Historical Overview - Settings and Context
The signing of Treaty 7 in 1877 was not a precedent setting event by any reckoning. The 19th century witnessed several prior treaty agreements between the First Nations of the northwest and the Government of Canada. Treaties 1 and 2 were signed in 1871, followed by Treaty 3 in 1873, Treaty 4 in 1874, Treaty 5 in 1875, and Treaty 6 in 1876. Each agreement had become well practiced in the art of securing land surrenders through diplomacy.
With each treaty signed, the Government of Canada maintained that First Nations held land further and further west towards British Columbia. Federal authorities were anxious to get control of the northwest for a number of reasons. The Canadian Dominion in the 1800s was a young a physically splintered state, with the Northwest Territories forming a vast gulf between the British colonies in eastern Canada and British Columbia on the west coast. British Columbia’s geographical isolation from the east was keenly felt, and the continuing membership of British Columbia in Confederation was conditional. The Government of Canada had to complete a transcontinental railway to British Columbia by 1881, both to form a link to the far western colony, and to encourage settlement and development of the fertile lands of the northwest. The young British Dominion was well aware that American interests were driving north towards the vast, largely unclaimed northwest. British controlled settlement of northwest land was vital to ensure control of the region.
But before the first tracks could be laid in the northwest, there was the matter of those peoples, the First Nations, who already occupied the land. Seizing the territory was out of the question – the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and subsequent government acts of legislation had already seen to that, declaring that the land the First Nations People lived on was theirs by right, and could only be won through First Nations willingness to surrender their land claims to federal interests. In addition, the long and devastating Indian Wars south of the border had shown in graphic detail the enormous cost of waging war with strong peoples who would fight for what was theirs. Negotiations would have to take place.
With the signing of Treaty 6 with the Cree, Saulteaux, and Prairie Assiniboine First Nations in 1876, the Government of Canada had already secured the main travel route for the transcontinental railway. Treaty 7 was seen largely as a means of controlling the entire region of what is now Alberta in order to keep the peace. The First Nations that were to sign Treaty 7 were seen as a potential problem, because they had already felt the devastating effects brought on by unscrupulous American whiskey traders, increased settlement, disease, and gradual disappearance of the plains bison upon which the survival of the people depended. The Indian wars in the United States had made the Dominion authorities well aware of the price of ignoring the frustrations of First Nations People. For the First Nations People, these same deteriorating conditions in their traditional territories were leading them to consider whether treaty making with the British Dominion would prove beneficial to them in the long run.
The Heritage Community Foundation, with the kind permission of the Treaty Policy Directorate of the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, is pleased to present this feature excerpt from the video Cede, Yield, and Surrender: A History of Indian Treaties in Canada.
After Confederation created the nation of Canada in 1867, the Canadian government raced to secure the vast Northwest Territories between the east and west coasts for later settlement and nation building. To do this, a series of numbered treaties were negotiated with the First Nations peoples to acquire the rights to use the land.