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This policy of no-treaty-no-help was not without its critics. " [O]wing to the scarcity of food animals, and the comparative failure of the fisheries," reported Chief Factor Roderick MacFarlane of the Hudsons Bay Company, "numbers of Indians will doubtless suffer many privations betwixt [now] and Spring." Writing to the Lieutenant-Governor of the Northwest Territories, MacFarlane went on to describe the help his company extended to the destitute and chastised the government for its lack of commitment, "we have already extended a lot of fish and potatoes on them; in short, but for the assistance thus annually rendered to starving Indians, throughout the North, many of them would assuredly perish I am really unaware of anything that has yet been accomplished by our rulers since the territorywas transferred to Canada."11
Interestingly, the government did not allow the lack of a treaty to curtail its own economic pursuits in the region. Although title to the land was not officially in the Crowns hands, federal representatives behaved as if the region was on equal status to any other part of Canada. For example, the government continued to send its scientists to inventory the countrys resources, and by the early 1890s, it had even begun exploratory drilling for oil at Pelican River and Athabasca Landing.
Just as it had done on the prairies, the federal government also introduced a police force to the region well in advance of settlement. This move was justified by Ottawa on the pretext of keeping law and order between the First Nations and the intrusive white minority. But it also gave the government an opportunity to begin setting up the first vestiges of a federal administration. More importantly, it provided the beginnings of a network by which Ottawa could collect its own information on Native communities without having to rely on traders and missionaries.
Perhaps the governments cavalier attitude towards the concerns of Athabascas Native communities was no more clearly demonstrated than when it unilaterally passed the North-West Game Act.12 When the Act came into effect on January 1, 1896, it placed severe restrictions on the hunting of most large mammals, the main staple of the Native food supply. In the face of such misery and starvation, the governments intent was clearly misplaced. When questions regarding the legitimacy of the Act were brought forward, they were quickly dismissed by federal officials as irrelevant. "As to the legal right of the Government in prohibiting the Indians and Half-breeds catching fish out of season, [I believe] they have every right to do this," wrote one arrogant member of Parliament to Roderick MacFarlanes suggestion that the Act was illegal. " [T]here is no necessity for the government to make Treaty with Indians," continued the member; " the treaties made have been merely to bring about a peaceful, happy and speedy conclusion of the entry of whites into lands formerly occupied by Indians [T]he whole Northwest of Canada belongs to Her Majesty, it is her property, and she has absolute rights to do whatever she wishes ."13
While news of poverty and starvation failed to move the government into reassessing its position in regard to an Athabasca treaty, events unfolding elsewhere on the continent were soon to overtake Ottawas agenda and force federal bureaucrats into conceding that a treaty was finally warranted. Among these external events, the Klondike gold rush was the most significant.
The discovery of gold on a tributary of the Klondike River in 1896 saw an unprecedented number of adventurers enter Athabasca district enroute from Edmonton to Dawson City. An estimated 2,000 stampeders are thought to have set out over the "all-Canadian" route over the fall and winter of 1897-1898, all of whom were required to follow the regions waterways. Their numbers threatened the already precarious existence of the First Nations to such an extent that by June 1898 some 500 Indians had blockaded the Edmonton-Dawson trail at Fort St. John. They claimed that the stampeders were stealing their horses and scaring away game. The blockaders refused to reopen the trail until their demands for a treaty were met.
With the 1885 Batoche Rebellion still a vivid memory, and threat of closure of the lucrative Klondike trade out of Edmonton, the government acted promptly. By early July, the private secretary to the superintendent general of Indian Affairs was able to report that the Minister, Clifford Sifton, was "quite convinced that it will be necessary to take immediate steps to assure the Indians that the Government has no intention of ignoring their rights and has already arranged for the making of a treaty next summer."14
In the final analysis, the welfare of the First Nations of the Athabasca district was not paramount to the governments decision to begin treaty negotiations. When all the signatures to Treaty 8 and its adhesions were finally collected by Laird and his party, the area ceded amounted to some 325,000 square miles and encompassed much of what is now the northern half of Alberta, the northeastern quarter of British Columbia, the northwestern corner of Saskatchewan and the area south of Hay River and Great Slave Lake in present-day Northwest Territories. The final treaty did not include Isle à la Crosse from which there had been many reports of destitution. The Native residents in that area would have to wait another six years for the Treaty 10 Commission. Treaty 8 did, however, incorporate all of Athabascas areas of known mineral wealth and agricultural value.
No doubt with 1999 marking the 100th anniversary of the signing of Treaty 8, there will be a renewed interest in not only the events leading up to Lairds historic meeting on the south shore of Lesser Slave Lake, but also the governments administration of the treaty once it was in place. In honour of Treaty 8s centennial, a number of key records, including the treaty itself, will be highlighted in an exhibition at the National Archives of Canada. Entitled Treaty 8: 1899-1999, the exhibition will feature an assortment of archival media textual records, photographs, audio-visual records, maps, posters, medals, etc. and will demonstrate the variety and vastness of documents on Canadas Native communities available to the public.