One morning in 1817, in what is now southern Manitoba, representatives of the British Crown prepared to meet with members of the Cree and Chippewa Nations. The intention was treaty making, the object was land. The British authorities told the Cree and Chippewa they needed land for settlement. The Indians asked, how much land? The phrase used in the reply was, "As far as one can see day light under the belly of a horse". This poetic description was an attempt to bridge the cultural differences between the two parties to the treaty. But the final result was only vagueness. Treaties such as the Selkirk Treaty were a regular feature of the colonization of the British of what is now Canada.
In the 16 and 17 hundreds, the soldiers and sailors of France and England attempted to destroy each other in a long series of wars for international supremacy. Their battle grounds included the territories of New France and New England where settlers with the help of the Indians were by then trapping, trading, clearing farms and building towns. When the wars reached the New World, settlers on both sides of the conflict quickly affirmed their friendship with the Indians in an attempt to secure fighting allies or at least guarantee Indian neutrality. The British formalized these guarantees by writing them down in an Agreements of Peace and Friendship. From the earliest days of European exploration, to the late 1700's in what eight of these agreements drawn up and signed by both parties as European legal tradition dictated.
The last of these wars between France and England raged for 7 years and changed the face of North America forever. The spectacular fortress of Louisbourg fell in 1758. Quebec, the heart of New France fell the year after. Any French hope for control of the New World was dashed. At the end of the war King George the III of England issued an important directive on Indian rights. Now called simply the Royal Proclamation of 1763 this document played such a central role in the definition of Indian rights, it is sometimes called the Indian Magna Carta. It confirmed that a vast area in the interior of North American was Indian country and would be preserved as hunting grounds for the Indians. The Eastern boundary was formed by the Appalachian mountains. But the Western boundary was left undefined. King George ordered that no one could use these lands without the public permission of the Indians themselves. And only the Crown or its authorized representatives, he said, could actually acquire the land if indeed the Indians were willing to part with it. And so in a single brief document, a British monarch had laid out the basic formula for treaty negotiation in Canada. From this point on, the British Crown would be the central agent in the transfer of Indian lands to colonial settlers. And land was something that settlers would be looking for plenty of.
During the American Revolutionary war, at least 40,000 American settlers remained loyal to the British Crown. When Britain finally surrendered the American colonies to local forces in 1781, these loyalists, suddenly traitors in their own land, had to flee. They came North. And they came looking for land, but under the provisions of the Royal Proclamation, no land could be given to anyone before Indian title was cleared. So the government machinery for treaty making quickly got underway.
The Royal Proclamation said that the Indians had rights in the land. That individuals could not come up and make deals with Indians for the land. The land could only be alienated to the Crown at the general meeting for that purpose. And what followed was a series of land surrenders or land surrender treaties, if you like. Which were the means whereby Indians gave up their land for settlement purposes or whatever else the Crown wanted to do with the land.
There were a total of 31 Indian treaties signed before Confederation in an attempt to secure rights to what was then called Upper Canada. The colonials recorded their understanding of treaty provisions in writing. The Indians recorded their understanding in stories; memories of promises made in a sacred time. Some tribes, particularly those in the East, embedded their vision of the treaty in wampum, precious beads, which themselves took on the sacred character. No matter how they were remembered, most of these treaties were drawn up and signed in a hurry, sometimes only days, and there were often tremendous weaknesses in them. A famous example of sloppy staff work was the gun shot clause of a treaty prepared in September 1787. The Crown was attempting in one manoeuver to acquire all the lands North of lake Ontario between present day Kingston and Toronto. The Indians were prepared to share their lands but they wanted to know exactly which lands were involved. The area in question was described to them in this way, "from the lakeshore as far inland as a gunshot could be heard on a clear day." But whose gun, whose ears, and what season, winter or summer? The terms were too vague and the Indians declined to deal further. The gunshot treaty fell apart. But most treaties didn't.
In the 1840's, surveyors and excavators found rich deposits of iron, nickel and copper on the shores of Lake Superior. Access to these minerals meant wealth and local mining companies appealed to the Crown for support. So the government sent in William J. Robinson and instructed him to extinguish all the Indian titles to the land.
Why were treaties struck in the first place? Why were treaties made in the first place? They were made for the simple reason that the Crown, the sovereign, recognized that they did not, did not have title to the land. That the title remained with the Indian nations of the...of Canada. That's who had the title. Now, in order for the Crown or the sovereign to settle the land, they had to have access to this title, they had to gain title to the land. And they only way they could do that was through treaties.
In 1850, Robinson quickly concluded 2 treaties with the Ojibway. One near Lake Huron, the other near Lake Superior. The Robinson Treaties were the forerunners for all treaties for the next century. They contained provisions for annual payments to Indian bands, freedom to hunt and fish on unused lands, and they reserved special use for the Indians only.
Confederation: a nation is born, a young nation among many older nation and a new nation with a voracious appetite for real estate. The Americans were stretching West as well and quite possibly would look North in their search for fertile farm land. The Canadian Prairies were a great temptation. And so the race began. Under the authority of the new federal government of Canada, treaties were signed clearing the rights between the lands of Ontario and British Columbia. All the treaties after confederation were numbered. One, at Stone Fort, Two at Manitoba Post, three at the northwest angle of Lake Superior, Four at Qu'Appelle in present day Saskatchewan, Five at Lake Winnipeg, Six in the Cree territory stretching across Saskatchewan and Alberta, and Seven with the Blackfoot in Alberta. With these seven treaties, the gap between British Columbia and the rest of Canada was closed. All possibility of American encroachment from the South had been cut off. The signing of the numbered treaties had been a great administrative victory for the young Canada. Unlike the Americans who had butchered their Native people in series of bloody and costly Indian wars, the Canadian had accomplished their settlement of the west diplomatically, peacefully, fairly...or was it fair?
Back in the 1830's and 40's, buffalo had roamed the prairies unhindered. 50 or 60 million by one count. For the Indians of the plains, these huge beasts had provided food to eat, clothing to wear, shelter from the weather, and medicine for their ills. For thousands of years, the buffalo was a way of life. But when the whites came, the buffalo became a business, the end was inevitable. And the end came fast. By 1880, for all practical purposes, the buffalo was extinct.
The Indians knew that there were far more of these people further east and they were coming west. They knew that the cards were ultimately stacked against them in terms of sheer power. So in that sense, you could say that the treaty was forced on that group of people. But the idea of treaties was something that Indians themselves wanted. Why you might ask would want treaties if they understood them as giving up their land? Well first of all, they didn't understand them as giving up their land, and secondly they saw the treaty as a mechanism to protect them for the future.
Starvation and disease quickly took the people of the plains from proud, self-sufficiency to a grim dependency on the will and whim of the white man and signing a treaty was the quickest way to get help.
The treaties were basically signed because they were forced to, they had to sign. A lot of the times, they didn't want to sign the treaty, they didn't want to agree to the treaty. But because of starvation, because of disease, the people were dying, our Indian people were suffering and they felt by signing the treaties, by getting these annuities in place, they could buy food, they could buy blankets from the Hudson's Bay Company. They could get the things they needed to look after the people, to look after their band.
It was assumed that with the buffalo gone, Indians would settle down and begin farming. So a common feature of treaties was the setting aside of lands known as reserves for the exclusive use of the Indian people. The size of each reserve was proportional to band population. But whether the population should be counted at the time of the signing or at a later date when the Indians might choose to begin farming was a subject of great debate.
Indian people couldn't leave the reserves till the 50's. So in effect, they were captives in their own land. They were prisoners in their own land, they had to get a permit to leave their own reserve boundaries and they had to get that from the Indian agent. But the initial attempt of the reserves was there was a place they would be protected, you know their way of life to go on.
Now, seventy years after the last treaty was signed, a lingering issues is whether the size of a reserve should have been pegged to a single census as it was or be changed to meet the growing needs of a band as its population increased. After land, a major concern within treaties was education. It was well known to the Indians that the only replacement to the buffalo would be schooling. They asked for schools and teachers. They asked also for medicine. The horrors of epidemic tuberculosis and small pox are almost unimaginable today. With no natural immunities, Native bands were easy prey for disease. Sometimes small pox would carry away half a band in a single season. These diseases had all been brought to the Indians by the whites.
At the time Treaty 6 was signed, the famous medicine chest clause was inserted at Indian insistence that the Indian agent should keep a medicine chest at his house for use. Today Indian thinking is this means medical care, in general terms, the medicine chest may be all they had at that time and place but today we have a broader range of medical care and this is a symbol for that.
The interpretation of that clause is very different for the federal government employees or bureaucrats and the Indian leadership because to us and to our elders and leaders who negotiated and signed that treaty, it refers to health care and health benefits for our people. And because our traditional way of healing is still present and alive but we recognized that we would need that assistance.
With the disappearance of traditional sources of food and shelter, many treaties offered annuities. Annual payments of 3, 4, or 5 dollars a head which might buy blankets, tools and provisions to help the Indian people survive the winters. Continual demands of Native nations was that the sale of liquor on or around reserves be utterly prohibited. The advent of whisky had been almost as destructive as the loss of the buffalo and unscrupulous white traders took full advantage of Natives. Even at treaty signing, whisky traders hovered near by to quickly separate the Indian from his treaty payment.
Once medicine and emergency assistance was promised, it wasn't long before the Agreement was reached. Treaties 1 to 7 were concluded within six short years but clearly the bargaining positions had hardly been equal.
For 22 years, no new treaty activity occurred for no new land was needed. But in the 1890's business boomed once again. And now the business was gold. The stuff of dreams, pluck it from the earth and retire a millionaire. They stumbled on gold in the Klondike in the 1890's and the rush was on. The Indian title had to dealt with of course, and access to the Yukon fields could only be gained through treaty. Treaty number 8 to clear title through the Yukon access route between Edmonton and the gold fields was negotiated with the Cree, Beaver and Chippewayan. These groups were gravely concerned that once they signed a treaty, they would be expected to act like white men. They didn't want to pay white man taxes nor fight against the white mans enemies. The treaty commissioner David Laird, assured them this would never be the case. We assured them that the treaty would not lead to any forced interference with their mode of life. That it did not open the way to any imposition of tax. And that there was no fear of military service. This verbal promise duly reported by the chief commission to Ottawa does not appear in the treaty itself but the Indians who signed were comfortable they would no longer fear either taxation or conscription.
In order to get the Indian people to agree to sign the treaty, in order to get them to agree to sign their "x" on the dotted line, so to speak, they were given the assurance "you would not be subject to any imposition of any tax nor enforced military service", that's in the treaty commissioner's report to Ottawa. Now it's written down there and it's verbally talked about through all the numbered treaties, the elders will make reference to it, that was one of the promises, no tax, no enforced military service, we will not have to do that, we will not have to pay that, we will no have to endure that. But then along comes the GST, which is a federal tax on everybody including treaty Indian people, which goes against our understanding of treaty, the spirit and intent, and our understanding of the treaty has been breached again.
The year was 1920, wealth that Yukon gold diggers had only dreamed of came spurting from the ground in the Northwest territories. The discovery was oil. As always, rights to the land had to be acquired before the resource could be tapped. Treaty 11 in 1921, cleared title to the oil rich territories from the bands more recently known as the Dene nation. Or at least that's what the government thought. Half a century later, the Dene were able to successfully argue before a Canadian court that Treaty 11 was essentially an accord of friendship and peace and not of land surrender.
Given the different expectations of the signatories in treaty negotiations, the different approaches, cultures, needs, and even different mechanisms for recording what was agreed, it is not surprising that the terms of Canada's Indian treaties has been the subject of continuing debate.
Now, while the written treaty talks about yielding, ceding, giving up, surrendering the land, this does not seem to be the understanding that Indians at the time had. For example, in North Western Ontario, the Indians there told the commissioners, tell us where you want your roads to run, tell us what pieces of land you want and we'll make those arrangements. They were not talking about yielding, surrendering huge bits of territory and then being given back reserves. They were telling the commissioners the reverse. Tell us what lands you require and we'll arrange to give that to you.
Our understanding of what was surrendered was this, the top soil because we recognized as Indian people that the Europeans wanted to farm it so that's part of the negotiations, that's part of the Agreements, that's not in the treaty but it was talked about and it was verbally agreed to so when we talk about the sharing of the land, when we talk about what was surrendered, that's all that was surrendered. The right to come and use the top soil, to farm and settle it, that's what was surrendered.
The relationship between the First Nations and Canada as a new nation, has been defined in part through some seventy agreements and treaties which took place up to 1923. Every single one of these treaties is still in effect, not one has expired. Because they are living documents, they probably always be the subject of debate and interpretation. But no matter what the controversy, they will continue to serve as a fundamental statement about the way we relate as cohabitants, sharing in a resource of land and riches that the Native people of Canada have always regarded as precious and worthy of respect.
The important thing that Canadians need to know about Indian treaties are that they form an obligation of honour on the part of all of us to attempt to understand what it is that Indian people understand about theses treaties. And what it is they expect of us and what it is that we should be doing to try to fulfil those obligations that were made for us many years ago.
We do as Aboriginal First Nations have a special relationship with the Crown, we do indeed have treaty rights and they are here as long as the sun shines, the rivers flow and the grass grows. They will not be terminated, there is no end to that, they are here forever. And people have to realize and understand that, what those rights are and the more awareness, the more education about them that can be taught, it's more beneficial for both Indian and non-Indian people. So that we can peacefully coexist in this country that we can share the resources together.
Our treaties deserve constant study and review for like any bond between people, they are only helpful as they reflect the ongoing realities which people face. Situations change our response to those situations must also change. Perhaps by studying the treaties of the past, we can better understand why problems arose and work together towards more effective, compassionate, and realistic agreements in the future.