19. THE NORTH-WEST ANGLE TREATY

The Salteaux tribe of the Ojibbeway Indians, and all the other Indians inhabiting the district hereinafter described and defined, do hereby cede, release, surrender and yield up to the Government of the Dominion of Canada, for Her Majesty the Queen and her successors forever, all their rights, titles and privileges whatsoever to the lands included within the following limits, that is to say… – Extract from The North-West Angle Treaty Number Three

The “North-West Angle” is now a small piece of American territory, situated north of the forty-ninth parallel, on the west shore of Lake of the Woods. Its westerly north-south survey line delineated the boundary between the new Province of Manitoba and the lands to the east situated between that line and the western end of Lake Superior and going north to the height of land. This territory, comprising about 55,000 square miles, included, amongst other places: Fort Frances, Rainy Lake, the Lake of the Woods area, Shebandowan and Grassy Narrows.

With settlement already underway, and with the railroad being constructed through it, Canada wanted “finality” and clarity with respect to its relationship with the approximately 14,000 Ojibway Indians who lived in this area. Thus in 1871 Canada appointed the same Mr. Simpson who had negotiated the Manitoba treaties, and two others, as its’ Commissioners to negotiate the surrender of these lands to the Crown.

They met the Indians that year at Fort Frances, told them of Canada’s intentions, and asked them to think about it for a year. They did, and in 1872 told Canada in substance that they were not ready to make any such treaty.

Another set of Commissioners was appointed by Canada in 1873, with Alexander Morris as their head, for the same purpose. They met the Indians “at the north-west angle of the Lake of the Woods” in September of that year, and this time, as later reported by Mr. Morris, “…after difficult and protracted negotiations, succeeded in effecting a treaty with them….”

When one reads Mr. Morris’ account of these negotiations one is impressed with how spirited, informed and aware of the stakes each side was. He describes his opening address to the Indians as follows:

We are all children of the same Great Spirit and are subject to the same Queen. I want to settle all matters both of the past and the present, so that the white and red man will always be friends. I will give you lands for farms and also reserves for your own use. I have authority to make reserves such as I have described, not exceeding in all a square mile for every family of five or thereabouts. It may be a long time before the other lands are wanted, and in the meantime you will be permitted to fish and hunt over them. I will also establish schools whenever any band asks for them, so that your children may have the learning of the white man….

Canada was offering basically the same here as it had settled for with the Manitoba Indians. But the Ojibway were tougher and more demanding bargainers than the Manitoba Indians.

As argued above, the culture of these remote, forest inhabitants, still off the beaten track to all but fur traders and missionaries, was less damaged and vulnerable at the time than that of their prairie brethren. At one point, rejecting the Crown offer of $5 per head per year, they came back with a proposal that amounted to a combined annuity of $125,000 per year, at that time, in these circumstances, an unheard of amount of money. As their main spokesman, Mawedopenais, chief of the Fort Frances band, said, “…Our hands are poor but our heads are rich, and it is riches that we ask so that we may be able to support our families as long as the sun rises and the water runs….” Mr. Morris refused this and threatened to break off the talks, causing the solidarity of the Indians to begin to crack.

As he wrote in his formal report to “Government House” at Fort Garry:

This brought matters to a crisis. The Chief of the Lac Seul band came forward to speak. The others tried to prevent him but he was secured a hearing. He stated that he represented four hundred people in the north; that they wished a treaty; that they wished a school-master to be sent them to teach their children the knowledge of the white man; that they had begun to cultivate the soil and were growing potatoes and Indian corn, but wished other grain for seed and some agricultural implements and cattle. This Chief spoke under evident apprehension as to the course he was taking in resisting the other Indians, and displayed much good sense and moral courage. He was followed by the Chief “Blackstone”, who urged the other Chiefs to return to the council and consider my proposals, stating that he was ready to treat, though he did not agree to my proposals nor to those made to me. I then told them that I had known all along that they were not united as they had said; that they ought not to allow a few Chiefs to prevent a treaty, and that I wished to treat with them as a nation and not with separate bands, as they would otherwise compel me to do: and therefore urged them to return to their council, promising to remain for another day to give them time for consideration….

That night the various Indian bands thrashed it out amongst themselves and, next morning, sent a message through their interpreter that they were ready to settle along the lines of the Manitoba treaties.

The Commissioners, on their part, in view of the tenseness and competitiveness of the negotiations, had already decided amongst themselves that if the Indians showed a willingness to sign then they would throw in some sweeteners. As Commissioner Morris reported:

The Commissioners had had a conference, and agreed previously to offer a small sum for ammunition and twine for nets, yearly- a few agricultural implements  and  seeds, for any band actually farming or commencing to farm, and to increase the money payment by two dollars per head if it should be found necessary in order to secure a treaty, maintaining a permanent annuities at the sum fixed….

Canada’s obvious, ultimate rationale for these extras, as stated by Mr. Morris, was that Canada was “…desirous of inducing them to practise agriculture and to have the means of getting food if their fishing and hunting failed….”

An agreement in principle was finally attained, but the Indians continued to bargain hard on the specifics. They demanded free Canadian Pacific Railroad passes. This clever and far-seeing demand was refused. Canada could not speak for the Railroad, which was a private corporation. They requested that they retain mining rights over the lands ceded. This was another sophisticated and far-seeing request (again, evidence of how subtle and supple-minded the Indians were) that was refused, although the Indians were assured that they would control and benefit from any mines developed on their reserves.  This was clear evidence of the definite lack of an intention that the resources of the ceded lands would be “shared.”

And significantly again, there was no discussion of or agreement obligating the Crown to consult and accommodate Indians with respect to anything the Crown might be doing or authorizing off the reserves, on ceded territories.

They asked for free lumber from the lumber mill in Fort Frances to use to build houses .This was refused. The lumber operation was private as well and not Canada’s to bargain with. They demanded a suit of clothes for all Indians present. In response to this they were offered, and they settled for, a suit of clothes for only the chiefs and principal men present, and a promise of a new suit of clothes for each chief every three years thereafter.

They complained about the cheap medals that the Red River chiefs got when they signed the Manitoba treaty. They demanded ones made of real silver, that wouldn’t tarnish. This was quickly and embarrassingly agreed to.

Finally, with the negotiations complete and all matters great and small dealt with, the closing proceedings began, which Mr. Morris described as “striking and impressive” (clearly referring to the Ojibway leaders). Mawedopenais made a remarkable, elegant, high-minded, intelligent and moving speech. He addressed the treaty session as follows:

Now you see me stand before you all. What has been done here today, has been done openly before the Great Spirit, and before the nation, and  I hope that  I may never hear anyone say that this treaty has been done secretly. And now, in closing this council, I take off my glove, and in giving you my hand, I deliver over my birthright, and lands, and in taking your hand I hold fast all the promises you have made, and I hope they will last as long as the sun goes round, and the water flows, as you have said.

To which Mr. Morris, deeply impressed with this display of subtle depths and class, replied:

I accept your hand, and with it the lands, and will keep all my promises, in the firm belief that the treaty now to be signed will bind the red man and the white man together forever.

Finally, as described by Mr. Morris:

The conference then adjourned, and on re-assembling, after the treaty had been read and explained, the Commissioners signed it and the Lieutenant-Governor called on an aged hereditary Chief, Keetakaypinais, to sign next. The Chief came forward, but declined to touch the pen, saying, “I must first have the money in my hand.” The Lieutenant-Governor immediately held out his hand, and directed the interpreter to say to the chief, “Take my hand and feel the money in it. If you cannot trust me for half an hour, do not trust me forever.” When this was repeated by the interpreter, the Chief smiled, took the outstretched hand, and at once touched the pen, while his mark was being made, his lingering distrust having been effectively dispelled by this prompt action and reply. The other Chiefs followed…The payments were duly made the next day, and so was closed, a treaty, whereby a territory was enabled to be opened up , of great importance to Canada, embracing as it does the Pacific Railway route to the North-West Territories….

The circumstances surrounding the signing of this treaty, and the meaning and effect of it, was, as stated above,  recently adjudicated in the Superior Court of Justice of Ontario in the case Keewatin v. Ontario (Minister of Natural Resources), (“Keewatin”),1 where Madam Justice Sanderson of that Court, relying heavily on the writings of Alexander Morris, handed the Grassy Narrows First Nation a huge legal victory.

Grassy Narrows was part of the treaty area situated in present day Northwestern Ontario, near Kenora, that Canada in effect signed over to Ontario in 1912. Justice Sanderson ruled that the because the original Ojibway signers of the treaty had entered into it with Canada, represented by Ottawa, the Ontario government couldn’t now “take up” any lands in this treaty area – lands comprising part of the Ojibways traditional hunting and fishing (“harvesting”) territories – so as to limit those harvesting rights, without Ottawa’s active involvement and consent, or without the consent of the Ojibways affected.

The effect of Justice Sanderson’s decision was to neuter Ontario’s ability to manage and control a large swath of its territory, and to push that territory back into an almost  pre-Confederation status. Ontario appealed this judgment. Justice Sanderson’s decision was overturned by the Ontario Court of Appeal in 2013, which latter decision was upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2014.

But significantly, none of the parties, at any Court level,  challenged Justice Sanderson’s implicit finding that Alexander Morris’ account of the treaty deliberations and signing was honest, unbiased and accurate or suggested that anything that had happened had been coercive or otherwise unfair. The  Grassy Narrows First Nation made no hint of a suggestion that their signatory ancestors understood the Treaty in a different way than the Crown because of any alleged “Anishinaabe perspective and worldview”, the flimsy, speculative and historically revisionist concept which was the basis of the Restoule decision. (Chapter 16 above.) All parties had proceeded on the basic assumption, as the Court of Appeal  confirmed,  that the 1873 treaty deliberations “were very well recorded” and “very well documented.” 2

For our purposes here, the Keewatin decisions constitute a very recent endorsement from our courts of the very honourable and solicitous way Canada’s Crown representatives, like Alexander Morris, behaved towards the Indians in the treaty-making process that took place in Canada at that time.

With the signing of the Northwest Angle treaty Canada then turned its attention to obtaining the surrender of the rest of the lands of the Canadian prairies.

  1. Keewatin v. Minister of Natural Resources, 2011 ONSC 4801.
  2. Keewatin v. Minister of Natural Resources2013 ONCA 158.

By: Peter Best