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The Treaties and Reserves

The treaties and allocations of scrip cleared the way for further settlement - at least in the eyes of the government of Canada at the time - but relations between the in-coming and the long-standing residents of the west could be quite complex. First Nations groups reacted very differently to the allocation of land for reserves. Some moved to these reserves and made concerted efforts to adjust to the new circumstances. Others resisted selecting reserves and worried about what settling on these reserves would mean for their traditional way of life. Some tried to maintain their way of life based on hunting and fishing and trading, while other groups had some success with farming and raising livestock.

Portrait of Crowfoot, the Blackfoot chief in 1885. The 1870s and 1880s were a wrenching period of change for First Nations communities, not made any easier by some questionable government policies on education, agriculture, and cultural and spiritual expression. In addition, the disappearance of the buffalo herds, changes of the old fur trade economy, and a host of other issues made this a very difficult period for most First Nations. Some leaders, such as Crowfoot and Red Crow, had some idea of what was coming, because they had travelled to eastern Canada and had seen the cities developing there. Most First Nations leaders, however, could only have known that things were changing rapidly and in very unpredictable ways.

Most reserves were established at some distance from new settlements, and the development of the pass system after 1885 deliberately limited the mobility of reserve residents. As a result, most First Nations people had limited contact with the new settlers heading west to take up land. Government policy, missionary activity, and the social and political ideas of the period reinforced this isolation, but surviving evidence in diaries, newspapers, and published books all suggest that First Nations people often went out of their way to assist new settlers. As the numbers of new settlers increased in the late 1880s and especially in the 1890s, relations began to change. As demand for land grew, there was pressure to surrender and sell off reserve land, to limit hay cutting and other rights, and limit First Nations participation in commercial farming ventures in favor of subsistence agriculture.

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            For more on the history of settlement in Alberta, visit Peel’s Prairie Provinces.