes so that railway construction could take place. In particular, I argue that provincial governments in India, under pressure from the British Raj, used a combination of tax laws, in conjunction with the Doctrine of Lapse to force the poorest landowners and peasants from their land, which opened up entirely new markets for the British Empire because rich landowners in those areas were still able to grow cash crops like cotton. These new markets were essential for the continued operation of the Empire, given the massive debt that Britain found itself in by the late 19th century. In Canada, the federal government created reserves for First Nations through treaties, and refused to deliver food rations to any First Nations person that was not on a reserve. This, alongside the disappearance of the buffalo on the prairies, cleared the land for railways.

In support of this argument, this paper will be laid out as follows: First, I will discuss India, and give a brief history of the country in the 19th century, in order to provide a backdrop for railway construction in that country. Within that section I will give an overview of the East India Trading Company, the Sepoy Mutiny, the British Raj, and the Great Famine of 1876. From there, I will discuss the construction of the railways, with a focus on the tax laws and policies used to move the poorest Indians away from areas needed to build the railway in non-urban centres. I will also discuss how the Doctrine of Lapse was used to legally acquire land that was eventually used for railway construction. I will focus on the stated purpose of the policies and laws, and then what these looked like in practice. In the second part of the paper, I will discuss the construction of Canadian railways, following the same structure as part I. The primary focus will be on Treaties number Six and Seven, which created reserves on the prairies and promised food that was never delivered. In my conclusion, I will show that although Canada and India seem entirely different on their face, the construction of their great railway systems was accomplished by using the same types of laws and policies, to the detriment of both native populations.

As a theoretical backdrop guiding this paper, I will use what has been called a Eurocentric historiographical method. This analysis is based on the theory that the brains behind British colonialism and imperialism lay in government practices, rather than with the people living in the colonies. This is therefore a top-down view of history, looking at laws and their development, rather than how social changes from the poorest classes informed these laws. The Empire acted as it did because of government actions and not through the actions of its subjects. Of course, this historiographical lens has its shortcomings: it does not give much credit to the individuals that lived in the Empire who affected change. It therefore has a Whiggish bent to it, insofar as it can seem rather deterministic and as if everything was on rails, so to speak. However, as a legal history paper, a bird’s eye view of the laws surrounding railway development is appropriate. This method has been used more extensively in the study of India, but I believe it is also suitable for the study of railway development in Canada. Viewing the actions from the point of view of the federal government helps to narrow the focus to how laws were used as a mechanism for promoting railway construction.






A Brief History of 19th Century India

In order to understand the laws and policies surrounding the construction of railways in India, one must first understand the complicated political climate within British India in the decades prior to construction. The early to mid nineteenth century provided the building blocks for the railways, and without this context it is impossible to appreciate the impact that changing laws had on railway development. This section will offer a brief overview of India, focusing on the early to mid nineteenth century.

Prior to 1857, The East India Company controlled large parts of what is now called India. The East India Company first introduced its own system of taxation in the Bengal Presidency in 1772, and in 1793, these laws were made permanent, and could not be changed under any circumstances.[2] These laws required landowners in India to pay the East India Company one third of whatever was grown on their land annually.[3] Peasants would therefore have confidence in knowing what they would pay every year. This new tax policy was not intended to be a boon for the landowners; it was intended to increase the amount of crops that farmers grew. The thinking behind this was a constant flat tax that subjects owed to the East India Company would make the farmers grow more since they knew what they would owe, and would therefore keep more because they produced more.[4] The peasants were hurt the most by this new tax. When landowners were unable to pay this tax comfortably, they would raise the rent on the peasants that used their land to farm on. The tax was not so prohibitive at this point that they were forced to leave their land, but this tax was the first of several changes that would pave the way for railway development.

The most essential materials for the East India Company’s bottom line were cotton and silk, and at the close of the century, the East India Company exported an immense amount of these products from India.  The sale of these two goods was where the Company derived a large chunk of its income. Cotton and silk would be exported to Britain, where they would be processed and turned into textiles. These textiles were shipped all over the world, including India. A large market for imported British products, crafted from Indian materials, had developed in India by the 1830s.[5] Cotton was the backbone of the East India Company’s business, and it would remain as much to the British Raj after 1857 when the East India Company left India because of the Sepoy Mutiny. The debt that the British faced in India was so substantial they had to figure out any way to increase cotton production and the amount that could be exported. Railways were going to be the solution, and part of that solution was to drive the small landowners from their homes in the 1880s, clearing the way for the railway lines.




The Sepoy Mutiny

The Sepoy Mutiny brought about the end of East India Company rule and the introduction of official British governance in India.  The sepoys, East India Company employees who acted as soldiers, had been used to help maintain peace in India, and to fight wars for the British in areas as far as Crimea.[6] In 1857, the sepoys were fed up with working for the East India Company. As the traditional story goes, the mutiny started when the leaders of the East India Company military required the sepoys to chomp down on their ammunition cartridges that were covered in animal grease. There were hundreds of thousands of Sepoy troops involved in the mutiny, and many were killed on both sides, but ultimately the British were able to suppress the onslaught. By 1858, it was clear that the East India Company could not stay in India. Thus, the British Raj came into being.

In 1858, Queen Victoria declared that everyone who worked for the East India Company at the time of the mutiny were to begin working for the British Raj, and that any contracts the East India Company made with any princely state in India would be honoured by the Raj. Most significantly as it relates to railway expansion, she stated that Britain “desire[d] no extension of [their] present territorial possessions.”[7] This is a reversal in attitude of the British government, as expanding the periphery was one of the main aspects of the British occupancy in India up to this point. These turned out to be nothing more than kind words, as the Raj realized they needed more land for building their sprawling railway network.

After the mutiny, the British realized that they had to reorganize their military in India if they were to maintain control. The hundreds of thousands of soldiers that were employed by the East India Company were seen as unnecessary, in part because there was the fear that another uprising could take place, and the cost of maintaining this force in India was prohibitively high. The British Raj needed to release the majority of these soldiers from service if they hoped to have more practicable military expenditures. They decided that if they cut half the Indian soldiers from their positions in the military, this would achieve their cost goal, while at the same time there would still be enough employed to help maintain peace and stability.[8] Military operating costs in India dropped dramatically as a result. Not only that, but the British Raj hoped that these measures would reduce the chance of revolt by ensuring that “every variety of race, caste, and religio[ous group]” would be grouped together in battalions.[9] The Raj was counting on the theory that mixing ethnic groups would mean less possibility for conspiracies to happen. There was never another military revolt in India.

These changes made to the military structure in India were necessary to the British maintaining their position in India, because in the three years after the mutiny, the debt the British government had in India rose to seventy percent, equal to approximately ten million pounds per year.[10] Infrastructure initiatives like railways and irrigating agricultural plains had to come to a complete standstill as a consequence of this debt. While this discussion of military expenditures may seem a long way off from railway construction, it is important because railways were used as a mechanism for moving soldiers around the country, thus keeping India under the firm control of the British Raj, and keeping the chances of another rebellion low. Having railways connect the major urban centres to the agricultural land would have a profound impact on how the military operated in the coming decades.
Finally, before moving on to discuss railway construction, I must briefly discuss the 1876 famine. Known as the Great Famine, it devastated the country, killing approximately 10.3 million people.[11] Some historians[12] have argued that this famine was created by the Raj, through agricultural reforms made in the 1860s and 70s. While causal links like this cannot be shown, there is a certaindesperation from members of the Raj to make sure that a disaster of this kind did not happen again. Thus, railway network construction began to bring food to rural areas in the event of another great famine.


Indian Railways



While the actual construction of the railway network that stretched throughout India would not be realised until after the Great Famine (due in no small part to the Sepoy Mutiny), the British government was very excited by the prospect even before the 1850s.[13] Governor-General Lord Hardinge said in 1848: “[I]f we can proceed with our railways through the heart of this country, we shall make rapid strides in wealth and stability—for steam here would be the greatest instrument of civilisation for the people, and of the strength of the government.”[14] Politically, India under the East India Company was the tightest it had ever been during this time.[15] Mere discussions in parliament about constructing railways became actual attempts to start development. It was argued that railways would be perfect for India, not only because of the amount of resources they could help the government extract from the country, but also because there was the potential for increased political stability wherever tracks were laid. It has been argued by some historians that the construction of Indian railways was to prevent further famines.[16] Indeed, the available documents from the time suggest that this is the case. However, the trains were not the effective food delivery systems that the British said they would be. To make matters worse, they did not seem to care. In fact, they were likely pleased by this turn of events.


Getting the Land


Lord Dalhousie and the Doctrine of Lapse

From 1848 to 1856, the Governor-General in India was James Andrew Broun-Ramsey, also known as Lord Dalhousie. Dalhousie was small in stature and was the son of the former Governor-General of Canada, and felt he had to prove himself while he was in India. He believed it was his God given duty as Governor-General of India to civilize the Indian people, whom he viewed as “backwards”.[17] He began his tenure in the subcontinent by defeating the princes of the Punjab province in war, and then subsequently claiming Punjab for the British.[18] This started Dalhousie’s expensive expansion of British control in India.

Dalhousie believed that modernizing the Indian economy would create a profitable Indian economy. Whatever areas he took over to expand British influence and control, he made sure to reorganize whatever governmental structures were in place.[19] Through these practices he limited the Indian rulers’ authority and maximized British control, thereby potentially increasing the quantity of raw materials extracted from the country. However, it created a climate that was ripe for turmoil at the slightest change, including changes in tax laws.

During his tenure as Governor-General, Dalhousie enacted the Doctrine of Lapse. This law stated that if a prince in India were to die, or if any prince was considered incompetent by the British government in London or East India Company, and had no heir, that prince’s state would come under the control of the British and the East India Company.[20] This law was essential in financing British operations in India, adding more than four million pounds of revenue every year.[21]

Dalhousie used the Doctrine of Lapse to undertake major infrastructure projects, like road construction,[22] and while railways were not in the cards during his time as Governor-General, the Doctrine of Lapse allowed Dalhousie to expand into areas of India that were previously untouchable, and the infrastructure projects laid the groundwork for railways to be built in more remote locations in the 1880s. Due to the political changes brought about by this law, and the turmoil that came along with that, these areas were particularly susceptible to any changes to agricultural practices, including changes in tax law.


A Major Investment

The Budget Statement of 1881 announced the construction of a railway from Eastern Bengal to Jessore and Khulna, an important commercial hub in Southern Bangladesh.[23] Within this budget, one can see the importance of building and expanding the railway lines to the Raj, as part II states: “[T]he Government will obtain and supply, without cost to the Company, the land required for the original construction of the railway and the works appertaining thereto, and will grant a lease of the same to the Company, free of rent, for 99 years.”[24] This came at a great cost to the State. According to the Indian Financial Statement of 1880-81, the estimated cost was £1,670,000.[25] That is equal to £90,380,000 in today’s currency.[26] The cost was expected to be even higher in the coming years.[27] That being said, the Indian railways were expanding at an unprecedented rate. Hundreds of miles of track were laid in mere months, and they were not going to stop, no matter the cost. The Raj was convinced that the railways would pay for themselves and then some, and therefore obtaining the land to lay tracks was of the utmost importance:

[I]t is obvious that immediate outlay upon the early and effectual improvement of our means of transport would be amply repaid by reduction in the excessive, and, to a great extent, wasteful expenditure which must otherwise be prolonged throughout the course of our present military operations, with the certainty of its recurrence on the first occasion of their renewal. The financial and economical interests affected by the inadequacy of our present Frontier communications are far-reaching, and the injury they sustain can scarcely be exaggerated.[28]

The notion that railways were a high yield investment is important. The further railways could be expanded in India, the more they could help reduce the debt the British were in.

Lord Lytton, also known as “Nero” to Indians,[29] stated in a speech in December 1877 that: “the incalculable value to India of her present railways has been unmistakeable [sic] demonstrated during the past year; and the Government is unquestionably bound to stimulate the extension of this class of works to the greatest extent and with the greatest rapidity”.[30] Lytton was convinced that the railway lines, however limited, in the poor areas on India during the famine were what saved the people from utter devastation:

I cannot doubt that but for the main trunk lines of railway there must have been an appalling…failure in the supply of food to [the distressed] provinces; and, for the purposes of famine relief, I am equally convinced that the proved utility of these great arterial lines will be immensely increased by the cheap internal railroads we now propose to commence.[31]

This quote may shed some light on the true intentions of the Raj in its desire to expand rail lines. As stated above, the famine killed over 10 million people, but Lytton states that there were only hundreds that died of starvation.[32] The available railways in the 1870s did not save the Indian population from devastation, so it is possible, especially with what happened in the 1880s, that the true purpose of railway construction was to open up new markets.

Lytton called upon the Provincial Governments “to undertake at once the preparation of such a scheme of local railways, with plans for their gradual and systematic execution, carefully made out by the best informed local authorities.”[33] Lytton was adamant that tax and financial policies within India be under the purview of the Provincial governments. But the changes in the tax system under the provincial governments actually encouraged a different sort of practice—movement of people away from rural areas and into more populated urban areas, clearing the way for railway tracks.


Tax Reform: Cash only, Please

Prior to the late 1870s, Landowners in India were taxed one third of their total crop yield. While this was a steep price for many small landowners, the fact that it could be paid in grain, cotton, or whatever other crop that was grown meant that few were unable to pay the tax. In 1880, a new tax was introduced, where farmers were taxed at a flat rate of 7 pence per annum, regardless of their income from the land.[34] While this tax seems almost impossibly low (it is worth approximately eight pounds in today’s currency), peasants and small landowners found this tax difficult to pay, especially in famine years. It forced farmers to sell crops to communities outside of their local areas,[35] and the introduction of railroads allowed this to happen. As the track for the railways began to be laid in rural areas, the more local governments encouraged farmers to grow cash crops like cotton.[36] The provincial governments would only accept tax revenue in cash, which disproportionately hurt the poorest Indians. Small landowners would have to sell parts of their land as well as crops to survive after paying the flat tax.

A law stating that tax debts must be repaid was instituted by the Raj. This was beneficial to rich landowners, but detrimental to poor landowners. If a landowner defaulted on a debt, including a tax debt, the government would take the debtor to court, and the courts would make an order for repayment. If the debtor could not repay the debt, the court could order the removal of the debtor from their land, and then sell the land to bring compensation to the creditor.[37] Rich landowners could afford to pay their tax debts, because they had the land to produce both cotton and grain. Grain was a cheap, easy crop to produce, but it sold for very little on the market. For this reason, small landowners had to forgo cultivating grain, because they could not sell enough to pay their taxes. Instead they had to grow labour intensive cotton, which required them to hire extra help, which they could not afford.[38] The poor were therefore stuck between a rock and a hard place: grow grain and eat, but be unable to pay the cash tax and therefore be evicted from their land by the government, or grow cotton which could be sold, but not for enough to both pay taxes and buy food. If a landowner was removed from their land due to tax debt, the government auctioned it off.[39] This problem was especially present in times of decreased rainfall, and forced peasants to leave their villages for large urban centres, thus clearing the way for railway tracks. The question remains, though, if the purpose of the railways was to help the poorest people, why did the government not do something while this exodus was taking place?

These tax laws, and the effect that they had on poor landowners, opened up an entirely new market for the British. These rural areas, once inaccessible except by deteriorating roads, became major producers of cotton, and the British could not ignore the fact that they had trains that could transport all of these raw materials to urban centres. The debt that the Raj was in was all encompassing, and having these money-makers on rails was an appealing prospect that they were not going to let go of, even if it meant hurting the poorest of their subjects.




The construction of a cross-country railway network was an important aspect of Canada’s early years, as is demonstrated by section 145 of the British North America Act, 1867, which required that a railway network be constructed. Sir John A. MacDonald was particularly concerned with getting this railway built, and went to extreme lengths in order to do so. This section will argue that treaties between the federal government and First Nations, and subsequent food distribution policies, were used to force Aboriginal peoples out of the way of the railway’s path. There will be a particular focus on Alberta, especially the Blackfoot First Nations and Cree, as correspondence on this issue is well fleshed out, and shows how the policies were effective at frustrating the First Nations to the point that they moved out of the way.

A Brief History of Canadian Railways

As was the case in India, the government invested significantly in railways in Canada. In the first 50 years after confederation, the federal government contributed approximately $745 million to railway development.[40] This expenditure was in large part financed by the British government, and British investors firmly believed that Canadian railroad securities were good investments.[41]  These investments would have been important to Britain, as they would be looking to reduce their debt in India in any way possible.  The Canadian government began seriously considering how to develop a transnational railway in 1871 when British Columbia joined confederation based on the promise that it would be connected to the rest of the country by rail.

The story of Canadian railways begins with the British North America Act, 1867 section 145 which stated:

Inasmuch as the Provinces of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick have joined in a Declaration that the Construction of the Intercolonial Railway is essential to the Consolidation of the Union of British North America, and to the Assent thereto of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and have consequently agreed that Provision should be made for its immediate Construction by the Government of Canada: Therefore, in order to give effect to that Agreement, it shall be the Duty of the Government and Parliament of Canada to provide for the Commencement within Six Months after the Union, of a Railway connecting the River St. Lawrence with the City of Halifax in Nova Scotia, and for the Construction thereof without Intermission, and the Completion thereof with all practicable Speed.[42]

Of course, this section is not in reference to the railway in western Canada, but gives a sense of the culture at the time. While this section of the Constitution was repealed in 1893,[43] it still shows the emphasis of connecting the provinces in Canada to one another. The last line: “the Completion thereof with all practicable Speed” tells us that nothing should stand in the way of construction, even if what stands in the way are people.

Land Grants

One of the great influences on Canadian railway development during this period was the United States, which used land grants as a mechanism for aiding railway companies.[44] This policy meant that the federal government would take Crown land and effectively give it to railway companies for the purpose of laying railway lines. It has been argued that there was no opposition to the principle of a land grant, and only suffered a near decade long delay because the Liberals came into power in the 1870s.[45] However, there was a real issue with land grant policies in Canada that had nothing to do with petty political differences. There were thousands of First Nations peoples who laid claim to the land between British Columbia and the rest of Canada, and they would have to be moved prior to any tracks connected the east to the west.

Treaty Number 7

As stated above, part of the deal for bringing British Columbia into confederation was building a transnational railway. Treaty Number Seven was the key to making this promise a reality. This treaty created reserves for the First Nations living in western Canada, and offered compensation and continued rights of hunting in the area, in return for ceding any and all rights to their traditional territory.[46] Specifically, the reserves would be designed to “allow one square mile for each family of five persons, or in that proportion for larger and smaller families”.[47] Incentives for signing the treaty included “payment of twelve dollars each in cash to each man, woman, and child of the families here represented,” for the first year, which would be followed by five dollars annually, or 15 dollars for councillors and minor chiefs, or 25 dollars for chiefs.[48] Two thousand dollars worth of ammunition would also be supplied every year, or if not ammunition, some other thing that would be for the Band’s benefit.[49] Cattle would also be provided, as well as farming equipment. The government and the chiefs signed Treaty Number Seven on September 20, 1877.

What turned out to be very important was the clause in the Treaty that described the land to be used for the Blackfoot confederacy. The entirety of this clause is included here to show how confusing the language of the treaty was, especially as it relates to land rights:

The Reserves of the Blackfeet, Blood and Sarcee Bands of Indians, shall consist of a belt of land on the north side of the Bow and South Saskatchewan Rivers, of an average width of four miles along said rivers, down stream, commencing at a point on the Bow River twenty miles north-westerly of the Blackfoot Crossing thereof, and extending to the Red Deer River at its junction with the South Saskatchewan; also for the term of ten years, and no longer, from the date of the concluding of this Treaty, when it shall cease to be a portion of said Indian Reserves, as fully to all intents and purposes as if it had not at any time been included therein, and without any compensation to individual Indians for improvements, of a similar belt of land on the south side of the Bow and Saskatchewan Rivers of an average width of one mile along said rivers, down stream; commencing at the aforesaid point on the Bow River, and extending to a point one mile west of the coal seam on said river, about five miles below the said Blackfoot Crossing; beginning again one mile east of the said coal seam and extending to the mouth of Maple Creek at its junction with the South Saskatchewan; and beginning again at the junction of the Bow River with the latter river, and extending on both sides of the South Saskatchewan in an average width on each side thereof of one mile, along said river against the stream, to the junction of the Little Bow River with the latter river, reserving to Her Majesty, as may now or hereafter be required by Her for the use of Her Indian and other subjects, from all the Reserves hereinbefore described, the right to navigate the above mentioned rivers, to land and receive fuel cargoes on the shores and banks thereof, to build bridges and establish ferries thereon, to use the fords thereof and all the trails leading thereto, and to open such other roads through the said Reserves as may appear to Her Majesty’s Government of Canada, necessary for the ordinary travel of her Indian and other subjects, due compensation being paid to individual Indians for improvements, when the same may be in any manner encroached upon by such roads.

There are two interesting facts that come out of this clause. First, the emphasised portion above states that part of the land granted as part of the reserve will cease to become part of the reserve after 10 years. This term, buried deep within this unintelligible clause, further takes away what little was offered by the federal government. The disproportionate bargaining power between the government of Canada and the First Nations’ chiefs is exemplified by this provision.

Second, to make the lack of land given to the Blackfoot even more egregious, in 1883, when the railroad was being built, it looked like construction would have to take place on these reserve lands. Rather than waiting the full 10 years as stated in the treaty, a new treaty was drawn up, and on June 20, 1883 the Blackfoot Band signed away more land so the rail line could be built.  But this is only the beginning of the story of how the Canadian government removed First Nations from their land, because as we dig deeper into the history of the railway, we see a much more sinister side of the government.

Treaty Number 7 also promised food rations to reserves. These costs rapidly increased as the impact of the disappearance of the buffalo worsened. The federal government tried to implement an agricultural policy that would free them of giving food to the reserves. The Home Farm Program was intended to provide an economically viable way of providing food to the reserves, but the farm instructors the government sent to the reserves to implement this plan were unprepared, and the project was a failure. [50] Despite the fact that food was scarce and people were starving, MacDonald’s Conservative government stated that any increased expenditure on providing relief to the prairies was a waste of public money.[51] The finance minister, Sir Leonard Tilley, said that the First Nations “must work or starve.”[52] This comment was in direct violation of Treaty Number Six, which promised food to First Nations in times of scarcity.

But why did these First Nations sign away their land? The terms were not so attractive as to entice people to completely abandon land they had held for centuries. The answer lies in the fact that the main source of food on the prairies, the buffalo, had all but disappeared and the fear of starvation was very real.[53] The government had them backed into a corner: move or starve.



Treaty Number Six

Treaty Number Six was signed on August 28, 1876 by the Canadian government and “Cree Indians”.[54] Like Treaty Number Seven, there are many aspects of this treaty that favoured the government, including the Crown being able to appropriate land “required for public works or buildings, of what nature soever”,[55] and being able to limit hunting rights for “settlement, mining, lumbering or other purposes by Her said Government of the Dominion of Canada, or by any of the subjects thereof duly authorized therefor by the said Government.”[56] These clauses would have enable the government to use any land covered by this treaty for railway construction. However, these clauses are not as historically interesting, especially against the backdrop of Indian railway development, as this clause:

[I]n the event hereafter of the Indians comprised within this treaty being overtaken by any pestilence, or by a general famine, the Queen, on being satisfied and certified thereof by Her Indian Agent or Agents, will grant to the Indians assistance of such character and to such extent as Her Chief Superintendent of Indian Affairs shall deem necessary and sufficient to relieve the Indians from the calamity that shall have befallen them.[57]

This is a promise that, if in the event of a famine, the government will provide food rations to the First Nations in the area. This did not happen. In fact, it appears that the government intentionally used food scarcity as a mechanism to clear the land to build the railway.


Betrayal: Treaty Number Six not Honoured

In 1884, correspondence discussing a lack of food rations for Alberta First Nations was written between two government officials. The letters begin as follows:

I have the honour to inform you that where I was at the Blackfoot Crossing Crowfoot was rather upon his “high horse” and came into the ration house and quite [illegible] complained of the small quantity of flour that was being issued: the quantity did appear small—about 5 oz’s per soul—but as there were no complaints whatever from any other [illegible], and as the Indians did not in anyway [sic] back Crowfoot up. I attribute his outbreak of temper, to his wish to show off before his Indians, and to show that his trip East had not destroyed his powers of speaking out, and looking after their interests.[58]

Crowfoot was a formidable leader of the Blackfoot Confederacy, and was a signatory on Treaty Seven. It should not come as a surprise that he was the one that brought up the lack of flour to the government, but the writer of this letter is suggesting that Crowfoot is just posturing for his people, and really has no issue other than not wanting to look weak. Nevertheless, the situation must have been bad enough that the author still says the following: “I beg… to say in this commotion that in my opinion it would be well to adopt a uniform system of reciving [sic] supplies, and issueing [sic] there upon the Reserves.”[59] However, in the two other letters in this correspondence, neither address the shortage of rations. Instead, they deal only with the suitability of employing “Indians” as meat cutters.[60][61]

Any First Nations people living outside of Reserves were in essence forced onto Reserves by lack of food, and because the government would limit the hunting and fishing rights, which was granted to them under Treaty Number Six. However, the situation was hardly better on the reserves. The government ignoring a lack of rations on reserves was not an uncommon practice. In James Dashuk’s book, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, he writes that “ food placed in ration houses was withheld for so long that much of it rotted.”[62]

From the Battleford reserves, the following conditions at a mission school are described:

After the disappearance of the buffalo, the bacon and the cakes made with some bad flour did not satisfy the appetite of the Indians. I saw the gaunt children dying of hunger, coming to my place to be instructed. Although it was thirty to forty degrees bellow zero their bodies were scarcely covered with torn rags. These poor children came to catechism and to school. It was a pity to see them. The hope of having a little morsel of dry cake was the incentive which drove them to this cruel exposure each day, more, no doubt, than the desire of educating themselves.[63]

Conditions were so bad on reserves, that those that lived there were abandoning them.[64] The “scant supply of food”[65] given out on the reserves made conditions unbearable. People were dying, and “if they continued to remain there they would all die.”[66]  But once people left, they were struck by an even more dire situation off the reserves. The irony of this is that the Cree came to Battleford in 1879 because they were starving. The Cree’s main food source was gone with the disappearance of the buffalo. Acting Indian superintendent Dickieson offered food to those who would agree to go to the reserves, despite the fact that he had no way to acquire any food from his superiors.[67] The First Nations chose to leave their land rather than starve, thus clearing the way for the rail lines.



Conclusion: Comparing India to Canada

Governments in both India and Canada moved native populations away from areas they wanted to develop railway networks using tactics that were, on the surface, very different, but in practice were quite similar. In India, the British Raj encouraged the provincial governments to enact tax laws that would be beneficial to the poorest peasants, thus, in their minds, lessening the chances of another devastating famine. However, these tax laws resulted in peasants being forced to move from their farms and into the city, because they could not afford to pay the tax and feed themselves at the same time. The Raj saw this as an opportunity to pay off their debts incurred from the post-Sepoy Mutiny years. This cleared the way for railways to be built in rural areas, where none were before. The large landowners were then able to sell their cash crops to major centres in India and elsewhere, because the railway opened up entirely new markets, enabling them to earn the capital needed to purchase farms that were in default. This was essential for the Raj, as they were in substantial debt and could use any extra form of revenue possible. There is no definitive evidence to suggest that the Raj intended that the purpose of the railways was to open up new markets, and that in order to do accomplish this the poor had to leave their homes, but circumstantially the Raj must have been pleased with this turn of events.

In Canada, the laws used to rid the prairies of First Nations were calculated and intentional. There was tremendous pressure on the Conservative government under Sir John A. MacDonald to build this railway. The promise of a railway was what sealed the deal for British Columbia to join confederation in 1871, and when 1879 arrived with no progress on this front, the government offered a $25,000,000 cash subsidy as well as 25,000,000 acres of land to get this railway built.[68] Of course, these 25,000,000 acres could only have been granted because of the seven Treaties signed by the federal government and First Nations in the 1870s. With the promise of food, shelter, security, and money, First Nations peoples signed away their traditional lands to make way for the railway. For those that refused to leave their traditional lands for reserves, the Canadian government used a similar method as the Raj did in India to force movement away from prime railroad land. They would only provide food to reserves in the event of food shortages, but even then, food often rotted on reserves before anyone could eat.

Both the Indian and Canadian governments invested heavily in their railway networks. India put billions of pounds into developing lines that stretched into rural areas for famine prevention and to access farm land that was previously untapped by the market, while Canada invested similarly into their own system to ensure Sir John A. MacDonald’s dream of a united country was fulfilled. The British Raj and Canadian government gave major subsidies to railway companies to encourage growth. Both countries required land held by native populations, but Canada went about acquiring this land in a far more ruthless manner. India gained land almost by accident, when changes to provincial tax laws had the opposite of their intended effect, while Canada used treaties to create reserves for First Nations, and then starved anybody that was not on the reserve so that lines could be laid down. The main difference between the development of Indian and Canadian railways was this: In India, the government was trying to get out of debt and used policies to remedy that situation. In Canada, the government was trying to build a nation at any cost, even if that meant destroying nations that stood in their way.

[1] The British North America Act, 1867, c.3, s.145

[2] Peter Robb, “The East India Company Raj, 1772–1850,” in  Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political economy: Second Edition, ed. Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal (New York: Routledge, 2004), 61.

[3] Douglas M. Peers, India under colonial rule: 1700-1885 (Toronto: Pearson Education, 2006), 45-47.

[4] R. Guha, A Rule of Property for Bengal: An Essay on the Idea of the Permanent Settlement (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995), 161.

[5] D. A. Farnie, The English Cotton Industry and the World Market, 1815–1896 (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1979), 33.

[6] Irfan Habib, “The Coming of 1857,” Social Scientist 26 (1998): 6.

[7]“Proclomation by the Queen in Council to the Princes, Chiefs, and People of India,” in East India (Proclomations), (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, Ltd., 1908),’sProclamation.pdf.

[8] Robin J. Moore, “Imperial India, 1858-1914,” in The Oxford History of the British Empire, Volume III: The Nineteenth Century, ed. Andrew Porter (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 428.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, 430.

[11] Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (New York: 2002), 7.

[12] See Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts.

[13] “Our Indian Railways,” Calcutta Review 7 (1847): 323,

[14] David Arnold, Science, Technology and Medicine in Colonial India (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 109.

[15] Karl Marx, “The Future Results of British Rule in India,” in The New York Daily Tribune, July 22, 1853,

[16] Michelle Burge McAlpin, “Famine, and Risk: The Changing Impact of Crop Failures in Western India, 1870-1920,” The Journal of Economic History 39 (1979):  149.

[17] Edwin Arnold, The Marquis of Dalhousie’s Administration of British India (London: Saunders, Otley, and Co., 1865), 1-2,

[18] Ibid, 1.

[19] David Gilmour, The Ruling Caste: Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), 161.

[20]  John Keay, India: A History (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000), 433.

[21] Stanley Wolpert, A New History of India (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1989), 226-28.

[22] P.E. Roberts, “History of British Rule,” in Imperial Gazetteer of India, v. 2 (London: Oxford at the Claredon Press, 1909), 504, 504

[23] “The Quarter,” Calcutta Review 73 (1881): 406,

[24] Ibid, 407.

[25] India, Financial Department, Financial statement for 1880-81, [Calcutta], 1880, 3.

[26] “Historical UK inflation rates and calculator”, Stephen Morely, accessed February 28, 2017,

[27] India, Financial Department, Financial statement for 1880-81, [Calcutta], 1880, 13.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts.

[30] Sir John Strachey and Lt.-Gen. Richard Strachey, The Finances and Public Works of India from 1869 to 1881 (London: Kegan-Paul, Trench, 7 Co, 1882), 173.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid, 175.

[34] Sir Richard Temple, India in 1880 (London: John Murray, 1881), 245,

[35] Michelle Burge McAlpin, “Railroads, Prices, and Peasant Rationality: India 1860-1900,” The Journal of Economic History 34 (1974): 662.

[36] Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts, 26.

[37] David Hardiman, “Usury, Dearth and famine in Western India,” Past and Present 152 (1996): 125.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid, 125-126.

[40] Matthew Simon, “New British Investment in Canada, 1865-1914,” The Canadian Journal of Economics, Vol. 3, No. 2 (May, 1970), 243.

[41] Ibid, 244.

[42] British North America Act, s.145.

[43] “Constitution Acts, 1867 to 1982”, Justice Laws Website, last modified April 7, 2017,

[44] William S. Greever, “A Comparison of Railroad Land-Grant Policies”, Agricultural History, 25, no. 2, pg. 86.

[45] Ibid.

[46] “Copy of Treaty and Supplementary Treaty No. 7 between Her Majesty the Queen and the Blackfeet and Other Indian Tribes, at the Blackfoot Crossing of Bow River and Fort Macleod,” Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, accessed March 3, 2107,

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Sarah Carter, Lost Harvests: Prairie Indian Reserve Farmers and Government Policy (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990), 78.

[51] James Dashuk, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, (Regina: University of Regina Press) 2013, 99

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid, 122.

[54] “Copy of Treaty No. 6 between Her Majesty the Queen and the Plain and Wood Cree Indians and other Tribes of Indians at Fort Carlton, Fort Pitt and Battle River with Adhesions,” Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, accessed March 3, 2107,

[55] Ibid.


[57] Ibid.

[58] “Blackfoot Agency – Correspondence Regarding Complaints Made By Chief Crowfoot Regarding The Issue Of Supplies And Rations To The Blackfoot Indians,”  Library and Archives Canada, accessed February 27, 2017, 3,

[59] Ibid, 4.

[60] Ibid, 7.

[61] Ibid, 6.

[62] James Daschuk, “When Canada used Hunger to Clear the West,” The Globe and Mail, last modified July 19, 2017,

[63] Louis Cochin, Reminiscences: A Veteran Missionary of Cree Indians and a Prisoner in Poundmaker’s Camp (Battleford: Battleford Historical Society, 1927), 26.

[64] James Dashuk, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, (Regina: University of Regina Press) 2013, 145.

[65] Ibid, 145.

[66] Ibid.

[67] Ibid, 110.

[68] William S. Greever, “A Comparison of Railroad Land-Grant Policies”, Agricultural History, 25, no. 2, pg. 86.



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McAlpin, Michelle Burge. “Railroads, Prices, and Peasant Rationality: India 1860-1900.” The Journal of Economic History 34 (1974): 662-684.

Moore, Robin J. “Imperial India, 1858-1914.” In The Oxford History of the British Empire, Volume III: The Nineteenth Century, edited by Andrew Porter, 422-446. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Peers, Douglas M. India under colonial rule: 1700-1885. Toronto: Pearson Education, 2006.

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Simon, Matthew. “New British Investment in Canada, 1865-1914.” The Canadian Journal of Economics 3:2 (1970), 238-54.

Wolpert, Stanley. A New History of India. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1989.

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