20. THE PRAIRIE TREATIES

The Cree and Salteaux tribes of 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 of their rights, titles and privileges whatsoever to the lands described within the following limits, that is to say… – Extract from The Qu’Appelle Treaty Number Four

The Qu’Appelle treaty of 1874, covering much of Saskatchewan, the Winnipeg treaty of 1876, covering most of Northern Manitoba, and the Blackfeet and Forts Carleton and Pitt treaties of 1876, covering Alberta, were all the products of the same pressures and concerns on the part of both sides, Indian and Canadian government, that had led to the making of the earlier treaties in Southern Manitoba and Ontario.

For the Indians there was the same sense of an urgent need and desire to become covered by a treaty; a security blanket in anxious and demoralized times. One of the Cree bands residing near Norway House, whose members previously, as Alexander Morris writes;

… had supported themselves by serving the Hudson Bay Company as boatmen on the route from Lake Winnipeg to the Hudson Bay, by way of the Nelson River, but whose occupation was gone, owing to supplies being brought in by way of the Red River, desired to migrate to the western shore of Lake Winnipeg, and support themselves there by farming ….

They gratefully signed the Winnipeg treaty, which gave them the security, opportunity and hope they naturally wanted.

The steamship carrying the Canadian negotiators of the Winnipeg treaty arrived at the Berens River Post, on the east side of Lake Winnipeg, at 4 p.m. on September 20th.  By 11 p.m, only seven hours later, the chief and principal men of the band there had signed the treaty, so fast and ready were they to sign!

One group of Indians inhabiting the west shore and some islands of Lake Winnipeg, having heard about the treaty process, but being without a chief, and fearful of being overlooked by the Canadian government, to attract the attention of the passing government steamer, fired their guns, yelled and waved their arms to get noticed. The steamer slowed down. Some of the Indians paddled out to it, explained their situation and asked to be included in the treaty. One of their spokesmen, Thickfoot, as described by Alexander Morris:

… explained that he would like to have a place assigned to his people on the main shore, where they could live by farming and fishing. We suggested Fisher River, which they approved of…Thickfoot expressed gratitude for the kindness of the Government, and of his belief that the Indians of the various islands and of Jack Head Point would cheerfully accept the Queen’s benevolence and settle on a reserve….

These Indian people were plainly not coerced by Canada in these situations. They were no doubt, as previously stated, coerced and constrained by hardship circumstances, but not by the Crown or the Crown’s police or militia. As well, they were no doubt constrained by their acute awareness that their old lifestyles were unsustainable and largely already gone. Whether they jumped onto it, as some did, or were pushed or pulled onto it, as others were, they all knew that they had to be on the treaty bandwagon, (or treaty steamer), as it passed by.

And as to the terms of those treaties, they had little to bargain with but their proud and poignant vulnerability, dependence, intelligence and dignity, which, as a matter of fact, given the thoroughly decent nature of their bargaining counterparts, took them quite far.

As one Indian, described by Alexander Morris as being called “The Gambler,” said about the Hudson Bay Company in the talks before the Qu’Appelle treaty was signed, “we always exchange with them and would die if they went away.”

In Alberta three Cree chiefs sent messages to Canada’s Lieutenant Governor at the Red River settlement to attempt to hasten the making of treaties covering them. Cree chief Sweet Grass, describing the uncontrollable social breakdown amongst his people and the breakdown of law and order in Alberta generally as the result of culture collapse, American incursions and civil war amongst the Indians themselves (people will invariably turn on each other in extreme situations of dwindling basic resources), pleaded in cri-de-coeur words to Canada for the protection of a treaty (it would be the Treaty of Forts Carleton and Pitt):

Our country is getting ruined of fur-bearing animals, hitherto our sole support, and now we are poor and want help- we want you to pity us. We want cattle, tools, agricultural implements, and assistance with everything when we come to settle-our country is no longer able to support us.

Make provision for us against years of starvation. We have had great starvation the past winter and the small pox took away many of our people, the old, the young, and children.

We want you to stop the Americans from coming to trade on our lands, and giving firewater, ammunition and arms to our enemies the Blackfeet.
We made a peace this winter with the Blackfeet. Our young men are foolish, it may not last long. We invite you to come and see us and speak with us. If you can’t come yourself, send someone in your place.

A fellow Chief, Ki-he-Win, the Eagle, sent a similar plea:

Great Father – Let us be friendly. We never shed any white man’s blood, and have always been friendly with the whites, and want workmen, carpenters and farmers to assist us when we settle. I want all my brother, Sweet Grass, asks. That is all.

And Kis-ki-on, or Short Tail, added:

My brother, that is coming close, I look upon you as I saw you; I want you to pity me, and I want help to cultivate the ground for myself and descendants. Come and see us.

These are the heart-wrenching, self-aware words of leaders whose peoples were indeed in their pre-contact cultural and political end days, and who were agonizingly and helplessly aware of it. How could the Crown fiduciary and honour principles not arise in these awful circumstances?

Alexander Morris describes the attempts of a recalcitrant band of Saulteaux, who he describes as “disposed to be troublesome” (we would say they were acting proudly and justifiably defiant), who attempted to block the Forts Carlton and Pitt treaty process:

Before the arrival of the Commissioner the Saulteaux conceived the idea of forming a combination of French Half-breeds, the Crees, and themselves, to prevent the crossing of the Saskatchewan by the Lieutenant-Governor, and his entrance into the Indian territories. They made the proposal first to the French Half-breeds, who declined to undertake it, and then to the Crees, who listened to it in silence. One of them at length arose, and pointing to the River Saskatchewan said, “Can you stop the flow of that river?” The answer was “No”, and the rejoinder was “No more can you stop the progress of the Queen’s Chief.”

Such was the near universal sense of the inevitability of the situation.

And, as stated, part of Canada’s clear plan involved converting the treaty Indians into settled, productive inhabitants of the country- farmers and workers – so that they could support themselves and their families and yes, assimilate into the new, young Canadian social polity. And this assimilation policy was in no way an attempt to “kill Indian culture” (today falsely and disgracefully called “cultural genocide”).

Rather, it was a sensible, progressive, humanitarian policy, based on the reality that Indian culture, for all the essentially blameless reasons set out above, had already experienced a tragic but inevitable transformation and demise. Assimilation was reasonably considered as the only realistic and responsible way forward for Indians.

There’s no doubt that part of Canada’s approach to the situation was “missionary” in spirit. Canada’s representatives, supremely confident in their culture and place in the world, genuinely believed, rightly or wrongly, that if Indians could be “converted” to British-Canadian culture they would be far better off for it.

What is overlooked today is that this assimilation policy was not just some sneaky and secret Canadian agenda. Rather, it was expressly and unapologetically acknowledged by both sides and, importantly, resignedly and realistically accepted by the Indian treaty bargainers.

By the Qu’Appelle treaty, in addition to the usual cash payments, annuities, suits of clothes and silver medals, the Cree and Saulteaux signatories to it were also promised annual allotments of powder shot, musket balls and twine, to help them hunt (they being unable or unwilling to make their own inefficient hunting tools any more) together with farming land allotments, one square mile in area for each family of five, and farming implements, as promised in the treaty…

(to be) supplied to any band who are now actually cultivating the soil, or who shall hereafter settle on these reserves and commence to break up the land, that is to say-two hoes, one spade, one scythe, and one axe for every family so cultivating; and enough seed, wheat, barley, oats and potatoes to plant such lands as they have broken up; also one plough and two harrows for every ten families so cultivating as aforesaid; and also to each Chief for the use of his band as aforesaid, one yoke of oxen, one bull, four cows, a chest of ordinary carpenter’s tools, five hand saws, five augers, one cross-cut saw, one pit saw, the necessary files and one grindstone; all the aforesaid articles to be given once for all, for the encouragement of the practise of agriculture among the Indians.

This represented a good, progressive and honourable approach to ameliorating, as much as humanly and realistically possible, the tragic situation of the prairie Indians at the time.

To anyone exercising the slightest bit of historical imagination, giving these totally overwhelmed and helpless people money, land and tools, in a legally protected environment, to enable them to have a chance at getting back on their feet and supporting themselves, and thereby maintaining or recovering their dignity and pride, is not something for present-day Canadians to be ashamed of. It is something for us to be proud of.

And Canada, now the de facto conqueror with a conscience, showing an even more focused intention than before to bring about the assimilation of the Indians of the west into the Canadian mainstream, and therefore and thereby help their survival as a viable and vibrant cultural and economic part of the country, agreed in this treaty to “… maintain a school in the reserve, allotted to each band, as soon as they settle on said reserve, and are prepared for a teacher.”

As Alexander Morris wrote in 1880:

The treaties provide for the establishment of schools, on the reserves, for the instruction of the Indian children. This is a very important feature, and is deserving of being pressed with the utmost energy. The new generation can be trained in the habits and ways of civilized life- prepared to encounter the difficulties with which they will be surrounded, by the influx of settlers, and fitted for maintaining themselves as tillers of the soil. The erection of a school-house on a reserve will be attended with slight expense, and the Indians would often give their labour towards its construction.

Clearly, one of the prime rationales for establishing government schools on reserves was to facilitate assimilation and racial integration on the prairies and to give the new and future generations of Indians survival skills in the new world they were facing. These rationales were and are consistent with the honour of the Crown and the highest and most civilized values of humanity.

As stated, but it bears repeating to better counter today’s false orthodoxy on this important issue, they were not rationales developed for the purpose of intentionally eradicating Indian culture. Pre-contact Indian culture was at the time already irrevocably lost.

These rationales were developed to save a people, not eradicate them. They were liberal and humane rationales, evidencing the opposite of racist sentiment.

There was the ban on alcohol on the reserves and finally, the preservation of the Indians’ right:

… to pursue their avocation of hunting, trapping and fishing through the tract surrendered, subject to such regulations as may from time to time be made by the Government… and saving and excepting such tracts as may be required or taken from time to time for settlement, mining or other purposes…(italics added)

The words italicized immediately above  emphasize that the treaties were documents of general surrender by the Indians of all rights to the land, subject to exceptions.

Canada was clearly intended to have virtually full, unimpeded sway over the surrendered lands, without Indian interference, subject to stated exceptions which, if they had to be interpreted in the future, would certainly only be reasonably and narrowly interpreted having primary reference to the overall concept and purpose of the treaties, that is, rights extinguishment.

Again, as stated, there was no thought or discussion of, or any provision in the treaties, express or implied, relating to any future general obligation to consult or accommodate Indians with respect to Crown or Crown-authorized activities on the surrendered lands, no discussion of the treaty being a land and resources “sharing agreement,” and, as in the other treaty deliberations describedthere was every indication that the Indians fully understood the concepts of extinguishment and surrender.

The treaty of Forts Carleton and Pitt was very similar to the Qu’Appelle treaty in purpose and content. It did contain two different provisions however, one profound and pregnant with future meaning, and one just humanly interesting for its own sake. The first was that the Crown promised “…that a medicine chest shall be kept at the house of each Indian Agent for the use and benefit of the Indian, at the discretion of said Agent….” This was a response to the catastrophic, world-ending diseases that were so devastating the Indians at the time.

This provision now provides some of the contextual basis, in addition to the fiduciary and Crown honour principle, for Canada’s present provision of full and free medical benefits to Indians, on and off the reserves, a situation that has resulted, as stated, from an honorable and generous interpretation of that meagrely-worded treaty provision.

The second different provision was that each chief who signed the treaty got “two carts, with iron bushings and tires,” a telling testament to the practical, assimilative, forward-looking outlook of the Indians of that place and time.

It’s now commonly acknowledged that Canada’s plan to turn Indians into yeoman farmers was a total failure. As Richard Gwyn wrote in Volume Two of Nation Maker :

The buffalo disappeared far faster than anyone had anticipated, and the difficulties of teaching warriors and hunters to settle for being farmers proved to be formidable. Farm instructors often turned out to be failed farmers themselves, and the Indians, accustomed to “country food” they had shot or trapped themselves, found processed food such as bacon almost inedible. It was excruciatingly difficult for Aboriginals, for centuries warriors and hunters, to abandon all that to become sedentary farmers scraping at the soil.

In addition, as James Daschuk powerfully tells us in Clearing the Plains, while the plans  and promises  of the Crown treaty negotiators were honourable and well intentioned, the execution of those plans and promises by others was a disgrace to the name of Canada. Indians, newly confined to reserves, naturally experiencing total cultural trauma, were allowed to starve to death, and were otherwise meanly and indifferently frustrated by Canada in all their attempts to be farmers.  In all kinds of corrupt, cruel and racist ways, the Canadian government betrayed them.

The policy had been well-meaning, and it had made sense. But in the carrying out, it constituted one of the worst breaches by Canada of its fiduciary and human duties to Indians in all of Canada’s history.

By: Peter Best