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The History of Treaties in Canada

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This title expires June 30th, 2021

Subject(s): Canadian History, Canadian Social Studies, Criminal Justice & Law, English, First Nations Studies, History, Social Sciences, Social Studies
Grade Level: 9 - 12, Post Secondary, Adult

From the Royal Proclamation of 1763 to the implementation of the modern-day Algonquin land claim, The History of Treaties in Canada explores the history, application and legacy of these foundational legal documents and how they continue to shape and define the often strained relationships between First Nations and the Crown in Canada. Written and produced by award-winning Métis filmmaker Matt LeMay.

Running Time: 14
Country of Origin: Canada
Captions: CC
Producer: LeMay Media
Copyright Date: 2016
Language: English

Additional Resources


  • For thousands of years prior to first contact with European colonists, the early First Nations indigenous to the land we now call Canada were the earliest environmentalists, living harmoniously with nature, respecting the land, water, and wildlife. Philosophically, the early First Nations did not subscribe to the idea of land ownership. But instead, land and water were sacred elements that should be shared, respected, and protected for future generations.
  • However, this was not a philosophy echoed by the early European monarchs, explorers, trading companies, and settlers who believed that this new land, rich in its natural resources, should be claimed, exploited, and its indigenous population assimilated. This has led to generations of racism and oppression, misunderstandings, disagreements, broken promises, conflicts, and tragedies that still exist in every region of Canada today.
  • Canada's indigenous people had many treaties between nations that were recorded orally. These treaties enforced peace, land agreements, and friendships among the First Nations, and were sacred pacts that solidified the relationship between nations. A calumet, or peace pipe, was smoke at the beginning of treaty talks to mark friendship between the nations. A wampum belt was used to record the decisions of a treaty. It was made of white and purple Atlantic coast seashells that were beaded into a belt or a sash in a certain way that symbolized particular events.
  • One of the earliest recorded treaty-making sessions was called the Great Law of Peace of the People of the Longhouse, and took place before 1450, and was between the Mohawk, Seneca, and Cayuga nations. And all 117 articles of the treaty were passed down orally from generation to generation for over 400 years.
  • Not long after first contact, the early European settlers began to arrive, fueled with the promise of a better life, land ownership, and all the bounties and riches that the new world had to offer. The First Nations were open to sharing their land and resources with these early European newcomers, and taught the early explorers how to survive and travel in the harsh and unforgiving Canadian environment.
  • Long before oil, gold, and timber, the demand for beaver pelts and fur drove the economy and pushed development further and further inland, encroaching on many First Nations' traditional territories. European colonists and aboriginal people had long traditions of diplomacy, which quickly evolved into treaty-making and the creation of new economic and military alliances.
  • In 1701, the Iroquois Confederacy entered into a formal agreement with Britain called the Treaty of Albany. Iroquois leaders agreed to sell the lands of the Great Lakes to the British in exchange for their protection from the French and continued right to hunt and fish throughout the territory.
  • For 50 years after the Treaty of Albany, many friendship and peace treaties were signed between both the French, British, and aboriginal peoples in the eastern part of what eventually would become Canada. Much of the Atlantic region was ceded to the British during this time, with the French retaining only Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton.
  • As the European demand for fur, resources, and control over the New World grew, so did tensions between the French and the English, resulting in a worldwide Seven-Year War that ended in 1763 with the victorious English king, George III, issuing a royal proclamation.
  • The Royal Proclamation explicitly states that aboriginal title has existed and continues to exist, and that all land would be considered aboriginal land until ceded by treaty. The Royal Proclamation further sets out that only the crown can buy land from First Nations.
  • Aboriginal treaties in Canada are constitutionally recognized agreements between the crown and aboriginal peoples. Most of these agreements describe exchanges, where aboriginal groups agree to share some of their interests in their ancestral lands in return for various payments and promises. In less than 50 years after the first land surrenders brought settlers to Upper Canada, the non-aboriginal population now outnumbered First Nations people in the Great Lakes basin.
  • As more colonists arrived, the pace of land treaties increased to allow for their firms. In all, some 35 land surrender treaties were concluded that covered all of the lands of Upper Canada. Land surrender treaties continued up until 1862. On the whole, these treaties were agreements for relatively small pieces of land with individual First Nation groups.
  • In the 1850s, two treaties fell outside the norm and would become the new template for future treaties in the West. The Robinson Huron and Robinson Superior treaties were negotiated with various Ojibwe people within the region in exchange for reserves, annuities, and the continued right to hunt and fish on occupied crown lands. This formula for concluding agreements with numerous bands for large pieces of land would become the model for the post-Confederation numbered treaties.
  • With the signing of the British North America Act of 1867, Canada's new government led by Sir John A. Macdonald wanted to expand the country from coast to coast as quickly as possible with very little resistance. This would require the implementation of treaties with aboriginal peoples across Canada.
  • The government of the day developed a series of legislative policies geared towards expediting the treaty process and ultimately forcing the assimilation of Canada's indigenous people into a new Euro-Canadian society, which included the implementation of the Indian Act, which removed any citizenship rights for First Nation people and made them subjects of the crown. It also made many First Nations' cultural practices illegal. It was also common practice for the government to withhold rations and starve many First Nation communities who tried to assert their own identity. And as a result, many people died.
  • The Canadian government also established the residential school system, which tore generations of families and communities apart. The Canadian government forced the Hudson Bay Company to sell Rupert's Land, a huge territory located west of Ontario, that was home to many Metis people and the Red River Colony. They did this without consultation and, in the process, stripped the Metis of their aboriginal title. These actions eventually led to the Red River Rebellion and the execution of Metis leader Louis Riel.
  • The numbered treaties are a series of 11 treaties signed between the First Nations people in Canada and the crown. These treaties came in two waves-- numbers one through seven from 1871 to 1877, and numbers 9 through 11 from 1899 to 1921. In the first wave, the treaties were key in advancing European settlement across the prairie regions as well as the development of the Canadian Pacific Railway. In the second wave, resource extraction was the main motive for the government officials.
  • Today both sides agree that treaties are agreements between the crown and the First Nations in which the First Nations exchanged some of their interest in specific areas of their ancestral lands in return for various kinds of payments and promises from crown officials. However, each side has a different interpretation of what was intended by these agreements.
  • According to the British, treaties were intended to extinguish all First Nation claims and rights to their lands forever except in those lands that were set apart for reserves for the bands to live on. In return, the government would make a one-time payment to the bands plus a specific annual sum. As well, treaties had terms dealing with hunting and fishing rights as well as education and health care.
  • Treaties were also intended to offer First Nations some protection from the consequences of new settlement and some assistance in adapting to new ways of living as the old ways became less feasible. Treaties were also expected to be the first step towards assimilation. Government expected First Nations people to give up their culture, including their customs, their language, their religious beliefs, their ceremonies, and everything else that made them different from Canadians of British origin.
  • It's been widely reported that throughout Canadian history, many government officials believed that treaties were barriers to progress. And often, they did not honor the agreements. Or when they did, they implemented them as cheaply and as quickly as possible. To make themselves understood, the British often used language that was very different from the text used in the treaty documents, which could be very misleading.
  • First Nations saw treaties in a different light. To them, treaties were solemn pacts establishing the future basis of relationships between their people, for whom Canada is an ancient homeland, and for the new government of Canada and its people. Many First Nations groups felt that the numbered treaties signed by the dominion government and their First Nations chiefs between 1877 and 1921 were rushed and disorganized, limiting to the aboriginal way of life and ultimately had poor results due to unfilled promises.
  • The treaties were often negotiated in a matter of days in English, with interpreters who were not always up to the task. They were signed by the aboriginal chiefs who generally could not read English and who had not been properly advised by anyone. Nor could they comprehend the idea of giving up the rights of their lands forever.
  • Even though historic treaties exist in nine provinces and three territories that cover over 50% of Canada's land mass, historically, Canada's aboriginal people have benefited very little from these legally binding agreements.
  • Today these agreements are upheld by the government of Canada, administered by Canadian aboriginal law, and overseen by the Minister of Indigenous Affairs in Northern Development. Depending on how the treaty was negotiated, individual members of some First Nations still receive an annual treaty payment that's often paid in cash at Treaty Day events.
  • It is ironic that Canada's Parliament buildings and Canada's national capital region sits in unceded Algonquin territory. The Algonquin people never surrendered their land. And as a result, there's a modern treaty and land claim that's currently being negotiated between the government of Canada and the Algonquin people. In Canada, irrespective if you have indigenous heritage or not, we are all treaty people.

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