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Perspectives - The Treaty Commission

The Honourable David Mills

The interests of the British Crown and the infant Dominion of Canada were represented at the 1877 Treaty 7 talks at Blackfoot Crossing by a treaty commission consisting of Northwest Territories Lieutenant Governor David Laird and the Commissioner of the North West Mounted Police, Lieutenant Colonel James Macleod

The treaty commission had entered the talks with the objective of presenting the terms of the government and the Crown to the First Nations for review and, hopefully, acceptance. The goal was to obtain the rights to First Nations land without having to give too much in return. This goal is expressed in Laird’s report when he describes an incident that took place on the first day of the talks:

The Indians listened attentively to what was said, and several of the Chiefs expressed their satisfaction at not being asked to meet us on the morrow. The Commissioners then told them there were rations provided for them by the Government, and that those who were in need of provisions might apply to certain of the Police officers detailed to see to their proper distribution.
The Stonies and one Blood Chief applied for flour, tea, sugar and tobacco, but said they were not then in need of beef. Crowfoot and some other Chiefs under his influence would not accept any rations until they would hear what terms the Commissioners were prepared to offer them. He appeared to be under the impression that if the Indians were fed by the bounty of the Government they would be committed to the proposals of the Commissioners, whatever might be their nature. Though I feared this refusal did not augur well for the final success of the negotiations, yet I could not help wishing that other Indians whom I have seen, had a little of the spirit in regard to dependence upon the Government exhibited on this occasion by the great Chief of the Blackfeet.
From Morris, Alexander, The Treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba and the North-West Territories, including the negotiations on which they were based, and other information relating thereto [online]., pg.256.

Laird seems to express a general sentiment about the relationship between the First Nations and the government here. While promising rations, he seems to carry little respect for those who accept the offer, dismissing them as dependents. He echoes this sentiment later on when he describes his admonishment of Kainai (Blood) chief Medicine Calf on the second day of the talks for making too many demands of the government in terms of treaty payments and compensation for use of timber on First Nations land:

He had admitted the great benefit the Police had been to the Indians, and yet he was so unreasonable as to ask that the Government should pay a large gratuity to each Indian for the little wood their benefactors had used. On the contrary, I said, if there should be any pay in the matter it ought to come from the Indians to the Queen for sending them the Police.   
From Morris, Alexander, The treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba and the North-West Territories, including the negotiations on which they were based, and other information relating thereto [online]., pg.258

Laird, of course, neglects to mention in his retelling of events that the presence of the North West Mounted Police in the Northwest Territories was as much about protecting the interests of the British Dominion against American incursions as it was about protecting the First Nations. It is almost as if he feels that the First Nations should willingly accede to Crown terms simply out of obligation for the protection they received.

This is a very different stance from that of the First Nations, who came to the talks hoping to arrange a sharing of the land and a firm agreement on treaty payments. Laird’s trivializing of the treaty payments as an inconvenient burden to be borne by the government suggests a patronizing attitude that would rear itself fully in the years to come after the signing of the treaty, when the exacting policies of the 1876 Indian Act would begin to make themselves felt in the Treaty 7 reservations.

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