…The Chippewa and Swampy Cree Tribes of Indians, and all the other Indians inhabiting the district hereinafter described and defined, do hereby cede, release, surrender and yield up to Her Majesty the Queen, and Her successors forever, all the lands included within the following limits… – Extract from Manitoba Treaty Number One

With the coming into existence of Canada in 1867 and the assumption by Canada of control over the Hudson Bay Company lands in 1870 the treaty processes continued with a greater sense of urgency than ever before, both for Indians and Canada. Both, for different reasons, wanted and needed land settlement treaties.

Border and settlement issues with the expansionist United States, the formal creation of the Province of Manitoba, British Columbia joining Canada in 1871 on the strength of the promise of a railroad, all created a need for Canada to populate the new Canadian lands west of the Great Lakes. And to do that in the most law and orderly fashion the Canadian Government wanted permanent agreements with the Indians there.

The terrible famine, disease, starvation and death following the virtual extinction of the beaver and the bison, described so graphically and horrifically in James Daschuk’s Clearing the Plains, (above), ended the power and independence of all the Indians living on the prairies.

For these Indians the overwhelming, inexorable pressures caused by these events tragically hastened the end of their old cultures and created a new situation of them becoming almost totally dependent on the Crown for their survival.

In Manitoba, treaty discussions began in 1870 when some of the Indians of the territory actually petitioned for a treaty. They were uneasy with the influx of surveyors and settlers and wanted their rights defined. The next year the Canadian Government appointed Wemyss McKenzie Simpson as Indian Commissioner to enter into treaty negotiations with them. He issued a proclamation to the Indians to meet him at Stone Fort, a Hudson Bay post on the Red River about 20 miles north of Fort Garry (Winnipeg), and at Manitoba Post, another Hudson Bay post on the north shore of Lake Winnipeg.

All the Indians who could freely came, as at Sault Ste. Marie twenty-one years before. According to the authoritative Alexander Morris they were present, “…awaiting with anxiety to learn the policy of the Government….”  At Stone Fort, prior to Commissioner Simpson addressing the Indians, he was introduced to them by Mr. Adams Archibald, the Lieutenant Governor of the province, who, in his remarks to them, very clearly explained the Crown’s thinking about the cultural direction it wanted Indians to take in future:

Your Great Mother wishes the good of all races under her sway. She wishes her red children to be happy and contented. She would like them to adopt the habits of the whites, to till the land and raise food, and store it up against a time of want. She thinks this would be the best thing for her red children to do, and it would make them safer from famine and distress, and make their homes more comfortable. But the Queen, though she may think it good for you to adopt civilized habits, has no idea of compelling you to do so. This she leaves to your choice, and you need not live like the white man unless you can be persuaded to do so of your own free will. Many of you, however, are already doing this…

Your Great Mother, therefore, will lay aside for you “lots” of land to be used by you and your children forever. She will not allow the white man to intrude upon these lots. She will make rules to keep them for you, so that as long as the sun shall shine, there shall be no Indian who has not a place that he can call his home, where he can go and pitch his camp, or if he chooses, build his house and till his land.

In a later report on the proceedings to Ottawa Mr. Archibald wrote:

We told them that whether they wished it or not, immigrants would come in and fill up the country; that every year from this one twice as many in number as their whole people there assembled would pour into the Province, and in a little while would spread all over it, and that now was the time for them to come to an arrangement that would secure homes and annuities for themselves and their children…

If they thought it better to have no treaty at all, they might do without one but they must make up their minds; if there was a treaty it must be on a basis like that offered…

This was not racist coercion. This was not a situation where the Crown was saying “sign or else!” This was a situation where it was implicitly understood that the Indians were so declining as a culture and as a political force that their former lands were going to be occupied and controlled by new settlers, by the new government, whether they signed the proposed treaty or not. The waves of people and change were unstoppable. The Indians were in the position of people whose former primacy had been displaced and who were now subservient to and dependent upon the ascendant newcomers. The approach and conduct of everyone was based on that blunt, awful reality.

But in ascendancy or not, Canada acted with a great degree of grace, humanity and honour in the circumstances. The terms it offered were relatively civil and principled. And the Indians really had no choice but to accept those terms and make the best of it. Whether there was a signed treaty or not was not going to affect the outcome of this meeting of different worlds. If there was no treaty signed Canada was not going to pack up its’ things and go back to Ontario. Understanding all this full well, and desperately needing what was being offered, the Indians signed.

If this was “coercion,” it was situational and circumstantial, not personal and intentional.

The Manitoba treaties surrendered to Canada all Indian “title” to Manitoba. They established the reserves (with an explicit ban on alcohol on them) that are still there today. There was a provision for the establishment and maintenance by Canada of a school on each reserve, a signing payment of $3.00 per person and the promise of annual cash payments thereafter.

In the Stone Fort treaty Canada promised to pay:

…to each Indian family of five persons the sum of fifteen dollars of Canadian currency, or in like proportion for a larger or smaller family, such payment to be made in such articles as the Indians shall require of blankets, clothing, prints (assorted colours), twine or traps, at the current price in Montreal, or otherwise, if Her Majesty shall deem the same desirable in the interests of Her Indian people, in cash.

The Manitoba treaty was the same except that in that treaty, which dealt with lands further north, lands less likely to be immediately settled, each Indian family of five was granted a 160 acre parcel of land. The list of articles that the Manitoba Indians could take “in kind” for their annuity payment, instead of in cash, implicitly highlights the degree to which Indians had become dependent on European goods for their basic survival needs. The choice of cash or kind was one that was, in the end, left to the Indians.

But there’s no doubt that Canada’s preference was that the Indians would begin to choose those options that would better ensure their precarious survival and better accomplish Canada’s clear and sensible policy of encouraging the assimilation of its Indian peoples into the newly burgeoning Canadian culture.

And again, there was no talk or thought of any duty to consult with the Indians regarding any government or non-Indian activities or undertakings on the ceded lands – no talk of “sharing the land” – and no mention of any such thing in the treaty. (Notwithstanding this, if the Restoule decision is not overturned, Manitoba Indian elites, in some future lawsuit, relying on Restoule, will be claiming that all of this is not so.)

By: Peter Best