B. Reasons for Negotiating and Signing the Prairie Treaties
For each of the Prairie Treaties, numbered one to seven, historical debate has arisen regarding governmental and Native reasons for negotiating the treaties as well as their roles in the negotiation and subsequent interpretation of the agreements.
BullHead, the great leader of the Tsuu T'ina (Sarcee)
Courtesy of the Glenbow Collection
The numbered treaties signed between 1871 and 1877 in Western Canada have traditionally been presented as a move by a paternalistic government trying to safeguard the interests of the First Nations. The First Nation groups represented as passive participants who accepted the guidance of the government. Later, the Indians were portrayed as innocents who were victimised and cheated by an unscrupulous government that sought to undermine their rights. In reality, the Canadian government's motivations in treating with the Indians were not as benevolent or malevolent as they have been portrayed, while the Indians had strong motivations to enter into negotiation with the Crown. In each case, the government and the First Nations saw treaties as necessary elements in achieving their very different goals.
A Tsuu T'ina (Sarcee) encampment at the base Mount Royal Hill looking down on Calgary ca.1890
Courtesy of the Glenbow Collection
Traditionally, the Indians of Western Canada have been assigned a passive role in bringing about proceedings for the formulation of treaties. A typical view states that the government controlled discussion and negotiations consisted only of the explanation of terms, the rejection of unreasonable demands, and the clarification of misconceptions about the government's assumption of responsibilities. In fact, some contend that the Indians never really understood what was happening. Therefore, they could have no motivations of their own and were forced to accept the priorities of the government. Recently, another picture of First Nation participation and motivation in the numbered treaties has been revealed. First Nations are portrayed as active participants in a series of negotiated settlements and as forcing the governments to make treaties earlier than they wished to. They also forced the government to deal with issues and matters the government had not wanted to include or be as generous as they were forced to be. For example, some bands in the Treaty 6 area requested that treaties be made five years before negotiations started and they obtained concessions far beyond the land and annuities that the government initially offered. The First Nations also pushed the government to treat by interfering with surveyors and telegraphers as well as turning back white settlers until treaty processes had been set in motion.
Indian motivations in the time of the numbered treaties were primarily based on an attempt to protect Native culture, a search for a viable method of sustenance and protection of their land from settlers. Through the treaty process, Indian bands hoped to ensure the physical and cultural survival of their people, establish peaceful relations with the government and make a transition to a new way of life, namely that of agriculture. The First Nations of Western Canada felt that their culture and their existence were threatened by settlement pressure from the East and the depleted resource base which they to the coming settlers. The first groups in the West to treat, the Ojibwa and the Swampy Cree, expressed concern about the population moving onto their lands. Later, concerns were expressed by the Plains Cree regarding the advance of settlers into their territory. Most Indians knew that western settlement presented a danger to Native claims on land and that the large number of Europeans could threaten Indian culture. As a result, Natives were anxious to assure themselves of a land base that could be used to protect themselves, and they were also eager to deal with the government before settlement had taken over Indian land, leaving the bands nothing to bargain with. Most Indians realised that settlement would come with or without treaties and were determined to obtain concessions that would allow their people and culture to survive.
In addition to worries regarding settlement pressure, Prairie First Nations were also concerned with establishing and securing peaceful and cordial relations with the Canadian government. Kinship and political ties with the Natives of the United States made Canadian Indians aware of the problems with settlers and their government there. Loss of territory, disease, and extensive Indian wars south of the border had decimated the Native population there and Canadian Indians were determined to avoid the influence of the United States government. In addition, the British colonial administration of British North America had a record of dealing with the First Nations of this region in a benign manner and this policy was expected to continue with the Dominion government. Therefore, if outside governments had to be dealt with, the Canadian was certainly the better of two evils from the Native point of view.
Most importantly, many Prairies people had come to the realisation that their environment was changing and that a change of lifestyle was necessary to survive. More efficient and intensive hunting and fishing techniques resulted in the decline of game. Buffalo, in particular, were becoming scarce by the 1870s due to the demand for pemmican, changes in hunting techniques due to the introduction of the horse, the repeating rifle, increases in Indian population, and increased trade in buffalo robes. The Cree had called upon the government to protect the remaining buffalo herds by limiting hunting to Natives only but, despite these measures, most leaders recognised that growing pressures were bringing their nomadic hunting and gathering way of life to an end. Consequently, the Prairie First Nations sought to adopt a lifestyle that would allow the maintenance of their culture while ensuring their physical survival. Agriculture and stock raising were seen by them as viable alternatives to their nomadic lifestyle. As a result, the Indians of the Prairies were eager to treat with the government in order to obtain help in making the transition to a new way of life. In particular, the Indians of the numbered treaties sought education in agricultural methods and enough supplies and tools to start their farms. Thus, the First Nations were motivated to treat with the government in order to obtain help in securing their livelihood and developing a new method of sustenance.
Traditional interpretation of the Canadian government's motives in negotiating and signing treaties with the Indians of Western Canada focused on the government's plan to assimilate Natives into European society. According to this theory, the government's actions were part of a well-developed and benevolent plan to protect the First Nations from the worst parts of white society like alcoholism, while educating them to see the wisdom in adopting the best parts of the Newcomer's society. For example, Christianity and the practice of agriculture were considered important components of European culture and important building blocks in convincing the First Nations to accept other aspects of European culture. More recent interpretation has revealed that the actions of the government, thought to be a careful and deliberate scheme, were really not developed into a comprehensive plan. Currently, there is debate among historians regarding whether the government had any plan for Indian policy in the West. Some argue that the government had no plan at all while others claim that a governmental plan did exist, but was sketchy. Many historians argue that the Canadian government intended merely to extend pre-Confederation Native policy to the post-Confederation period, following the precedents set by the Robinson Treaties and the Manitoulin Island Treaty.
Whether the Canadian government had any previously considered plan or not, it did have clear objectives in its treaty dealings. The government felt that treaties were necessary to facilitate the opening of the West to settlement and to promote the First Nations' assimilation into European society.
Siksika Chief Issapo'mahkikaaw (Crowfoot)
Courtesy of the Glenbow Collection
Settlement of the Prairies was far and away the most significant consideration for the government in its determination to negotiate treaties. Because the Dominion of Canada had only recently become a country, it was anxious to draw Europeans to settle its lands, thereby establishing its hold on Rupert's Land, formerly a Hudson's Bay Company possession. The negotiation of treaties with the Natives of the area was a very effective way to accomplish this goal. In addition, the government of Canada wished to promote settlement and development without the costly and lengthy Indian wars that had plagued the Western United States. Thus, peaceful agreements were necessary. In addition to these considerations, the Royal Proclamation of 1763 had established the Indians as the rightful occupiers of their hunting grounds until such time as these were ceded to a governmental authority. Under this act, private individuals could not buy or take land in Indian country. Therefore, Indian title to the Prairies had to be extinguished before significant settlement could take place.
The federal government negotiated treaties in areas needed for transportation lines, or which were good farmland. Areas with little potential for settlement, such as the North, were left without treaty. The government felt that treaties and land settlements in desirable areas should be settled before the Indians realised the value of their lands to the Europeans, thereby ensuring that the government could procure cheap and favourable terms in the agreements. Immediate catalysts for each of the specific numbered treaties varied, however. First Nations interference with surveying and telegraphing crews was significant in several areas. A determination to remove any danger to incoming settler and railway crews also prompted the government to negotiate the Prairie Treaties. Treaties One and Two were negotiated because settlers were being stopped from moving west of Portage La Prairie while Treaty Three allowed immigrants safe passage to the west and secured the railway route. The catalyst for Treaty Four consisted of Indian interference with the geological survey which was establishing the border between Canada and the United States, and Treaty Five secured a source of timber for the settlers. Finally, Treaty Six negotiations were motivated by the First Nation refusal to allow telegraphing crews on their lands, and concerns regarding the safety of settlers prompted negotiations for Treaty 7. Although the immediate catalysts were different in each case, all of the numbered treaties were negotiated by the government of Canada primarily on the basis of pressure for settlement and transportation.
Although assimilation was primarily a secondary motivation for making treaty with the Indians of the Prairies, an obligation to improve the lot of the "red man" by introducing European culture did exist. Assimilation was believed to be in the best interests of both the Natives and white settlers. The civilising process that would improve the lot of the Indian would also render them harmless to the advancing settlers. In addition to this advantage, there was also the idea of the "white man's burden," an imperialistic impulse which asserted that Europeans (especially the British) had an obligation to civilise the "savages". The result of these urges towards civilising Natives was a paternalistic attitude in which Indians were regarded as wards of the state, thus ensuring that they would be taught the beneficial parts of the dominant society while being protected from its harmful aspects. Governmental opinion generally held that any losses the First Nations experienced due to settlement were outweighed by their gains in being lifted from "savagery". The treaties were expected to aid the goal of assimilation in that they would provide agriculture, education and religion, the tools necessary to transform the Indians into members of the larger society. Obviously, the government knew that, for assimilation to occur, the cultural identity of the Natives had to be eliminated. After the signing of the treaties this became the federal government's priority.
In any case, assimilation did not work, nor did the so-called genocide, and the budget of the Dept of Indian and Northern Affairs keeps rising. Rising to the point where it costs the Canadian taxpayer over $10,000.00 per native, man, woman, and child. In my estimation, this was not genocide but stupidity.