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by Jeffrey S. Murray, Government Archives and Records Disposition
"Red Brothers! we have come here today, sent by the Great Mother to treat with you," announced Commissioner David Laird to the nearly 2,000 Indians and Métis assembled near present-day Grouard on the shores of Lesser Slave Lake. Laird and his entourage of Mounted Police, secretaries, accountants, missionaries, packers, cooks and interpreters 26 in all had just spent 21 days on a gruelling 300-mile trek through the District of Athabasca in the heart of Canadas northwestern interior. Now, sitting under a canvas awning at a make-shift desk, the 66-year-old Laird was about to begin the negotiations which would eventually culminate in the signing of Treaty 8. It would be the largest land settlement undertaken in the nineteenth century by the Canadian government and First Nations. Unrolling a large document with exquisite handwriting, he pointed to the great red seal and continued: "This is the paper she has given to us, and is her Commission to us signed with her Seal, to show we have authority to treat with you."1
Lairds arrival at Lesser Slave Lake on June 19, 1899, was initially hailed as part of a plan by the Canadian government to develop the economic potential of the Athabasca region and bind it to the rest of Canada. This view portrayed the "original owners of the soil"2 as the passive recipients of a benevolent government intent on pursuing " that humane and generous policy which has always characterized the Dominion in its dealings with aboriginal inhabitants."3 In keeping with this self-congratulatory manner, the deputy minister was equally quick to eulogize Treaty 8 as a noble attempt, on the part of the government, to lay " the foundation for permanent, friendly and profitable relations between the races."4 The reality behind the governments rhetoric, however, was much different.
When treaties with the First Nations of the prairies were first signed in the 1870s, the Canadian government knew little about the more northern and remote Athabasca district and even less about the First Nations in the area. The following two decades, however, changed this imbalance considerably as government scientists probed and plotted their way through the region in search of its many secrets. By the late-1880s, the "inexhaustible" Athabasca tar sands were already well known, and at least one government report was calling it " the most extensive petroleum field in America, if not the world."5 It was predicted that the petroleum reserves in the sands under Athabasca would rank " among the chief assets comprised in the Crown Domain of the Dominion. "6 Rich deposits of silver, copper, iron, asphaltum and other minerals of economic value were also identified and were expected " to add materially to the public wealth."7
Not unexpectedly, the obvious richness of "Canadas Great Reserve" as it was optimistically labelled by one shrewd and outspoken exponent of western expansionism, John Schultz was never clearly articulated to the First Nations of the area. If anything, throughout the last half of the nineteenth century, most Native communities in the Athabasca district faced lives which were the antithesis of the great fortunes which promoters envisioned for the vast northwestern interior. The wildlife resources, on which their traditional hunting and trapping existence was so utterly dependent, were becoming increasingly unreliable and as a result, frequent periods of extended poverty and starvation were experienced.
Missionaries, traders and Native leaders themselves first communicated these problems to federal officials almost immediately after the surrender of Ruperts Land by the Hudsons Bay Company in 1870. "People who can trap furs and work are not too badly off, but many cannot work and really suffer. For such people we have to plead with you ," reads one letter received by the Department of Indians Affairs.8 It was written in syllabics by two Native leaders at Isle à la Crosse on the eastern fringe of the Athabasca district. The Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Lawrence Vankoughnet, was well aware of Native destitution and on more than one occasion brought it to the attention of the prime minister, as in late 1883 when he wrote " [the Athabasca First Nations] are most anxious to enter into Treaty relations with the Government as their condition at many points is very wretched."9
Other than an occasional donation of twine and fish hooks, the government held firmly to its position that, until a treaty was signed, the First Nations were the responsibility of the Hudsons Bay Company. But whenever the government was asked to begin treaty negotiations, the official response, as articulated by Prime Minister Macdonald himself, was to postpone the process " until there is a likelihood of the country being requested for settlement purposes."10
- Charles Mair, Through the Mackenzie Basin, a Narrative of the Athabasca and Peace River Treaty Expedition of 1899, Toronto: William Briggs, 1908, p. 56
- 7 Order in Council, PC 52, January 26, 1891
- Samuel Egon and Michel Deneyou to John A. Macdonald, July 28, 1883, RG 10, vol. 4006, file 241, 209-1