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Treaties: Our Nation to Nation Partnerships
Author: Dr. Tricia Logan
Revised June 2020
Treaty making processes are sacred, legal and ceremonial events that involve many, but not all First Nations and Indigenous communities across Canada. Treaties in Canada have been signed before Confederation (1867), after Confederation and in the modern era, including treaties signed since 1975. From a First Nations perspective, treaty making involves sacred ceremonies and a tripartite deal between the First Nation, the colonial representative and the Creator. Treaties did not “surrender or cede land”; they are considered sacred agreements between Nations, which covered more than just a transfer of territory. They are living documents that continue to influence legal struggles and decisions over Indigenous rights and land today.
Various First Nations communities across Turtle Island (North America) had and continue to have existing traditions and laws that govern land rights and what would be considered “human rights” in European law. Ceremonies often include Wampum Belts, pipe ceremonies or an exchange of gifts. A Wampum Belt is typically made from round clam shells formed into beads and woven with threads; it is a symbol of peace and often signaled an invitation or the beginning of a meeting between nations. Knowledge of these ceremonies and agreements are passed on through several generations, so records of these laws are used today in First Nations communities through oral histories. They date back to times before the earliest contact with Europeans.
It is important to remember that Indigenous nations view land differently from European philosophies. Those beliefs of private property and land ownership did not translate well into Indigenous languages or worldviews. Treaty making did not consider how First Nations established their relationships to the land, as well as how sacred that relationship is.
Royal Proclamation of 1763
The Royal Proclamation of 1763 was issued by King George III of England and granted “ownership” of North America to Britain. It is still broadly considered an important document that represents the historic relationship between Indigenous peoples and Europeans in Canada. The document states clearly that the title Indigenous people have to the land has always existed and continues to exist after the Proclamation. It is also referenced in section 25 of the Constitution Act of 1982. This provision dictates that nothing in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms diminishes Aboriginal peoples’ rights as expressed in the Royal Proclamation. The reference to the Proclamation in the Constitution Act ensures that its interpretation will remain an important part of any attempt to clarify Aboriginal rights in Canadian law.
It is a myth that all treaties look the same and also that all the First Nations that signed treaties are similar. The 11 numbered treaties (1870-1921) are often what we refer to when we consider that “We are all Treaty People,” but there are treaties that pre-date the numbered treaty era. Here are some of them:
1725-1779 Atlantic Peace and Friendship Treaties
Focused on settling peace and trade relationships, treaties were signed between the Maliseet, Mi’kmaq and other First Nations, and the British in territories covering Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, the Gaspé region of Québec and Nova Scotia. The treaties were necessary for both the British and Indigenous people because the Indigenous groups had primarily been aligned with French settlers. The transfer of territory to Britain led to violence between 1725-1779, which was often directed at Indigenous groups in the region. First Nations did not surrender any land or rights to the British during these Atlantic treaty-making processes; they sought peace and safety in their territories. Peace and Friendship Treaties in the Maritime Provinces still provide context and a legal basis for Indigenous rights to land, hunting and fishing.
Manitoba Act (1870)
Métis in Manitoba and western Canadian provinces often consider the agreements made with Canada in the creation of the Province of Manitoba as the first treaty signed with Indigenous peoples in the West. The creation of Manitoba in 1870 pre-dated the signing of Treaty #1 in 1871. Métis citizens led by Louis Riel and a prominent Métis council in 1870 fought to preserve Métis rights to education, language and land in the province of Manitoba. Métis were granted land through certificates called “scrip.” The scrip process was unlawfully administered, and like other land agreements signed with Indigenous nations across Canada, the agreements were not addressed fairly for the Métis. Land was quite often sold to land surveyors for a fraction of the value or was simply taken from Métis using dishonest methods of land transfer. Métis fought the government of Canada until 2013 for adequate compensation promised to them in the original Manitoba Act and the distribution of scrip.
Today, at public events, talks or sporting events, when we acknowledge that we are on Treaty territory and where applicable, the Homeland of the Métis, we recognize these early agreements like the Manitoba Act and the creation of the Métis Settlements of Alberta (1935).
Numbered Treaties (1871-1921)
Treaties are not a fixed description of the promises made or the promises broken. They are relevant, living documents and no two treaties contain the same agreements. Treaties numbered 1 to 11 were signed between 1871 and 1921 and cover areas in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, Northern British Columbia, and portions of the Northwest Territories and the Yukon.
After the devastating loss of buffalo and their existing economic systems, many First Nations were provided few options to protect their lands, economies and communities during this period of colonization. The first six treaties pre-date the introduction of the Indian Act and many First Nations in Treaty 1-6 territories consider the agreements in the treaties to be the original terms of their agreements with Canada, before the Indian Act further constrained their rights and movements. The numbered treaties included provisions for land ‘ownership,’ control over goods and education on reserves, agricultural equipment, hunting and fishing, and treaty payments. The unmet expectations and broken promises that followed these treaties are notorious in Canadian history. The legislation has been amended many times, including “over twenty major changes” by 2002.
It is true that treaties requested and promised education on reserves. However, what was promised and what was delivered as education did not meet agreements or expectations. The level of neglect, abuse, death and aggressive assimilation provided in residential schools was not agreed upon in treaties.
Modern-Day Treaties (1975-present)
The Government of Canada currently recognizes 24 modern-era post-Confederation treaties that are not included in the original post-1867 numbered treaties. These modern treaties are also often referred to as ‘comprehensive land claim agreements.’ Negotiations started in the early 1970s to provide access and protection to lands and rights that were not covered in any previous agreements. These modern comprehensive claims and negotiations are also protected by the constitution, continue to seek an end to ambiguous language in original agreements, and include provisions for recognizing self-governance.
These comprehensive land claim agreements include areas in Quebec, Nunavut, the Yukon, Alberta, Labrador, and British Columbia, but there are still a number of unsettled land claims. Between 2016 and 2018, 48 different types of agreements were signed between the Crown and Indigenous peoples. Signing an agreement, however, does not necessarily lead to the government changing its behaviour. For example, when the Métis were declared to be “Indians” by the Supreme Court in 2016, no remedial action was attached; the door was simply now open for Métis rights and land claims. In 2020, four First Nations wanted to temporarily stop additional outside workers from arriving to build a dam on the Reserve, due to fear of infection from COVID-19. Instead of recognizing the rights of the First Nations on their land, the government went to court to stop the blockade. The dispute was soon settled out of court.
Today, it is agreed and understood that treaties provide the foundation for a nation-to-nation partnership. First Nations, Métis and Inuit have spent centuries fighting for their right to be seen as nations. Acknowledging that “We are all Treaty People” existing in nation-to-nation partnerships supports Indigenous sovereignty and encourages decolonization. It is important to recognize that non-Indigenous settlers and newcomers benefit from living on the land shared with Indigenous peoples.
Another misconception is that treaties are only historical documents.
Treaties, while sometimes written over 100 to 200 years ago, are living partnerships and relevant documents today. Canadians are asked to learn about treaties and engage with Indigenous communities, embracing “We are all Treaty People” in an effort to better understand the partnership we have on shared land. Treaties represent promises made to Indigenous Nations that, in many cases, are simply not kept.
Who is an Indigenous Person?
Two realities are particularly helpful in understanding the evolving relationships between Indigenous people and the Government of Canada.
The first addresses who is determined to be “Indian” or “Indigenous.” The Indian Act of 1876, which is still in effect, is a foundational document, but non-status Indians, Inuit and Métis were not part of the Act.
In 1939, the Supreme Court decision brought the Inuit within the definition of “Indian.”
In 2016, again the Supreme Court decision declared that Métis and non-Status Indians must be considered Indians in the constitution.
The Crown-Indigenous Relationship Today
A second reality is the evolution of the name of the department in the Federal government responsible for “Indian affairs.” 1In 2019, its title was changed to “Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Development Canada,” which suggests an increasing recognition of the nation to nation relationships that will allow for reconciliation:
A bill passed by Parliament in 2019 began as follows:
“Whereas the Government of Canada is committed to achieving reconciliation with First Nations, the Métis and the Inuit through renewed nation-to-nation, government-to-government and Inuit-Crown relationships…” ”
This act established two ministers: a Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations (currently Hon. Carolyn Bennett), who focuses on treaties and other agreements between the Crown and Indigenous peoples, and a Minister of Northern Affairs (currently Minister Dan Vandal), who focuses primarily on the social, economic and health dimensions of Indigenous life..
After the end of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the 7-volume final report’s 94 Calls to Action were presented to Canadians. There are several Calls to Action that refer to our Treaty agreements.
Call to Action #94
94. We call upon the Government of Canada to replace the Oath of Citizenship with the following: I swear (or affirm) that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada including Treaties with Indigenous Peoples, and fulfill my duties as a Canadian citizen.