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Setting and Context

“…so long promised they can no longer rely on promises only…”
- Major-General Selby Smyth, commander of the Canadian Militia

Meeting with General Middleton In 1874, the Canada-United States Boundary Commission survey party was working its way west along the Canadian border. While treaty had already been made in the southern portion of the Saskatchewan region, the Aboriginal peoples to the north and west had not yet been approached. By the summer of 1875, both a Geological Survey of Canada party and a telegraph construction crew were working just outside the established treaty lands.

These events disturbed the already discontented First Nations of the region. The government had been notified of the situation, but had decided in the summer of 1873 to make treaties only as the land was required for settlement. It did no more that summer than give a general promise to the peoples of the Saskatchewan River that as expansion continued, their rights would be respected.

The bands were less than satisfied by this assurance. This is evident from a report found in the papers of the Minister of the Interior at the time, David Laird. Dated 1874, it was passed to Laird by Manitoba’s Lieutenant-Governor Alexander Morris, and warned that the Cree were getting restless as the fur traders told them each year that a treaty would be made. According to the report, the Cree had stopped expecting intervention from the Crown, and were concerned that settlers would come and occupy their land without a treaty. The report stated that sending surveying parties like the Geological Survey onto non-treaty lands was doing a great deal of harm. "There will certainly be trouble with the Plain Crees if word is not sent early to inform them of treaties to be made with them in the coming summer," it read.

Disregarding the warnings they received, the government did not alter its decision to proceed slowly with the treaties. The Alexander Mackenzie Ministry, which replaced Sir John A. Macdonald's in late 1873, maintained the same policy after it had assumed office, stopping treaty-making short of the Saskatchewan River region.

Then, in July of 1875, the Cree stopped the Geological Survey at the elbow of the North Saskatchewan River. Alexander Morris wrote to David Laird of the Cree’s decision that until a treaty had been made, the government had no right to send any expeditions. Morris recommended sending the Reverend George McDougall, a Methodist missionary who had lived among the prairie Aboriginals, to visit them and promise a treaty the following year. Morris supported the recommendation of Lawrence Clarke, the official in charge of the Hudson's Bay Company's post at Fort Carlton, who told him that the First Nations had threatened to turn back the telegraph construction crew.

Commissioner George Arthur French of the North West Mounted Police, accompanied by fifty policemen, confirmed that the First Nations had, indeed, stopped construction of the telegraph line. French expressed his helplessness in seeing the telegraph line pushed through by physical force and stated that "the only moral force that could be brought to bear would be an assurance that the Government proposed having a treaty with the Cree at some definite period."

After much telegraphing with Laird, Morris finally got permission to send Reverend McDougall to the Cree of the Saskatchewan River country to promise a treaty with them for the following summer.

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