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The Indian Treaties of the North West

by Douglas Kemp

Manitoba Pageant, April 1960, Volume 5, Number 3

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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"So soon as the North West Territories are added to Canada questions of great importance and delicacy will arise connected with the position, rights and claims of the Indians of the wide country." Sir John A. Macdonald speaking thus, in December, 1869, was anticipating the problem which lay ahead of the Dominion Government with respect to the fulfillment of an obligation assumed when the terms of the Deed of Surrender of the Hudson's Bay Company territory were accepted. Article 14 of the Deed stated, "Any claims of Indians to compensation for lands required for purposes of settlement shall be disposed of by the Canadian Government in communication with the Imperial Government ..." The Government had given its bond and on taking over the North West in July, 1870, it hastened to honour the commitment.

Between 1871 and 1877, the Government negotiated seven treaties with the Indians of Manitoba and the North West Territories, by which the Indians agreed to, "... 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 ..." The compensation offered by the Government varied somewhat as between treaties, but, in general, amounted to a gratuity and perpetual annuity to each Indian, the assignment of reserves of sufficient size to allow a specified amount of land to each family of five, a yearly issue to each band of powder, shot, ball and twine, agricultural implements, tools, seeds, oxen and cattle to those bands who would engage in agriculture, and the maintenance of a school for each band when settled on a reserve.

Map prepared from Department of the Interior map of 1876

For the first years, the administration of the early treaties was inefficient and ineffective. Among the individuals and agencies concerned with various aspects of Indian affairs there was an inability to co-operate and to co-ordinate their activities and progress was laboured. The Indians in the Manitoba area had long been in contact with the white man, and they were familiar with, even though they might not understand, his propensity to take up a fixed abode and to look to the soil for his livelihood. They had never felt the urge to imitate this intruder upon their domain in his industrious agrarian pursuits, but when faced, as they were, with the necessity of finding an alternative to the nomadic life of the chase as a means of subsistence, they embraced the Government's reservation plan with hope and confidence. The burden of fulfilling the treaty terms rested with the Government. The letter of the treaty law required more strict observance; less delay in surveying and assigning Reserves, more punctuality in making annuity payments and in distributing implements and provisions. There was, moreover, a need to observe more liberally the spirit of the treaties. As an Indian Commissioner of the day noted: "... they do not comprehend the conditions of the new existence which is imposed on them. They have not sufficient means, nor notions of the practice of industry and economy to operate with success the necessary transition if we abandon them to their own resources, whilst with a little support and aid on the part of the Government we may hope for the most satisfactory results."

A reorganization of the administrative service took place in February, 1876 and it was in no way premature. The area of Government responsibility had undergone a marked expansion both in the size of the territory to be supervised, and in the numbers of treaty adherents who looked forward to the promised advantages which their new life, under the fostering care of the Queen's representatives, would bring to them. Many of these children of the Great Mother were still at a most primitive level and the administration of their affairs would require the utmost in judgment, patience and good faith. Echoes of the Sioux war drum and the cavalry bugle were heard across the border to the south; an ominous warning to those who would break faith with the red man. Across the rolling plains lay the extended fingers of settlement soon to dose and grasp the soil for the binder and the plough. The reorganization involved the establishment of two Superintendencies in the West and Indian affairs were to be conducted under Superintendents and agents.

The Manitoba Superintendency included the territory embraced by Treaties One, Two and Five and so much of Treaty Three as was not or would not be included in the Province of Ontario. The North West Superintendency was composed of the territory covered by Treaty Four and by any treaties which might be concluded with the Indians in the Territories east of the Rocky Mountains. Treaties Six and Seven were signed in the years 1876 and 1877 respectively and there began a long period of difficult administration for the officials of the North West Superintendency.

The Indians in this Superintendency were in a very primitive state when the treaty negotiations were concluded and very few of them showed any inclination to adopt a settled existence. Thousands of the Indians continued to roam in search of the vanishing buffalo, appearing before the Government agents only at annuity time, or when destitute, to beg for food. So far as the Canadian Indians were concerned, the buffalo had ceased to be the source of food by 1879. With the extermination of the buffalo, a harrowing period of privation and of readjustment came for the Indian. The Government had the task of feeding the starving and demoralized natives, and of persuading them to abandon their life of wandering for one of industry and security on the reserves. Prompt and generous action by the Government, and disappointing experiences on the hunt, finally induced them to accept new ways. By 1883, most of the Plains Indians had been located on reserves, for the most part of their own choosing. To teach the Indians some of the arts of farming the Government established model farms adjacent to the reserves and placed farm instructors in charge. The method of teaching by precept was not successful, however, so the Government sold many of the farms, and the instructors were placed on the reserves to show the Indians how to perform farm labour, and to have them do the work themselves. To a degree, at least, this system was a success.

The administration of Indian affairs cost enormous sums in the transition period, and when the Government finally got the majority of the Indians on reserves where they could produce some of their own needs, it introduced economy measures. It is sometimes alleged that such measures were a prime factor in the Indian support of the North West Rebellion of 1885 but there is little evidence to support such a claim and, in addition, only a very few recalcitrants were involved. Down to our time, the administration of Indian affairs has presented a continuing challenge for the Government; a challenge that is still met with the same sympathetic understanding that characterized the early approach to this important element in the development and settlement of the North West.

Page revised: 30 June 2009

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