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Contemporary Views

1976 Medal Much of the discourse surrounding Treaty 6 today is about the original intent of the treaty, as understood by the First Nations leaders and the government representatives who were present at its negotiations and signing. What did they hope to gain for themselves and future generations by signing the parchment? How differently did the two signatory sides understand the treaty and its implications? Unable to venture back in time, we can never know the answers to these questions with absolute certainty. We can, however, research old documents, texts, and letters, or speak with Treaty 6 Elders, Aboriginal communities, individuals, organizations, and historians who hold information about the treaty. Through these avenues we may gain a better understanding of how to approach the treaty and its consequences in contemporary times.

Some believe that there cannot be a single, unanimous view of Treaty 6 because the individuals and communities affected by its signing come from different individual and historical backgrounds. In a 2002 paper titled Peace, Friendship, and Respect: Understanding Indigenous Treaties in Canada, the Assembly of First Nations reflected on the importance of understanding the different First Nations perspectives with which the treaties were approached:

‘People often wonder about the perspectives that guided First Nations in the making of treaties. This question is both difficult and easy to answer. It is difficult to articulate First Nations perspectives in treaty making because each Aboriginal people have their own specific history, traditions, challenges, opportunities, and circumstances in negotiating agreements with the Crown...’ 1

At the same time, it’s also vital to recognize the similarities between the experiences and viewpoints of treaty First Nations peoples so as to better approach treaty-related issues today. A number of organizations and councils have formed to unite Aboriginal peoples and give individuals and communities a stronger political voice in advocating for the recognition of the context underlying the Treaty 6 signing. Groups such as the Confederacy of Treaty 6 First Nations, the Office of the Treaty Commissioner, and the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) work hard to educate the public about the treaty and to advocate for treaty rights. In 2000, FSIN assisted with the publication of “Treaty Elders of Saskatchewan”, which presented the insights and knowledge of a number of Saskatchewan treaty Elders. The goal of the project was to gain a better understanding of the First Nations’ traditional and modern-day perspectives on the treaty; with the hope of offering new approaches to policies relating to treaties. A consistent view offered by the Elders was that Treaty 6 was seen to be a peace treaty by the First Nations leaders who agreed to sign it. The Elders agreed that the treaty was an important binding agreement that must be honoured, and that not only the written text of the treaty, but also the context in which the treaty was agreed, should be taken into consideration today. Elder George Cannepotato of Onion Lake First Nation states:

‘The Treaty Commissioner had come over to shake their hands, and the Commissioner offered to be related to them, and he wanted the rest of the White people to have a relationship with them… in our way, we made those commitments through and in the name of and in the force of the pipe stem. And it was the pipe stem that the chiefs had Alexander Morris hold, who came as the representative. That is our solemn way of doing promises.’ 2

The importance of the context and intent of the treaty signing is also explored in the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples:

‘The Commission has concluded that the treaties should be implemented to reflect their spirit and intent – not just their words, whether spoken or written. The languages of yesterday’s treaties reflects yesterday’s values…. If the relationship between Aboriginal and non-aboriginal people is ever to be set right, the underlying intentions of treaty promises – not the letter of outdated terms – must guide their present-day implementation.’ 3

Indian Affairs and Northern Canada recognizes in it’s Treaty Research Report (1985) that:

‘There is an obvious contrast between the literal meaning conveyed by the written words of the treaty text and that suggested by the context and spoken words of the treaty-making process. Quite apart from specific content, there is a marked difference in the emphasis given to the subjects treated. This difference in emphasis is a major cause of the disparity found in various interpretations of the treaty.’ 4

The written, documented text of the treaties continues to be defended and upheld as law, as it first was when the treaty was signed. The federal government abides by the notion that Treaty 6, along with all the numbered treaties, forms an important means of articulating and defining the ongoing relations between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples of Canada.

There is much still to be done before a more complete understanding can be reached between the two signatory parties of Treaty 6. Hopefully, continued dialogue between the Treaty 6 First Nations and the government will lead to better policy-making that will bring everyone one step closer to the future envisioned by the original treaty-makers.

1 Assembly of First Nations. Peace, Friendship, and Respect: Understanding Indigenous Treaties in Canada (Assembly of First Nations, 2002) 4.
2 Harold Cardinal and Walter Hildebrandt: Treaty Elders of Saskatchewan. (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2000), 42.
3 Canada. Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. People to People, Nation to Nation. (Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services Canada, 1996), 47.
4 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).

Assembly of First Nations. Peace, Friendship, and Respect: Understanding Indigenous Treaties in Canada. Assembly of First Nations, 2002.

Cardinal, Harold and Walter Hildebrandt. Treaty Elders of Saskatchewan. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2000.

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).

Canada. Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. People to People, Nation to Nation. Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services Canada, 1996.

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