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The Treaties

Initiated as a nation-building attempt after Confederation, the Canadian government negotiated a series of treaties with Aboriginal  peoples across Canada that would allow them rights to natural resources and the lands necessary to build a national railway that would link the country together. These treaties covered most of Canada and delineated whom the government recognized as a "Treaty Indian," or later a "Status Indian." Signing of these treaties took place over a span of 50 years from 1871 to 1921. Eleven numbered treaties were signed in total in which Aboriginal peoples had to agree to accept settlement on reserves. Most also included reserve land based on the number of Aboriginal peoples in a settlement, as well as agreements for schooling, agricultural equipment and training, gifts and annuities. Although these treaties covered most of Canadian soil, they did not include all Native peoples. The Inuit people never entered into treaty talks and Aboriginal peoples in most of the northern expanse of James Bay and British Columbia were not approached for treaty negotiations or settlements. The Métis were also omitted from these treaties, their presence and claims to the lands were  largely ignored until much later.

Treaty Making: A New Relationship

In the 1870s, after the Dominion of Canada had purchased territorial rights to the Northwest from the Hudson's Bay Company, the Canadian government made treaties with Aboriginal peoples for their territory. With an eye towards settling the Northwest, the government needed to not only secure the lands it hoped to develop, but to ensure that there was no danger of repeating the Indian wars that the Americans experienced. Indeed, there was already unrest among the Métis at Red River, who were not consulted about the transfer of power from the tribe to the Dominion of Canada. The Red River Rebellion and later, the Northwest Rebellion, were perfect examples of the sort of uprising the government was trying to prevent.

The new government decided to extend its colonial approach to Aboriginal peoples, a way of approaching them with an alliance that would soothe them while the government got the land it so desired. For Canada to establish control over its western territories, and for the establishment of railways to accommodate the growing influx of settlers from the American west, Aboriginal peoples knew their buffalo-hunting way of life was coming to an end. Canadian expansion seemed to symbolize future dominance by the new Canadian settlers, yet the Aboriginal peoples knew they needed federal assistance to help them shift to a new way of life.

To a people who had little experience with the European concept of land ownership, there is no way Aboriginal peoples could understand exactly what they were getting and what they were giving up in the treaties. The language used in the treaties was official in nature and European in origin, a language that these people would find difficult to understand. Even if the terms of the treaties had been clearly translated (which they often were not), Aboriginal peoples were not economically or culturally prepared to understand the politics behind the treaties. They believed the treaties guaranteed them freedom to continue their traditional lifestyle while protecting their future. The two parties negotiating the early treaties rarely completely understood each other. For example, in some areas, Aboriginal peoples were under the impression that the land rights they were giving up meant they would share resources with the Euro-Canadians and allow the land to be farmed. When non-natives began digging below the surface to the rich mineral beds below, it was seen by the Aboriginal peoples as an unfulfilled promise of the treaties.



Alberta Treaties Overview, Part One
Summary: Find out what historians think treaties meant to the government and the Aboriginal peoples who negotiated them. Begin your study of treaty making here!  Listen



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