Fort Chipewyan, Lake Athabasca, Alberta, Sir George Back (1796-1878), ca. 1832
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Since Confederation in 1867, the Canadian government had pursued a policy of recognizing Native land claims only when the lands they occupied were required for settlement or development. The Athabasca region in Canada's northwestern interior was no exception. For more than two centuries, British and Canadian parties had explored the region and carefully inventoried its natural resources. Such was their diligence that, by the late 1880s, the federal government was well aware of the extent of the tar sands and was calling the petroleum field "inexhaustible" and "the most extensive ... in America, if not the world."
Reports of destitute Natives in the northwest were circulating around Ottawa for more than 20 years following Confederation. However, federal authorities only began to show an interest in settling the land claims of Athabasca's First Nations and Métis in the late 1890s. The government's change of heart coincided with the discovery of gold in the Yukon.