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First Nations and Métis

The Métis, European and First Nations inhabitants of the old North West faced significant changes when the government of the newly created country of Canada acquired this territory in 1869-1870. Residents of the Red River settlement around the forks of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers resisted this takeover, and forced the government of Canada to create a new province, Manitoba, and a government for the remaining lands, which were called the Northwest Territories.

Cree Man standing in front of Red River Cart The government of Canada and the newly created governments for Manitoba and the Northwest Territories were interested in encouraging settlement of the new lands, but some issues first needed to be resolved. In the Red River settlement, around what would become Winnipeg, Lord Selkirk acquired a kind of title to the land through a land grant from the Hudson’s Bay Company and a treaty with Chief Peguis and the Saulteaux/Ojibwa. Elsewhere, however, treaties were needed before settlement could take place. The Red River resistance had also raised the issue of the Métis interest in the land, and the legislation creating the new province of Manitoba specifically stated that land should be set aside for the Métis and their children. 

The Signing of Treaties
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, 11 "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. 

Treaty payment at Fort Chipewyan, NWT. 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. Many First Nations leaders have consistently argued that these agreements are solemn, even sacred, pacts that represent an agreement to share resources and establish a framework whereby aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples can live together in the areas covered by treaties. 

These agreements remain vitally important and remarkably contentious. Until quite recently the Canadian government and the courts have tended to view the treaties as conventional contracts, and interpreted them solely in terms of their written texts. First Nations people have argued strongly that the texts of the treaties are only part of the story, as many other issues were discussed and 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.

The Issuance of Scrip
Scrip Commission talking to group of Métis at Dunvegan, Alberta. At the same time as the treaties were signed, the Canadian government tried to deal with the land and 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. While most scrip certificates wound up in the hands of land speculators, the program did reflect, at least in part, a recognition by the Canadian government that the Métis had land rights too. 
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