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The People of Treaty 6

“We heard our lands were sold and we did not like it; we don’t want to sell our lands; it is our property, and no one has a right to sell them...”
- Sweet Grass, Plains Cree Chief

Saskatchewan River region, 1876. The First Nations of the Saskatchewan River region had been concerned about the objectives of the Dominion of Canada since it had taken sovereignty of the Northwest Territories from the Hudson's Bay Company during Confederation. The Queen’s presence was elusive and the Hudson’s Bay Company remained the only tangible form of authority in the area; causing great confusion and anxiety as unprecedented changes swept across the prairies.

In the south, American bison-hide traders were slaughtering the bison in large numbers, meaning fewer were migrating north each spring. The raw material used by the Aboriginal peoples for their food, clothing, and shelter, was fast running out. Apart from their concerns about the diminishing supply of bison, they also feared intrusion upon their land. Métis and white settlers had settled in the Saskatchewan River valley to hunt, putting added pressure on the bison population.

When governance of the Hudson's Bay Company’s territory was taken over by the Dominion in 1867, the fur trade was gradually coming to an end. American whiskey traders established forts on Aboriginal territory and introduced liquor to the Aboriginal people. The effects were destructive, resulting in social breakdown and disunity within and between the First Nations peoples. Liquor was used by unscrupulous traders as a means of manipulation, and many outbreaks of violence occurred between traders and First Nation bands because of it. The Aboriginal peoples of Canada were very aware of the violence in the United States against the First Nations there, especially the Dakota and Lakota Nations, who had been devastated in the brutal Indian Wars.

Then, in 1870, smallpox swept across the plains, devastating the Aboriginal population as an earlier epidemic had done in 1837. Thousands had died, and as a result the First Nations of the Saskatchewan River region felt particularly vulnerable.

In pursuit of Big Bear's Cree In 1871, Sweet Grass and the other Cree chiefs from the territory between Fort Edmonton and Fort Carlton paid a visit to W.J. Christie, the officer in charge of the Saskatchewan District for the Hudson's Bay Company. They voiced their concerns both about the prospect of starvation as the bison herds dwindled, and the devastating effects of smallpox, which they knew had originated with the Europeans. Following their conference, Christie wrote to the government recommending that troops be sent to negotiate treaties with the First Nations as soon as possible.

The people of the Saskatchewan River region expected a treaty with the Crown as early as the following summer. Immediately after assuming office as Lieutenant-Governor of the Northwest Territories in December of 1872, Alexander Morris urged the government to make a western treaty. Although Morris continued to press for a treaty, the government continued to move slowly. The First Nations, eager to negotiate and anxious for their survival, doubted whether the Queen's government would take action before it was too late.

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