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Historical Overview - Government Policy

Alexander Mackenzie

From the perspective of the Government of Canada, Treaty 7, like the other treaties that preceded it, was a necessary step in the act of nation building. By the 1870s, a bold new vision of a Dominion from sea to sea was emerging from the first tentative steps of the 1867 Confederation. With British Columbia’s entry into Confederation in 1871, the vision was one step closer to becoming a reality. All that remained was to gain a foothold in the vast Northwest Territories that stood between British Columbia and the eastern provinces.

However, before such a brave new world could arise, the First Nations Peoples already occupying northwest land would have to be negotiated with. As well, a plan for dealing with the First Nations Peoples after they had surrendered their land to government authorities also had to be implemented. Government policies and legislations from the time before Confederation right up to 1876 were used to guide the government’s handling of the First Nations issues surrounding Treaty 7.

Government policy over the issue of First Nations land was one that favoured a system of aggressive diplomacy over open warfare. In 1763, the King of England issued a Royal Proclamation that stated the land within British North America that was currently occupied by First Nations Peoples was to be left undisturbed by any settlement unless that land was ceded to or purchased by the government authority. Negotiations would be the means of peaceably addressing the issue of land use with the First Nations, while still asserting the government’s claim over the North American territories ceded to them by the French in the 1763 Treaty of Paris.

Subsequent governmental legislation reinforced the political and legal foundations set down by the Royal Proclamation of 1763. In 1850, seventeen years before Confederation, a pair of statutes were passed in Upper and Lower Canada. The Lower Canada statute, An Act for the Better Protection of the Lands and Property of Indians in Lower Canada, established a government appointed commissioner to hold all Crown Lands occupied by First Nations in trust for First Nations Peoples. The commissioner was empowered to do with the Crown Lands as the commissioner saw fit. The Upper Canada Statute, An Act Where the Better Protection of Indians in Upper Canada Imposition, the Property Occupied or Enjoyed by Them from Trespass and Injury, reinforced the idea that no one could settle or develop or otherwise deal to acquire First Nations held lands without first consulting the Crown. Another important part of this act was the provision that sale of liquor to First Nations People was prohibited, and that the Indian person was to be officially defined.

The 1857 Act for the Gradual Civilization of the Indian Tribes in the Canadas and 1859 Civilization and Enfranchisement Act set down policies whereby those First Nations People who were deemed sufficiently educated and civilized were to be given the right to vote. It should also be noted here that enfranchisement would come only if the First Nations person gave up their official status as Indian.

The use and control of First Nations held lands was further established by the Management of Indian Lands and Property Act, where the Commissioner of Crown Lands became the Chief Superintendent of Indian Affairs, empowered to take any reserve lands ceded by the First Nations. The 1868 Department of the Secretary of State Act established further governance of First Nations affairs by transferring First Nations lands trust to the Canadian Secretary of State and appointing the Canadian Secretary of State to the post of Superintendent General of Indian Affairs. 1869 saw the Act for the Gradual Enfranchisement of Indians and the Better Management of Indian Affairs, which further set the policies for the assimilation of First Nations Peoples into the Canadian socio-political process.

The signing of the numbered treaties with First Nations Peoples in the early-to-mid 1870s made the Government of Canada aware of the need to consolidate all existing First Nations land and governance policies under one body of legislation. In 1876, the Indian Act was passed to firmly establish Canadian policy in regards to the use of First Nations held lands, as well as laying the foundations for the education and assimilation of First Nations Peoples once the people had been moved to land reserves. Thus, by the time Treaty 7 was signed in 1877, the Government of Canada had a well established political mandate to gain swift and relatively peaceful control of the First Nations People and their traditional territories.
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