One of the Crees 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.” – Alexander Morris

The signing of the treaties hastened the crumbling of an old culture which had seen its day…It wasn’t (the chiefs) intention to be looked after forever by the federal government but, rather, that they wanted assistance when they settled down on reserves and later only in times of extreme adversity… It was never intended that they would stick to the reserves…-Aboriginal AFN founder, activist, writer, lawyer, William Wuttunee 1

Several significant things become clear from a review of the events surrounding the making of these treaties between Canada and its Indians.

The first is that the Indians wanted the treaties. They were at times desperate to get them. The Stone Fort treaty process started by the Indians entreating Canada to enter into a treaty with them. When the NorthWest Angle treaty talks threatened to break down the chief of the Lac Seul band spoke up, saying that his four hundred member band wanted a treaty, they wanted the schoolmaster being promised“to teach their children the knowledge of the white man.” They wanted more seeds, cattle and agricultural implements, to supplement the farming efforts they had already undertaken.

Unlike today’s history-denying Indian industry, the Indians who signed the treaties generally, however they naturally wished it to be otherwise, accepted the need and benefit of assimilation Assimilation for them was not akin to “genocide.” It was akin to simple, timeless, non-racist, adaptation and survival

Completely understandably, they rued the circumstances they were in, which made what they were doing, in their minds, necessary. But they accepted these circumstances, and their response to them was the only reasonable and realistic way forward.

Alexander Morris describes the Blackfeet, Blood and Peigan Indians, the tribes and bands which signed the Blackfeet Treaty, as bands that, prior to the making of the treaty, had been “for years past…anxiously expecting to be treated with”, and “much disappointed at the delay of negotiations.” Recall the Berens River Indians shouting and waving at the passing government steamer to get its attention so to ensure that they were included in the treaty they heard was in the offing.

Indian leaders today assert that the treaty-making processes were coercive against and therefore unfair towards Indians. The historical record, a prime example of which are the reliable Alexander Morris’ accounts, accounts relied upon by Indian court activists, shows how false this assertion is.

In Nation Maker, Richard Gwyn draws attention to the difference between the American and more positive Canadian experience in this regard:

At this time, Canadian Indian policy was far superior, in effectiveness and sensitivity, to American Indian policy. As the Halifax Chronicle put it, the policy and treatment here were “humane and successful,” while in the United States the approach was of “war and extermination”. The Globe similarly described American policy as “a dark record of broken pledges, undisguised oppression and triumphant cruelty.” A great many Americans thought exactly the same way. A report to the House Committee on Indian Affairs concluded admiringly that Canadians would be “known in history as having striven to do justice to the aborigines,” and a study for the U.S. Board of Indian Commissioners described Canada’s system as “immeasurably superior to our own”. Most importantly, Indians agreed. Their name for the American border was the Medicine Line, meaning that above it there was healing. (italics added)

And, consistent with British-Canadian humanitarian traditions that carry on up to the present, there was, above the Medicine Line, in Canada, sanctuary for the in-essence refugee American Indian tribes suffering from the the United States government’s policies of war and extermination against them. (See Beth LaDow’s The Medicine Line, above).

The historical record also shows that the overall theme of the treaties, in the circumstances giving rise to them, in the talks engaged in before they were signed, in the treaty wording, in the speeches made by the parties after they were signed, was extinguishment of Indian rights and control  over the lands surrendered, with no residual obligation on the Crown to continue to “share” the surrendered lands and the resources on them. 

Generally the only, rather paltry, things given to the Indians in the treaties were small, annual cash payments, reserves, and the limited right to hunt and fish on the surrendered lands, all of which, in the Crown’s mind, were to be followed, hopefully sooner rather than later, by assimilation and integration of Indians into mainstream Canadian life, such as it was at the time.

The current misrepresentations about Indians having been “forced to assimilate” at the hands of a malevolently motivated Crown or Church are gross over-simplifications.  It never happened that way. “Traditional” pre-contact Indian culture had already been largely lost long before any deliberate Crown or Crown-authorized assimilationist-integrationist measures, such as the residential schools, were undertaken.

And again, as stated, the treaty talks in no way constituted equal, sovereign “nation to nation” dealings. In fact in the Northwest Angle treaty and in all the Prairie treaties the Indian signers promised to “conduct themselves as good and loyal subjects of Her Majesty the Queen”, thereby making it logically impossible, then and now, for the Indian bands affected by those treaties to reasonably argue that they are subjects of some nation other than Canada.

In this regard it is noteworthy how often the parent-child analogy was used to describe the power dynamic between Canada and the Indians, an analogy so antithetical to the notion of dealings between equals, where Canada, or the Crown, was at some point personalized and called “the Queen Mother,” or some similar term (although Queen Victoria’s name was never actually used), and the Indians were called her “children” or her “red children.” This mother-child analogy, instinctively embraced and used by both sides, was probably as accurate as any analogy could be in reflecting the dependency and vulnerability of the Indians and the superior, dominant, power of Canada.

In the Stone Fort Treaty talks, Wemyss Simpson, said:

Your Great Mother wishes  the good of all races under her sway. She wishes her red children happy and contented…She would like them to adopt the habits of the whites…She thinks this would be the best thing for her red children to do…that it would make them safer from famine and distress…” During the Qu’Appelle treaty talks Alexander Morris said to the Indians: “You are the subjects of the Queen, you are her children…She has children all over the world, and she does right with them all. She cares as much for you as she cares for her white children. What she promises never changes….

It is from this original unequal bargaining relationship, from this situation of vulnerability and dependency on the part of the Indians, and from the promises made by the Crown in these treaty talks and in the treaties themselves, that, as stated earlier, there justly and properly arose a fiduciary relationship between Canada and its Indians, a relationship requiring good faith, “honour,” probity and responsible conduct on the part of Canada towards its Indians.

This fiduciary relationship – this obligation on the part of the Crown to act “honourably”- would become, and they remains today, the core concepts affecting and defining relations between Indian and non-Indian Canadians. (I argue, in Rethinking the Crown Honour Principle, below, that how this fiduciary duty should be carried out today should be fundamentally re-considered.)

Finally, a striking realization one experiences when reading accounts of the treaty talks is how little negative, racial animus there was between the parties.

One can say more than that. One can say that there was actually a somewhat positive, almost ecumenical, looking-forward-to-a-positive-future-together kind of feeling, that was revealed by the words and actions of the participants from both sides, that seemed to herald a new, young, united Canadian world eventually operating within the framework of the universalist model discussed above, where racial differences would be noted and respected, but would not be definitive, would not be the main factor governing the resolution of every question arising in future between the parties.

There was the sense and idea that, as William Wuttunee stated (above),  the reserve system would only be temporary, would only be in place until the schools and the agricultural allotments and implements did their work, resulting eventually in Indian-Canadians becoming assimilated, integrated and self-sustaining.

It wasn’t an overtly pro-integration, pro-assimilation feeling. The times and circumstances were not ready for that. This was the nineteenth century after all – the century of Europe achieving hegemony over the undeveloped world – the century of the formal, intellectual resurrection and high refinement of racial and anti-semitic, “scientific theory” – the century of social Darwinism and the White Man’s Burden.

But the feelings surrounding the treaty signings nonetheless contained the seeds of something humanly good – a healthy sense amongst the participants that race, in the big scheme of things, in the long view, didn’t really matter, and if integration or assimilation did occur, (that was after all the unapologetic long-term goal of Canada), that was the best of all possible outcomes for all.

No doubt the degree and intensity of those feelings has ebbed and flowed in Canada’s history since then. Clearing the Plains and the Keewatin case describe the ebb of those good feelings and intentions and that good Crown conduct after the departure or death of the major participants in the making of the treaties. As those people died, as the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth, as settlement and urbanization increased, as the hopes that Indians would take up agriculture faded, Canada and the provinces entered into a period of neglect towards our Indians.

Some treaty provisions were ignored or diminished. The new Crown agents and representatives, like the crook Dewdney in Clearing the Plains who cheated and deprived the Indians of food, medicine and other provisions, unlike the original Crown signatories to the treaties, were distant, new-urban bureaucrats who too often represented the worst aspects of high-Victorian racial arrogance and insensitivity, and who, through a complete lack of personal experience, had never had the privilege of experiencing the beauty and dignity of the Indian character.

Jan Morris, in Heaven’s  Command,2 the first volume of her Pax Britannica trilogy about the rise and fall of the British Empire, describes this phenomenon. The first adventuresome generations of British colonizers, sans wives and other such homeland restraints and strictures, mixed freely in every respect with the locals on the basis of equality, mutual dependency and mutual respect. But inevitably, once the way was cleared and basic colonial stability achieved, came the wives, “determined to keep their menfolk healthy and orthodox in mind as in flesh,” military forces, administrators and all the other usual, necessary and various bean-counters that accompany “civilization.”

The focus changed from all that previous mutuality to one of increasing social distance. Eventually the colonial “masters” almost completely socially withdrew and isolated themselves from their suddenly now “heathen” charges, regarding them mainly as pitiable human inferiors in dire need of Anglicization and the Word of the Christian Lord.

Something like this happened in Canada. Peter C. Newman in Company of Adventurers3 vividly describes the original dynamic and respectful interaction between Europeans and Indians, the phenomenon typified by many of the Europeans taking “country wives.” Clearly the original explorers and settlers of Canada, and the original Crown signers of our Indian treaties, knew from personal experience that their Indian counterparts were anything but heathens or “savages.”

One or two generations later however, as in India – as in many European colonies the world over during this period – the agents and representatives of the Crowns of Canada, lacking  down-to-earthedness and caught in the grip of that Darwinian, Victorian snobbery and sense of racial superiority that so permeated the era, never learned about Indians what their predecessors had learned from direct experience, and thus wrongly viewed them more negatively – and their behavior towards them reflected that.

Instead of being regarded as fully-dimensional human beings intended to be a vital part of the fabric of Canada, Indians became indifferently regarded as a sort of remote, physically isolated and segregated, social “other”, (not unlike, as I argue in The Essential Humanity of the Migrators to Canada, above, the way many Indian elites today seem to regard “Whites” as the “other”), or as a  merely impersonal, far-away, subject matter of government files. As Richard Gwyn wrote in Nation Maker, during this later period “…for close to a century, to be an Indian was to be invisible, so far as the government and the majority of Canadians were concerned.”

Regardless, that was then. For me and, I believe, Canadians in general, in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, as the Victorian era was finally coming to a close, those original positive feelings and ideals, including  John A. MacDonald’s notion that the Canadian nation could be primarily political rather than ethnic or racial, were beginning to flow again. And they were feelings, originally and, now in the present,  exemplified by Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, so much more positive, embracing and civilized than the sour, negative, legalistic-to-no-good-end, race-obsessed feelings and ideas our courts and our Indian and non-Indian establishments are promulgating today.

The pledges of eternal friendship made when the treaties were signed evidenced those positive feelings. Before the NorthWest Angle treaty was signed Alexander Morris took a chief’s hand and said:

… 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 as friends for ever….

Before the Qu’Appelle treaty was signed The Gambler, referring to the whites and the different Indian tribes present at the talks, said:

Look at these children that are sitting around here and also at the tents, who are just the image of my kindness. There are different kinds of grass growing here that is just like those sitting around here. There is no difference. Even from the American land they are here, but we love them all the same, and when the white skin comes from far away I love him all the same. I am telling you what our love and kindness is.

The Gambler saw no essential human differences between members of his Saulteaux tribe and either the Cree Indians there or the Indians who had been driven there from the United States.

But then, amazingly, he expanded his vision of humanity as essentially one all-encompassing family precariously existing under the same sheltering umbrella of mutual dependence, love and kindness, where race was no barrier to all being treated equally, by including the “white skin” in his profound and empathic declaration of human equality.

Describing people of different tribes, and then races, as merely different kinds of grass sharing the same earth, is so simple, brilliant and true. The Gambler was echoing what all the great thinkers, visionaries and humanists have always said: We are all nature’s children…any differences between us are so miniscule as to be cosmically laughable… We are all blades of grass in the same field. From a distance, we are indistinguishable. We must empathize with one another and focus on our countless, major similarities, not on our minor, illusory differences.

These great men were expressing the sentiment and idea that people are too diverse and complicated to only be able to be described and dealt with in accordance with a largely illusory identity supposedly arising from the mere fact of belonging to a certain race, religion or ethnic group. These singular affiliations constitute no rational or constructive basis upon which to categorize, judge and civically interact with other human beings. (see further, The Myths of Race and Racial Differences, below)

The Nobel Prize-winning writer Amartya Sen, in his book Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny,4 decries this tendency to “miniaturize” human beings by categorizing and describing them only with reference to their ancestry, ethnicity, religion, race or some other such outward characteristic, usually a characteristic that arises from a mere accident of birth, and, on the other hand, completely ignoring or downplaying the vast majority of personal characteristics that people have in common and which make us basically all the same.

He describes this exercise in artificiality as the civilizational partitioning” of human beings. He says the following about it:

The conceptual weakness of the attempt to achieve a singular understanding of the people of the world through civilizational partitioning not only works against our shared humanity, but also undermines the diverse identities we all have which do not place us against each other along one uniquely rigid line of segregation. Misdescription and misconception can make the world more fragile than it need be.

The wisdom and basic human empathy expressed by The Gambler on behalf of his people,  Alexander Morris on behalf of Canada, Sir David Cannadine, Amartya Sen, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Tony Judt (below), all correctly focusing on our shared humanity, is today nowhere to be found amongst the governing classes of Canada or amongst our current Indian elites. Today, our leaders, Indian and non-Indian, are actively encouraging, only sometimes with liberal intentions, but always with the most illiberal results, the negative and harmful partitioning of Indian and non-Indian Canadians into permanent, segregated, illusory, civilizational boxes, where each segment stays socially and politically trapped and impoverished.

In doing this these “leaders” have betrayed the cooperative, progressive, unitary and humanistic intentions of our common forefathers, have set us on a divisive path against nature, and against each other, and have broken the spirit, dispensed with the wording and frustrated the purposes of the old treaties – all to Canada’s great detriment, and especially to the impoverishing detriment of the vast majority of ordinary, powerless, vulnerable, disadvantaged Indian people, who deserve so much better.

Let us consider (the people who negotiated the treaties) hereafter without frustration, and regard the treaty period as a necessary development in the process of fusing the red and the white. – William Wuttunee- Ruffled Feathers

  1. Ruffled Feathers, above
  2. Jan Morris. Heaven’s Command. The Folio Society, 1992.
  3. Peter C. Newman. Company of Adventurers. Penguin Books, 1986.
  4. Amaryta Sen. Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. Norton, 2006.

By: Peter Best