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The Treaty Makers

Chief Big Bear of the Plains Cree trading at Fort Pitt When examining the lives and actions of those individuals who negotiated the terms of Treaty 6, three important groups emerge: the leaders of the First Nations, the Treaty Commissioners who represented the British Crown and the emerging Dominion of Canada, and the interpreters and intermediaries who tried, with varying degrees of success, to bridge the language and cultural gaps between the First Nations and the Treaty Commission.

By studying the roles of some of those who were present during the Treaty 6 negotiations, a picture emerges of two societies: one struggling to develop and one fighting to survive. The two societies were trying to shape the nature of their co-existence. After all the speeches were over and the ink had dried, it appears that neither side could have anticipated the powerful ramifications of the Treaty 6 signings.

The leaders of the First Nations each came to the negotiations with a different agenda to address the concerns of his people. While all the First Nations leaders could agree that something had to be done to deal with the rapid changes to their traditional lifestyles, they could not agree on exactly what course of action was required.

Although a multitude of wide ranging opinions existed among the chiefs, most recent written and oral history accounts seem to suggest that none of the chiefs had gone into the treaty negotiations intending to surrender their land to government interests.

Those who represented government interests at the Treaty 6 negotiations were under immense pressure to have the First Nations leaders agree to the treaty terms. The government policy of making treaties was to secure land for the railway, commercial development, and settlement as soon as possible. While there was some room for negotiation, the intent of the Commission was to convince the First Nations that the existing terms of the treaty.

Bridging the divide between the government and the First Nations were various interpreters and intermediaries. They were critical to the process, and they were burdened with the responsibility of enhancing understanding of the terms and positions of both sides. Some had active roles in the treaty process before the negotiations even began, urging First Nations leaders to seek a treaty with the Crown, and reporting on First Nations activities to the government. Others served mainly as interpreters, though whether the interpretive skills these men employed helped or hindered the understanding between the government and First Nations is the subject of much debate.

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††††††††††† For more on the making of treaty 6, visit Peelís Prairie Provinces.
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