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Perspectives: First Nations

“What we speak of and do now will last as long as the sun shines and the river runs, we are looking forward to our children’s children, for we are old and have but few days to live.”
— Mistahwasis, Fort Carlton (22 August 1876)1

“He that made us provides everything for our mode of living; I have seen this all along, it has brought me up and I am not tired of it, and for you, the white man, everything has been made for you, and now that you come and stand on this our earth, I do not understand...”
— Nus-was-oo-wah-tum (24 August, 1876)2

By the early 1870s, Canada’s Dominion was slowly advancing its hold westward. European newcomers had begun to settle in the valley of the Saskatchewan River, and missionary-run schools and settlements on the prairies were expanding. The growing European presence, along with the increasing numbers of Métis who had also moved into present-day central Alberta and Saskatchewan, was reflected in the dwindling bison populations. The First Nations of the area had already lost many of their people to European diseases like smallpox and influenza, and were now faced with the threat of starvation. The leaders were well aware that lifestyle changes were necessary, and anxious to protect their families and communities, they pressed for a treaty. They hoped that the government, under the authority of the “Great White Mother”, Queen Victoria, would officially set the terms under which their traditional land could be accessed by the settlers, and moreover, provide them with the help they needed to ensure the preservation of their communities.

The government’s promise of relief against starvation and sickness — which by this time had become a reality in many communities — deeply affected the chiefs’ decision. During the treaty negotiations, Commissioner Alexander Morris spoke confidently of the good that the treaty would bring. He referred to the First Nations as the “Red Children of the Great White Mother”, the Queen, and assured them that their people would be well cared for. Most First Nations leaders felt they were making the right decision, and Treaty 6 was signed in 1876 at Fort Carlton and Fort Pitt. In exchange for a number of special provisions, the First Nations had agreed to forevermore “cede, release, surrender, and yield up to the Government of the Dominion of Canada, for her Majesty the Queen and Her successors forever, all their rights, titles and privileges, whatsoever, to the lands”.

The names that appear on the Treaty 6 document signify an agreement between the two signatory parties. Yet debate about the treaty’s original intent has been ongoing since the treaty’s first signature was scrawled across its parchment. Many First Nations Elders and leaders argue that their forefathers agreed to the terms of the treaty without fully understanding its content and intentions; nor were they aware of how it would affect their lives and the lives of their descendants. In fact, many of the complex legal terms that make up the treaty had no Cree, Saulteaux, Nakoda, or Dene equivalent. The spoken explanation of the treaty given by the government representatives differed from what was written in the text. No record exists that “the commissioners attempted to explain a concept which was at the heart of the treaty” and that “loomed so largely in the treaty text”3 – the surrender of land.

To understand the debate surrounding land surrender, it must be noted that the First Nations did not believe that a group of people could own land. According to Professor Leroy Little Bear of the Blood Indian Tribe (in Treaty 7 territory), according to the Aboriginal worldview, “the land belongs to past generations, to the yet-to-be-born, and to the plants and animals.” Therefore, to gain true ownership of the land, the Crown would have to sign treaties with these entities too – an impossible feat. What’s more, many of the terms that made up the treaty simply did not exist in traditional Aboriginal value systems. “Aboriginal people … did not understand the legal language of the treaties and their own cultures and languages did not contain concepts like rights, surrender, and extinguishment.”4 Many believe that in signing the treaty, the chiefs were offering their peace, along with their willingness to share, not surrender, certain portions of the land they had traditionally occupied with the European government and settlers.

The treaty was also finalized and made official using a traditional Western process: a written contract. The traditional Aboriginal process, on the other hand, relied on an oral agreement which did not carry any weight as far as the government was concerned. Many argue that the chiefs and leaders who negotiated the treaty believed that the words that had been spoken prior to, and during, the treaty signing were significant and meaningful. They believed, as First Nations’ traditions had dictated for generations, that these words would be respected and honoured by the other parties concerned. The First Nations feel that their perspective has long been ignored by the government, and that understanding and acknowledging their viewpoint(s) could make all the difference in the way that Treaty 6 and its terms are approached in contemporary times.

1 Alexander Morris, The Treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba and the North-West Territories, including the Negotiations on which they were based, and other Information relating thereto, 1991, Fifth House Publishers, Saskatoon, (Originally published 1880), 213.
2 Ibid., 223
3 Indian Affairs and Northern Development Treaties and Historical Research Centre, “Interpreting Treaty Six,” Treaty Research Report: Treaty Six (1876), http://www.ainc-inac.gc.ca/pr/trts/hti/t6/int_e.html (accessed August 2006).
4 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, “Restructuring the Relationship,” Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Vol.2, http://www.ainc-inac.gc.ca/ch/rcap/sg/sgmm_e.html (accessed August 2006).
Morris, Alexander. The Treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba and the North-West Territories, including the Negotiations on which they were based, and other Information relating thereto (1880). Saskatoon: Fifth House Publishers, 1991.

Indian Affairs and Northern Development Treaties and Historical Research Centre. “Interpreting Treaty Six (1876).” Treaty Research Report. http://www.ainc-inac.gc.ca/pr/trts/hti/t6/int_e.html (accessed August 2006).

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