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Democracy workshop

Aboriginal Treaties By J.R. Miller, University of Saskatchewan

Such agreements were among the most impressive treaties found in Canadian history. The Great Peace of Montreal of 1701, for example, was a mammoth, intricate, and delicately constructed truce between the alliance system of the French and their First Nations allies on the one hand, and elements of the Iroquois Confederacy on the other. It brought an end to seven decades of on-and-off warfare between the Iroquois and the French and their allies, and affected relations in a vast region that stretched from the Atlantic to the eastern edge of the Prairies, and from the boreal forest of northeastern North America on the north to the southern colonies of the Thirteen Colonies. It is interesting that at the same time the Iroquois normalized relations with the French through the Great Peace they simultaneously reassured their British allies by a treaty separately negotiated with them the same year.

From the 1760s onward the era of treaties of peace and friendship gave way to the period of territorial treaties. The turning point was the end of the Seven Years' War and the Royal Proclamation of 1763, by which Britain sought to create boundaries and institutions of law and government for the colonies it had acquired from France by the war. Britain recognized that France's former First Nations allies would be uneasy at the departure of their French partners, and London knew that the thing that made First Nations most suspicious of British colonies was their tendency to expand agricultural settlement into Indian Country. Therefore, Britain regulated access to First Nations lands by recognizing that First Nations who associated with Britain had some form of territorial rights, and prohibiting anyone but the Crown and its representatives from negotiating with First Nations for their land. The Proclamation declared that only the Crown could negotiate for access to First Nations' lands, and its representatives had to do so at public meetings called for that purpose. Britain was attempting to prevent fraudulent taking of land. The result was to lay down a procedure for making territorial treaties.

The formula for land-related treaty-making was refined in the century between the Proclamation and Confederation in 1867 in the future Ontario. Crown representatives negotiated a series of treaties with the Mississauga between 1784 and 1811 that granted access to lands along the St. Lawrence River and lower Great Lakes in return for one-time payments in goods. Between 1818 and 1862 another set of land treaties secured peaceful access to lands further back from the major waterways, north and northeast of Lakes Huron and Superior, and on Manitoulin Island in return for annual payments, or annuities, to First Nations. As a result of this lengthy experience in Ontario, treaty-making according to the Royal Proclamation's requirements became routine prior to Confederation.

There were exceptions to this pattern of territorial treaty-making. Neither in Atlantic Canada nor southern Quebec, where the older tradition of peace and friendship treaties was established, did newcomers consider it necessary to negotiate territorial treaties. In the vast Hudson's Bay Company lands known as Rupert's Land there also was little need to negotiate land treaties because the Royal Proclamation said that it did not apply to HBC lands. Nonetheless, because of armed conflict between British settlers and local Métis who resented the new settlers' interference with their buffalo hunt in 1816, in 1817 the sponsor of the new settlement, Lord Selkirk, had a treaty covering the region around present-day Winnipeg negotiated. The other area where limited territorial treaty-making occurred prior to 1867 was on Vancouver Island. There the HBC's governor, James Douglas, negotiated fourteen small treaties with local Coast Salish groups for one-time payments to speed settlement. The rest of British North America remained uncovered by land-related treaties.

Since one purpose of creating Confederation was to add the West to the new Dominion of Canada to satisfy Ontario's ambitions, it is not surprising that one of the earliest projects of the new federal government was western treaties. Increasing the pressure to make treaties in the West was the successful Métis resistance to Canadian authority in 1869-70 and Canada's knowledge that the prairies were peopled by thousands of armed and mounted First Nations with warlike reputations. Not surprisingly, then, Canada negotiated seven territorial treaties known as Numbered Treaties between 1871 and 1877 that covered the region from northwestern Ontario to the foothills of the Rockies and from the international boundary to a line roughly halfway up the prairie provinces. In return for access to Cree, Assiniboine, Dakota, Saulteaux, and Blackfoot lands, Canada agreed to pay annuities, create reserves where First Nations might develop agriculture, recognize hunting and fishing rights, and solely in Treaty 6 to provide "a medicine chest" and food aid in the event of epidemic disease or famine.

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