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The Making of Treaty 7 - The Treaty Makers

Red Crow

When examining the lives and actions of those individuals who negotiated the terms of Treaty 7, three important groups emerge: the leaders who voiced the interests of the First Nations, the treaty commissioners who represented the British Crown and the emerging Dominion of Canada, and the interpreters and intermediaries who tried, with varying degrees of success, to bridge the distance in language and cultural understanding between the First Nations and the treaty commission.

By studying the roles of some of those who were present during the Treaty 7 negotiations, a picture emerges of two societies: one struggling to be born and one fighting to survive. The thread of commonality between these two societies is that both are trying to shape the nature of their co-existence. After all the speeches were over and the ink had dried, did either of these societies gain any true measure of the reality behind the deal they had made? From the varying perspectives of those who negotiated and witnessed the signing of Treaty 7, the answer would appear to be no.

The leaders of the Tsuu T’ina (Sarcee), Nakoda (Stoney), and the First Nations of the Blackfoot Confederacy each came with a different agenda to address the concerns of his people. While all the First Nations leaders could agree that something had to be done to deal with the changes wrought by the arrival of the Europeans on First Nations land, it cannot rightly be said that the First Nations leaders were in agreement over which future course was the best one. Some, like the Nakoda chief Bearspaw, were initially willing to fight, but then were fairly quick to agree to the terms of the treaty. Others, like the Siksika (Blackfoot) chief Crowfoot, were cautiously optimistic, but were not willing to give assent until all options had been explored. Still others, like Kainai (Blood) chief Red Crow, did not invest much importance in the talks, initially believing it a general discussion over the permission First Nations were prepared to give for European use of the land. Given the wide range of opinions among the chiefs, however, most recent written and oral history accounts seem to suggest that none of the chiefs had gone into the treaty negotiations intending to surrender their land to government interests.

David Laird

Those who represented government interests at the Treaty 7 talks were certainly under pressure to get the First Nations leaders to agree to the terms of the treaty. The government policy of making treaties was to secure land for railway and commercial development and settlement as soon as possible. While some room was left for negotiation, the driving intent of the commission was to convince the First Nations that the existing terms of the treaty as written were acceptable. To do this, government representatives had different roles to play. Treaty commissioner David Laird was the hard negotiator of the commission. He was there to articulate the government stance and ensure that negotiations did not deviate too far from the desired outcome. Colonel James Macleod, on the other hand, was there because he had earned a measure of trust among the key First Nations leaders like Crowfoot and Red Crow. He was there to reassure the First Nations leaders that promises would be kept, as he had done for them when he led the North West Mounted Police against American whiskey traders in the region a few years prior.

Bridging the divide between the government and the First Nations were various interpreters and intermediaries. The role of this group was critical to the process, as it was burdened with the responsibility of enhancing understanding of the terms and conditions held by both sides. Some, like Methodist missionary Reverend John McDougall and Catholic missionary Father Constantine Scollen, had active roles in the treaty process before the negotiations even began, urging First Nations leaders to seek a treaty with the Crown, and reporting on First Nations activities to the government. Others, like Jerry Potts and James Bird, served mainly as interpreters, though whether the interpretive skills these men employed helped or hindered the possibility of understanding between the government and First Nations is the subject of debate.

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