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Focus on 1899

By David Leonard

This year, the major theme for history buffs in northern Alberta is Treaty #8. It was at about 6:00 p.m. on June 21, 1899, on a spot of ground just south of present-day Grouard, that six representatives of the region's First Nations placed their "x" on the document to be known as Treaty #8. In doing so, they became the first Natives in the District of Athabaska to contractually recognize the inevitability of development by outsiders. Following the signing, adhesions were taken at other locations throughout the North. For those Natives not wishing to take treaty, settlement was offered in the form of scrip, or notes entitling each recipient to either 240 acres of land or an evaluation of $240 towards the eventual purchase of crown land anywhere.

treaty party 1899The treaty signing and scrip allotment were a long time in coming. The government had made terms with the Cree of the Saskatchewan in 1876 and with the Blackfoot Confederacy the following year. In 1885, scrip was provided for the Métis of the southern prairies. The North, however, presented special considerations. The region had so far seen very few white settlers, and most of these were employed in the fur trade. Also, unlike many First Nations to the south, the Natives of the North did not live in large tribal social structures, but in small, independent bands, often extended families and many in remote locations. Making settlement with all of them would require considerable effort and time. Furthermore, many of these bands did not recognize a "chief" who could speak unequivocally on behalf of his people.

By 1898, however, it was evident that the region was on the verge of development by outsiders. The Klondike Gold Rush was in full swing, and the Peace River Country at last seemed ripe for large-scale agricultural settlement. The federal government therefore decided that, to legally facilitate such activity, a treaty would be advisable, if not necessary. On June 27, 1898, an order-in-council was passed setting out the mechanics of both a treaty and a scrip commission, which were to traverse the District of Athabaska together the following summer. Police and missionaries were then sent out to consult with Natives in their district and explain the benefits of both treaty and scrip.

To the concern of the government, word began to spread that many Natives of the North, both aboriginal and Métis, did not want to make a settlement. From Lesser Slave Lake, a delegation led by Colin Ghost keeper and Sam Cunningham reported to Sergeant Hetherington of the North-West Mounted Police that the people there were definitely opposed to a treaty, the main contention being "the fear of the game and fishing laws being enforced."1 From his mission on Buffalo Bay, the Anglican Reverend George Holmes reported that the Natives "both here and elsewhere are at present determined to refuse either treaty—or scrip—and to oppose any European settlement in this country."2 From Wabasca, the Roman Catholic Father Constant Falher reported a similar feeling at Fort St. John, Reverend Henry Robinson stated that "none of the Beavers are in favour of the Treaty," while at Peace River Crossing, Sergeant G.D. Butler reported that the Natives there "will fight before they take treaty."4

At Dunvegan, trader George Harvey reported that the treaty commissioners would "see only about 5 or 6 men here. The rest do not want treaty...."5

The people of the North were genuinely concerned that a treaty could lead to a disruption of their society and even possible harm to themselves. Stories of theft, dog poisoning, violence and even murder committed by Klondikers were now afloat. Many Natives also saw reserves as a hindrance to their movements as free people, and game laws as a hindrance to their hunting and fishing practices. There was also in the air a fear that a treaty would subject Native people to taxation and a military draft.6

The two commissions nevertheless departed Edmonton for their objective on May 29, 1899. The treaty commission was headed by the former lieutenant-governor of the North-west Territories and minister of Indian Affairs, David Laird, and included commissioners James Ross and J.A. McKenna. The scrip commissioners were J.A. Cote and Major James Walker. They were accompanied by other officials and observers, including the most venerated missionary on the western prairies, Father Albert Lacombe.

The party arrived at the west end of Lesser Slave Lake on June 18. Waiting for them was a large contingent of Native peoples, as well as Commissioner Ross, who had gone on ahead to help alleviate fears. The next three days proved to be one of the most pivotal times in the history of northern Alberta, as representatives of the Cree First Nations deliberated over terms as explained to them by Laird. Applying pressure on these people was a large contingent of Métis, determined to obtain scrip for themselves once the treaty was signed. These people were, in turn, being pressured by a number of "entrepreneurs" present who expressed an interest in purchasing the scrip notes from the Métis with hard cash.

Treaty SigningIn explaining the terms of the proposed treaty, Laird emphasized that it was "a free offer; take it or not, just as you please. If you refuse it, there is no harm done; we will not be bad friends on that account."7 He was, however, adamant in his position that "the Queen owns the country, but is willing to acknowledge the Indians’ claims, and offers them terms as an off-set to all of them."8 Supporting him was was Father Lacombe, who stated his assurance that "your forest and river life will not be changed by the treaty."9 After much hesitation and many reassurances, the terms were put to the throng of Cree present with the recommended approval of their elected chiefs.

The next day, at about 2:00 p.m., the two sides congregated again outside the commission tents. Hesitancy again surfaced, and further explanations and clarifications were required before the terms could be put to a vote. When taken, according to Henry Round, it resulted in "a general shout of approval."10 The treaty document was then formally signed by Keenooshayoo, Moostoos, Weecheewaysis, Charles Neesuetasis, Felix Giroux, and The Captain from Sturgeon Lake. The determining factor may have been an argument presented by Commissioner Ross, who stated that, regardless of whether the treaty was signed or not, "the whiteman" was "bound to come in and open up your country."11 The treaty, or acceptance of scrip, would thus provide some compensation, and without this there would be none.

With the treaty signed at Lesser Slave Lake, the commissioners continued on their journey northward to seek other adhesions. Because they were behind schedule, the commission was split, with Laird dealing with the First Nations near Peace River Crossing, Fort Vermilion and Fond du Lac, while Ross and McKenna went on to take adhesions at Dunvegan, Smith’s Landing, Fort Chipewyan, Fort McMurray and Wabasca. As they departed Lesser Slave Lake, individual negotiations were begun there with those Native people, mostly Métis, who had opted for scrip. As this process was more time consuming, the scrip commission was about two or three weeks behind the treaty parties. By September 23, however, both commissions were back in Edmonton, having covered nearly 3200 kilometres.

Taking diary notes of the events at Lesser Slave Lake, and about life in the North in general, was one of the secretaries of the scrip commission, Charles Mair. A poet and journalist, Mair decided to publish portions of his diary in 1908 as part of a book called Through the Mackenzie Basin. Upon its release, the public was made privy to a wealth of first-hand information about the treaty negotiations. Years would not diminish its value as probably the most detailed published account of these events. The work has also remained important for its depiction of people, places and events encountered by the commissions in 1899. Today, it is a standard for scholarly analysis as well as general information on the subject.

Tribe SettlementThe excursion of Charles Mair is the theme of a major exhibit now being developed on northern Alberta to be called Focus 1899. With a generous grant from Museums Alberta, the Spirit of the Peace Museums Network is now incorporating descriptive passages from Through the Mackenzie Basin with photographs taken at the time to produce a two-dimensional exposé of life in the region at the turn of the last century. Many of the photos were taken by members of the North-West Mounted Police who had accompanied the treaty and scrip commissions. In all, nearly 100 photographic images, as well as maps and other graphic materials, will be included in the 15-segment exhibit.

Focus 1899 premiered at a conference on the subject of Treaty #8 developed by the Edmonton and District Historical Society, which was held at the Alberta Vocational College in Grouard in June, 1999. The conference was part of a greater symposium on the subject of the treaty sponsored by the Lesser Slave Lake Indian Regional Council. This symposium included workshops, tours, a native village, a pow-wow, traditional dancers and a re-enactment of the treaty signing.

The exhibit is currently "on-circuit" at locations throughout the North, and elsewhere in Alberta."

Following the conference, the exhibit will go "on circuit" to locations throughout the North, and elsewhere in Alberta. President of the Spirit of the Peace Museums Association is Fran Moore of Debolt 780-957-3957.
People of the North in 1899 (images)

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