Dr. Tricia Logan
Treaties: Our Nation to Nation Partnerships
Treaty making processes are sacred, legal and ceremonial events which involved many, but not all First Nations or Indigenous communities across Canada. Treaties in Canada were 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. Histories of treaties in Canada are complex. They are living documents that continue today to influence legal struggles and decisions over rights as well as land.
Various First Nations communities and nations across Turtle Island (North America) and Canada had and have existing traditions and laws that govern land rights and what would be considered in European law as “human rights”. Ceremonies often include Wampum Belts, pipe ceremonies or an exchange of gifts. A Wampum Belt is typically made from round clam shells often formed into beads and woven with threads. The belt of Wampum is a symbol of peace and often signaled an invitation or start to a meeting between nations. Wampum can also represent an individual’s qualifications or influence. Treaties, agreements and oral histories are signified with use of Wampum in Canadian First Nations including the Haudenosaunee and Onondaga. Records of these laws and ceremonies still circulate and are used today in First Nations communities through oral histories and they date back to times of earliest contact with Europeans and before contact. Knowledge of these ceremonies and agreements are passed on through several generations.
It is important to remember that Indigenous nations view land differently than European traditions and philosophies. The European beliefs in private property and land ownership did not translate well into Indigenous languages or world views. Treaty making did not consider how First Nations and Indigenous peoples established their relationships to the land and how sacred that relationship was and is.
Indigenous groups throughout Turtle Island and Canada often entered into agreements over land, hunting or fishing and trade prior to the arrival of Europeans. After arrival of European colonizers and church missionaries between the 1500s and 1600s First Nations and European traders forged relationships for trade and ending early conflicts.
Royal Proclamation 1763
The Royal Proclamation of 1763 was issued by King George III of England and “ownership” of North America was granted to Britain. The Royal Proclamation is still broadly considered an important document that represents the historic relationship between Indigenous peoples and Europeans in Canada. The Royal Proclamation states clearly that the title Indigenous people have to the land had always existed and continues to exist after the Proclamation. The proclamation is 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. This reference to the proclamation in the Constitution Act assures that its interpretation will remain an important part of any attempt to clarify Aboriginal rights in Canadian law. The foundation for establishing and negotiating treaties is often considered to be laid out in the Royal Proclamation.
Myth about Treaties:
It is a myth that all treaties look the same and 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-dated 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 Nations1, and the British in territories covering Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, the Gaspé region of Québec and Nova Scotia. There were no surrenders of land or rights made to the British by First Nations during the Atlantic treaty-making processes. The treaties were necessary because the Indigenous groups had been primarily aligned with France and French settlers. The transfer of territory to Britain lead to violence between 1725-1779, often directed to Indigenous groups in the region. They sought peace as well as hunting and fishing rights and safety in their territories. Peace and Friendship Treaties in the Maritime Povinces still provide context and a legal basis for Indigenous rights to land, hunting and fishing in the territory.
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 #1in 1871. Métis citizens led by Louis Riel and a prominent Métis council (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 Métis fought the government of Canada until 2013 for adequate compensation promised to them in the original Manitoba Act and the distribution of scrip. The scrip process was unlawfully administered and like land agreements across Canada, signed with Indigenous nations, the agreements were not addressed fairly to 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.
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 acknowledge 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 provisions or agreements. Treaties numbered 1 to 11 were signed between 1871 and 1921 and cover areas in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, Northern British Columbia, portions of Northwest Territories and some of the Yukon Territory.
By 1871 First Nations and Métis economic, political and legal systems and structures were already facing a rapid decline and loss in Western Canada. After the devastating loss of buffalo and their existing economic systems after Confederation, many First Nations were provided few options to protect their lands, economies and communities during this period of colonization and Confederation. 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.
Agreements and promises in the numbered treaties included provisions for land ‘ownership’ and control over education on Reserves, agricultural equipment, hunting and fishing, treaty payments and certain goods for each Reserve. The unmet expectations and broken promises that followed the making of the treaties are notorious in Canadian history.
A prominent myth that still exists about residential schools, education and treaties relies on the promises that government made to build schools on Reserves. It is true that “treaties requested and promised education.” However, like many promises made by government in treaty relationships, what was promised and what was delivered as education did not meet agreements or expectations. The level of education, neglect, abuse, death and aggressive assimilation provided in residential schools was not agreed upon in treaties. Similarly, the treaty money each person receives in the amount of $5.00, is still collected and distributed but it is the original amount promised, never adjusted for rates of inflation.
Modern-Day Treaties (1975-present)
The Government of Canada currently recognizes 24 modern-era post-confederation treaties that are not included as the original post-1867 “numbered treaties”. These modern treaties are also referred to often as ‘comprehensive land claim agreements’. Based on land and resources that were not covered by the original numbered treaties, negotiations started in the early 1970s to provide access and protection to lands and rights not covered in any previous agreements. Many of these agreements included First Nations, Inuit as well as Métis peoples. Treaties, including the modern comprehensive claims are protected by the constitution. Modern claims and negotiations also sought and continue to seek an end to ambiguous language in original agreements and include provisions for allowing self-governance.
These comprehensive land claims agreements include areas in Quebec, Nunavut, the Yukon, Alberta, Labrador, and British Columba.2 There are a number of still unsettled land claims.
Today, the numbered treaties and the modern treaties represent an important relationship between First Nations and the rest of Canada. It is agreed and understood that Treaties provide a foundation for a nation-to-nation partnership. The idea that “We are all Treaty People” stems from the recognition of this partnership and in part, acknowledges that Indigenous nations hold nationhood. Decades or even centuries would pass where First Nations, Métis and Inuit would fight and protest for their rights to be seen as ‘nations’. Acknowledging that we are “All Treaty People” and that there is a nation-to-nation partnership not only acknowledges the partnership but it supports Indigenous sovereignty and their right to stand alone as their own Nations.
Not all First Nations are party to treaties in Canada and, and in those cases, their lands fall outside of treaty areas. First Nations, Métis and Inuit are defined as “Aboriginal peoples” under Section 35 of the Constitution Act (1982), but not all of these Aboriginal groups are included in Treaties with Canada.
Myth about Treaties:
All “Indians” or Indigenous peoples receive a free education or free houses as a result of treaties.
It is true that many treaties provide education and schools for First Nations peoples who fall under treaty. Many are still excluded though, those who are not party to treaties. Also, many First Nations pay taxes, and tuition to attend university.
In 2018 there are still First Nations communities in Canada that do not have adequate, “safe and comfy” schools for children. Rights to an education promised in many treaties still have not been met in all areas of Canada.3
Myth: Decolonization and treaty processes mean that newcomers or settlers need to “give their land back”
It is important to acknowledge the treaty relationship on the territory we are on today. That recognition fosters decolonization and recognizes that non-Indigenous settlers and newcomers benefit from living on the land shared with Indigenous peoples. Treaties describe the legal relationship and Indigenous peoples’ rights but none of these legal, historic and sacred agreements ask for anyone to “go back” or cede private property, or move away.
Myth: Treaties are historic documents
Treaties, while sometimes written over 100 or 200 years ago are very 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 represented promises made to Indigenous Nations and, to many people, represent promises that were simply not kept. It is important to remember that these are contemporary and historic documents that document the ways Canadians share the land today.
Our Calls to Action
After the end of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada and the 7-volume final report 94 Calls to Action were presented to Canada and 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.i
Let me try to summarize some key points.
- Treaties are the legal basis of many relationships with Indigenous people
- They have not been honoured in many respects
- Indigenous treaty makers understood they were sharing the land not giving it up.
- Treaties deal with more than land; they also deal with Indigenous human rights
- There are still treaties being made today
- The role of Oral History in proving Aboriginal claims is recognized by the courts.
- Many Aboriginal land claims are in fact resolved by negotiation and agreement, rather than by the courts.
- Clarification of Indigenous rights is still based on the Royal proclamation of 1763, which is Referenced in the Canadian Constitution Act of 1972.
- Indeed, we are all treaty people!
1 The Abenaki, Penobscot and the Passamaquoddy
2 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (1975); Northeastern Quebec Agreement (1978); Inuvialuit Final Agreement (1984); Gwich’in Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement (1992); Nunavut Land Claims Agreement (1993); 11 Yukon First Nations Final Agreements (1993-2005); Sahtu Dene and Metis Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement (1993); Nisga’a Final Agreement (2000); Tlicho Land Claims and Self Government Agreement (2003); Labrador Inuit Land Claims Agreement (2005); Nunavik Inuit Land Claims Agreement (2008); Tsawwassen First Nation Final Agreement (2009); Eeyou Marine Region Land Claims Agreement (2010); and Maa-nulth Final Agreement (2011). (Source: Treaty Commission of Manitoba; http://www.trcm.ca/treaties/
National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, Calls to Action; http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/File/2015/Findings/Calls_to_Action_English2.pdf
Angus, Charlie, (2017) Children of the Broken Treaty: Canada’s Lost Promise and One Girl’s Dream, Regina, University of Regina Press.
Asch, Michael, (2014) On Being Here to Stay: Treaties and Aboriginal Rights in Canada, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Battiste, Marie, ed., (2016) Living Treaties: Narrating Mi’kmaw Treaty Relations, Sydney: Cape Breton University Press.
Borrows, John and Michael Coyle (eds), (2017), The Right Relationship: Reimagining the Implementation of Historic Treaties, Toronto: University of Toronto Press
Borrows, John (2010), Canada’s Indigenous Constitution, Toronto: University of Toronto Press
Fenge, Terry and Jim Aldridge, (2015) Keeping Promises: The Royal Proclamation of 1763, Aboriginal Rights and Treaties in Canada, Montreal, Kingston: McGill Queen’s University Press.
Macklem, Patrick and Douglas Sanderson, eds.,(2016) From Recognition to Reconciliation: Essays on the Constitutional Entrenchment of Aboriginal and Treaty Rights, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
McNeil, Kent and Lori Ann Roness, (2000) Legalizing Oral History: Proving Aboriginal Claims in Canadian Courts, Journal of the West, 39.3, 66-74.
Miller, J.R., (2009) Compact, Contract, Covenant: Aboriginal Treaty-Making in Canada, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Monture-Angus, Patricia, (2000), Journeying Forward: Dreaming Aboriginal People’s Independence, Pluto Press, Australia
Nurse, Andrew “History, Law and the Mi’kmaq of Atlantic Canada,” Acadiensis vol. 33, no. 2 (2004).
Wicken, William C., (2012) The Colonization of Mi’kmaw Memory and History, 1794–1928: The King v. Gabriel Sylliboy, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Please go to our “Resources Section of our Website for:
Treaties and the Treaty Relationships. A special issue of Canada’s History, 2018.