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Perspectives: Government

By the mid 1870s, Alexander Morris, Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba and the Northwest Territories, was well aware of the growing tension amongst the First Nations of central Alberta and Saskatchewan. He urged the government (under Alexander McKenzie, who had replaced John A. Macdonald in 1873) to begin treaty negotiations for the land in question; but the government, having decided in 1873 to make treaties only when absolutely necessary, was slow to respond.

The government’s delay in negotiating Treaty 6 did not hinder its expansion west. British Columbia had entered Confederation in 1871, and the government was confident that the Dominion’s power would soon spread from coast to coast. All that remained were the negotiations for the land originally occupied by the First Nations. Once it became clear that official agreements between the First Nations and the government were necessary for expansion, Treaties 1 through 5 were signed. The government continued with its expansion into the west for as long as they could without a treaty, despite regular news that the First Nations were anxious to sign one. A Geological Survey party was already mapping the area, and a telegraph crew had started the construction of telegraph lines across the land.

In 1875, anxious and frustrated at the lack of government response, a group of Crees stopped the Geological Survey along the North Saskatchewan River, challenging the surveyors’ right to proceed until a treaty had been negotiated. News that the First Nations were also threatening to stop the telegraph construction was confirmed by North West Mounted Police Commissioner, George Arthur French. Consequently, the government finally acquiesced, granting Morris permission to alert the First Nations of the area that a treaty would be signed the following summer.

The Treaty 6 negotiations, under Morris’ direction, proceeded relatively smoothly. Morris stressed the good that the treaty would bring, and verbally assured the First Nations that the government, on behalf of the Great White Mother, the Queen, would take good care of the people and provide for them in times of need. The ownership of the lands traditionally occupied by the First Nations was of primary concern to the government; but their imperial objectives were outlined only in the written document of the treaty. It was the written text and not the verbal promises made by Morris that held any significance as far as the government was concerned. Once the treaty was signed, according to the government’s legal standards, it was free to deal with the land however it wished (with the exception of the reserve lands which were to be set aside solely for the use of the First Nations.)

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