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Life After Treaty 6

For a time, Treaty 6 laid to rest some of the uneasiness of the First Nations in the Saskatchewan River region. The days immediately following the signing of Treaty 6 were filled with hope and excitement. With their first treaty payments in hand, many of the First Nations people encountered the concept of money for the first time. During the post-Treaty celebrations, the people rejoiced in being together, hoping that their participation in the treaty process would ensure a safe and viable future for their children.

However, all would not be well for long. With the bison virtually gone, the people of Treaty 6 settled on reserves to begin a new agricultural life, farming. But their first winter after the Treaty was a difficult one; the crops were so badly frozen that collecting seed for the following year was impossible. Some people starved, and despite what was promised in the treaty, the government failed to provide adequate famine assistance. The push for assimilation by the government was not easy for the First Nations. Aboriginal children were removed from their homes and sent to residential schools. The push to adopt Christianity as the only true faith caused rifts among many First Nations families. Churchgoing proved to be difficult for many, who struggled with the idea that their traditional beliefs were not only incorrect, but sinful. “I think,” wrote Reverend John Hines on Star Blanket’s reserve, “they go [to Church] because of the food.”

Without the promised government relief, many people became displeased with the treaty they had signed. Big Bear became a leading spokesperson for the needs of the First Nations. The government had already decided not to spend any more money beyond the $71,217.461 already spent on the treaty negotiations. It resolved to maintain a hard line policy, believing that the voters in Ontario and Quebec would not tolerate increased expenditures in the Northwest Territories. Consequently, the new Lieutenant-Governor David Laird, did not have the power to negotiate any further relief for the First Nations in the Northwest Territories. Frustrated, Big Bear terminated discussions.

The government and the Canadian public grew anxious about First Nations people like Big Bear, who had yet to sign a treaty and continued to roam the prairies, searching for bison. Events south of the border in the United States, added to the tension in the Saskatchewan River region. Since the victory of Sitting Bull (Tatanka Iyotanka)’s men at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana in 1876, there remained the possibility of a similar resistance in the Northwest. At the settlement at Battleford in present-day Saskatchewan, it was rumoured that the First Nations across the plains might resort to violence at any time.

1 CHC, Sessional Papers, 1876 (no. 10), Annual Report of the Department of the Interior, p. 154.
Christensen, Deanna. Ahtahkakoop: The Epic Account of a Plains Cree Head Chief, His People, and Their Struggle for Survival, 1816-1896. Shell Lake: Ahtahkakoop Publishing, 2000.
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