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“Treaty Indians”

treaty payments A “Treaty Indian” is defined as a person who is registered under the Indian Act and belongs to a First Nation or band that has signed a treaty with the government. As a “Treaty Indian”, a person has certain rights and restrictions which are set out in the terms of the particular treaty to which he or she belongs.

The provisions laid out in Treaty 6 were similar to those of the first five treaties. These included reserve land; hunting and fishing rights, education, yearly supplies of ammunition, twine, and farming equipment, annuity payments, and special supplies for each chief. However, Treaty 6 also contained an important new provision, commonly referred to as the medicine chest clause. This clause stated that “a medicine chest shall be kept at the house of each Indian Agent for the use and benefit of the Indians at the direction of such agent.” Today, this clause has been interpreted by some to mean that the government’s duty is to offer the highest standard of health care to all Treaty 6 members, though this clause continues to incite much debate.

By gaining the title of “Treaty Indian”, the men and women of the Treaty 6 area became entitled to the rights outlined within the terms of the treaty. At the same time, they were now faced with certain restrictions. Treaty Indians were confined to their newly-established reserves. Strict rules regarding treaty status and its loss were outlined in the Indian Act, which was created in 1876. Until Bill C-31 was passed in 1985, women had to renounce their treaty status if they married non-status men, as did those who enfranchised. From the government’s perspective, these laws served to prevent people who were no longer considered part of a Treaty 6 First Nation or band from receiving treaty benefits. However, they also angered many First Nations peoples who felt they were left with no choice but to identify with a government-imposed label in order to receive benefits that were rightfully theirs.

In 1969, the Canadian government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, released the Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian Policy, 1969. This document, commonly referred to as the White Paper, outlined the government’s plans to do away with treaty rights as designated in the treaties. The White Paper was framed as an attempt to grant equal rights to all citizens of Canada. For this to be achieved, the Department of Indian Affairs would slowly be dismantled, Indian status and the rights that came with it would be eliminated, and responsibility over Aboriginal affairs would be passed to provincial governments. The White Paper was met with outrage from Aboriginal communities across the country, who viewed the proposal as an attempt by the government to evade treaty obligations. In 1970, the Indian Association of Alberta, under the leadership of Harold Cardinal, presented an official rebuttal to the White Paper, titled Citizens Plus. The Red Paper, as it soon came to be known, argued for the importance of honouring treaty rights and maintained that the government was legally responsible to abide by them. In 1971, Trudeau officially withdrew the White Paper.

Today, the definition of a “Status Indian” is still strict enough to pose a threat to certain peoples who, despite having Aboriginal blood, may not qualify under the given rules. For example, children whose fathers are Aboriginal are considered non-Aboriginal by default if their paternity cannot be verified. In 1981, following the passing of Bill C-31, Aboriginal peoples who had lost their status through marriage or enfranchisement were presented with an offer for reinstatement of status. The response to the offer was overwhelmingly positive, demonstrating that Aboriginal Peoples are not willing to so easily part with their roots. The system for determining and granting status continues to be complicated by legal and monetary issues, but constant dialogue between the government and the First Nations People of Treaty 6 and beyond is leading the way for future understanding and cooperation.

Kainai Board of Education et al. Aboriginal Studies 20: Peoples and Cultural Change. Edmonton: Duval House Publishing, 2005.

Price, Richard T. Legacy: Indian Treaty Relationships. Edmonton: Plains Publishing, 1991.

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