Treaties - Overview
In 1871 the Canadian government began negotiating a series of agreements between itself and the First Nations of western and northern Canada. Between 1871 and 1921, eleven "numbered" treaties were signed covering most of the Prairie provinces, northern Ontario and parts of British Columbia, Yukon and the North West Territories. The major treaties affecting Alberta are Treaties 6, 7 and 8 - signed in 1876, 1877 and 1899 respectively.
In signing these treaties the Canadian government believed that it was securing transfer of lands from First Nations to the government. In exchange for giving up their aboriginal title to the land and other rights First Nations people would be compensated through initial cash payments and annuities, along with promises of reserves, educational and farm assistance and other benefits. First Nations leaders have consistently argued that these agreements were more than just real estate deals. Most see the treaties as solemn, even sacred, pacts that represent an agreement to share resources and to establish a framework whereby aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples could live together in the areas covered by treaties.
These agreements remain both vitally important and remarkably contentious. Until quite recently the Canadian government and the courts have tended to see treaties as conventional contracts, and interpreted them solely in terms of their written texts. First Nations people have argued equally strongly that the texts of the treaties are only part of the story. Many other issues were discussed and were agreed to verbally. In some cases what First Nations people understood by the treaties is not what the government and courts later claimed the text states. In many ways the on-going debate is over the true spirit and intent of these treaties rather than the specific details of their clauses.
At the same time as these treaties were signed, the Canadian government also tried to deal with the land and other rights of people of mixed aboriginal and Euro-Canadian backgrounds. In theory only people of exclusively aboriginal ancestry were supposed to be covered by treaties. People of mixed ancestry, the Métis, were offered something known as "scrip" instead. Scrip certificates entitled their owners to claim specified quantities of land. Later this was changed to allow scrip owners the option of either claiming land or cash to purchase land. Most scrip certificates soon wound up in the hands of land speculators instead, but the program did reflect, at least in part, a recognition by the Canadian government that the Métis had land rights too.