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Perspectives - Contemporary Views

Ms. Suzanne Tining, Associate Deputy Minster of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada

As is the case with the other numbered treaties, Treaty 7 and the events surrounding its making have been subject to much scrutiny and debate. The divergent perspectives on Treaty 7 on the part of the First Nations and the treaty commission have sparked much discussion on what the signing of Treaty 7 ultimately represents as a historic event and legal precedent.

One of the major questions for those who have studied and examined Treaty 7 concerns the First Nations’ understanding of the agreement. Did the First Nations chiefs understand what they were signing or not? Some historians, like George F. Stanley in The Birth of Western Canada, argued against this idea. Scholars such as Stanley suggest that treaties made between the European power and the First Nations Peoples were not meetings of equals, and that the First Nations Peoples could scarcely understand what was being done to them by agreeing to treaty terms:

The disparity in power and interests between the signatories reduced the treaties to mere grants of such terms as the weaker people might accept without active resistance, and such treaties were, accordingly, rather the preparatives and apology for disputes than securities for peace.
Stanley, George F.G., The Birth of Western Canada: A History of the Riel Rebellions, pg 213

In Building the Canadian Nation, author George W. Brown makes only very brief mention of the treaties, but does suggest that they were a wise policy on the part of the Canadian Government, in that they saved the First Nations from starvation while preventing war in the northwest.

Later historians like Hugh Dempsey cite First Nations’ lack of understanding of Treaty 7 as an important factor to consider when examining the making of the treaty. Dempsey, however, takes a less paternalistic view of the proceedings than some of his scholarly predecessors:

Generally, there was considerable confusion as to what the tribes believed had been promised to them in 1877. Even the chiefs who were present at the negotiations appeared to have only an imperfect idea of the promises which had been made. And in light of the problems with interpreters and differing cultural concepts, such confusion is understandable.
Dempsey, Hugh A., Treaty Research Report, Treaty Seven (1877)[online].

Dempsey’s view is fairly close to the view held by contemporary Treaty 7 First Nations leaders and Elders who have examined the Treaty 7 negotiations. Often, the key points of language and culture are emphasized by Treaty 7 First Nations Elders when speaking of the events at Blackfoot Crossing.

The official federal government view of Treaty 7 and of all the treaties that preceded or followed it is that the treaties are important means of articulating the ongoing relationship between Aboriginal Peoples and the rest of Canadian society. In this view, the focus on written documents as centre pieces in legalistic negotiation is still emphasized. The treaties, as written, negotiated, and signed by the interested parties, are legal guides to how Canada and the First Nations are supposed to get along. There are flaws in the system, perhaps, but these flaws will be worked out over time.

Whatever the view of Treaty 7 or the treaty making process in Canada is, the document of Treaty 7 remains in Canadian legal books and is still enforceable as law. Because this document still impacts the people it was written for in the present day, it seems unlikely that analysis of what Treaty 7 truly is will end anytime soon.

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