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Treaty 6 map, N.W.T. The establishment of reserves within the Treaty 6 area was a direct result of the signing of the treaty. Among other provisions, the terms of the treaty stated that in exchange for giving up their rights to the land and resources of central Alberta and Saskatchewan, the Treaty 6 First Nations would live on specific portions of land, known as reserves. The reserves would be owned by the Crown, but would be set aside for the First Nations’ use.

From the government’s point of view, the conception of reserves stemmed from the same ideology that led to the signing of the treaties themselves: the government was anxious to expand west. The First Nations that had traditionally occupied the area stood in the way of this expansion, and it became clear that a treaty would have to be signed in order to gain access to the desired land. By gathering the Cree, Saulteaux, Nakoda and Chipewyan peoples of the area and sequestering them on reserves, the government could designate the rest of the land for roadways, railways, and settlement.

With rapidly-growing settlement encroaching on their traditional lands, the Aboriginal peoples of Treaty 6 were forced to make a number of sudden changes to their lifestyles. A smallpox epidemic had already wiped out a large portion of the population, and the bison herds that had once fed and sheltered them were now depleted. The government was offering food rations and annuities, and there remained few options but to reluctantly sign the treaty.

Bands suddenly found themselves isolated on reserves. Their actions were accountable to representatives of the Department of Indian Affairs and regulations were strictly enforced by Indian Agents, who restricted individuals from travelling off their reserves. The ease of government administration preceded the creation of culturally appropriate boundaries. Groups that traditionally hunted or travelled together were separated and placed on reserves with other, less familiar groups. The move to permanent, settled communities was one of the hardest undertakings for the First Nations. For thousands of years, the First Peoples of the prairies had lived a nomadic, hunting and gathering lifestyle, following the bison herds across the plains. The buffalo population was now exhausted and the First Nations were restricted to a few square miles where they were now forced to pursue an unfamiliar agricultural lifestyle. Even after they had learned the proper procedures for farming, the First Nations often found the reserve land to be of poor quality – the government had taken the land with the best soil.

Today, the attitudes and feelings toward the initial establishment of the reserves are mixed. Some believe the intentions behind the reserves were good, but that their execution was poor due to the government’s haste to expand westwards. Others take a less forgiving approach, convinced that while the reserve system was meant to protect traditional Aboriginal lifestyles, in reality, it has served as yet another agent for cultural erosion. The reserves often lack the resources (such as rich soil, animal populations, and fossil fuels) necessary to successfully sustain the people living on them, and communities have been left with little room for development or economic growth. As a result, many continue to look to the government for support. The reserves that do bring in revenue must release it to the Minister of Indian Affairs for approval. These contentious issues have played an important role in the lives of the Treaty 6 First Nations for more than a century.

Aboriginal Canada Portal. “First Nations Communities in Alberta.” Provincial and Territorial Information. http://www.aboriginalcanada.gc.ca/acp/community/site.nsf/en/ab-fn-b.html (accessed July 2006).

Aboriginal Canada Portal. “First Nations Communities in Saskatchewan.” Provincial and Territorial Information. http://www.aboriginalcanada.gc.ca/acp/community/site.nsf/en/sk-fn-b.html (accessed July 2006).

Berry, Susan, and Jack Brink. Aboriginal Cultures in Alberta: Five Hundred Generations. Edmonton: Provincial Museum of Alberta, 2004.

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

Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. “Appendix 3.” Communications Strategy. http://www.ainc-inac.gc.ca/pr/pub/atr/atr21_e.html (accessed July 2006).

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