Below is an answer I wrote to one of this week’s tutorial questions from my History 201: Canada from Confederation to World War II class. The question was Why did Canada sign treaties in the 1870s with the First Nations of the Plains? Why did the First Nations sign treaties with Canada?
When the Government of Canada signed the numbered treaties with the First Nations of the Plains in the 1870s, their motivations were almost entirely selfish and acting in their own best interest. Due to the Royal Proclamation of 1763, settlers were not able to occupy any territory that had not been first surrendered to the Crown by the First Nations. As the Canadian government was determined to advance settlement West, they needed to find a way to gain ownership over this land. This was the driving force behind treaty negotiations. The government also wanted to avoid messy conflicts with First Nations peoples similar to what had been experienced in America. Reserves would rid the desired land of First Nations and open them up for settlement. In the 1870s, the Canadian government only desired the lands located in the Prairie West but would eventually want lands in the northern regions (where Treaties 8 through 12 were signed) once they determined they had something to gain from acquiring this area. Signing treaties made the First Nations peoples wards of the Crown and in doing so, denied them citizenship privileges. The treaties were a means for Ottawa to control, manipulate, and assimilate the First Nations peoples by forcing them to surrender their culture and traditions, adopt agriculture, convert to Christianity, and accept White education. All of this would be achieved by enfranchisement, or terminating their Indian status, through the Indian Act of 1876. The government viewed the First Nations peoples as a “dying race” and believed treaties would ease the transition into White society.
The First Nations peoples that signed treaties, viewed them very differently than the Canadian government. Where Canada saw treaties as legal agreements, the First Nations peoples believed them to be sacred promises made between two sovereign nations and the Creator. According to Saskatchewan Elders as quoted in Treaty Elders of Saskatchewan: Our Dream is That Our Peoples Will One Day Be Clearly Recognized as Nations, “the First Nations’ first and foremost objective in the treaty-making process was to have the new peoples arriving in their territories recognize and affirm their continuing right to maintain, as peoples, the First Nations relationships with the Creator through the laws given to them by Him” (pg. 7). They were not surrendering their sovereignty but as was evident in the signing of Treaty 7, they viewed signing treaty as a pact of friendship, peace, and mutual support. The First Nations peoples believed treaties created a familial relationship between them and Canada and that the alliance they were forging was subject to annual renewal. On a more practical note, signing treaties would result in reciprocation from the government through the obtainment of reserve lands, amenities, and the right to fish and hunt on Crown lands. In Treaty 6, the First Nations peoples were not surrendering the land, but instead believed they would share it with the newcomers including the duties and responsibilities for the land. Treaty 6 also included a medicine chest in case of disease such as smallpox, measles, or tuberculosis. The decline of the buffalo had led to widespread famine among First Nations peoples so there was also the expectation of food from the government. Ultimately, the First Nations peoples needed to protect their future generations and sought treaties as their hope for survival against the imminent arrival and takeover by White people.
Following are some photos I took of a montage created by Lita Fontaine called Blood (Remnants of my Grandmothers) that hangs at the University of Regina .
Through her piece, Lita Fontaine “honours her grandmother and exposes the government legislation that affected Fontaine and her family.” She describes this piece as concerning reclamation as it exposes the Indian Act through which she lost her Indian status only to regain it and “some validation of her identity and ancestry” through Bill C-31.
The reason I chose to include my response to a question in my History class and this piece by Fontaine are to show the stark contrast between what it is to just learn treaty history and what it is to actually live and feel treaties. I visited Fontaine’s work in person so I could get a close look at some of the details and symbols she included. It was immediately evident to me how much of herself Fontaine poured into this piece. In contrast, when I read over my response to the History question, although well-written and thorough, it is definitely clinical and systematic compared to what Fontaine has created. Both pieces tell a story about treaties, and I will give myself points for mentioning the sacredness of treaties in my response, but Fontaine has created something that is clearly exposing her soul and is honouring the forgotten sacredness that treaties hold.
I have experienced, through this class, what it is to live treaties and not just regurgitate some canned answer put together from a History book and The Canadian Encyclopedia. I am very happy to say that at one time the response from the History class would have been my default format, but since experiencing moments such as the Blanket Exercise and the Treaty Walk, my immediate response to treaties now is to think about their sacredness and what they mean to all of us as partners in treaties. In my History class I am required to answer the questions posed in a very well written and grammatically correct response, hence the canned answer. It is ironic that we talk about disrupting curriculum, especially curriculum in History and Social Studies classes, and my History class is a prime example of curriculum from a completely Euro-western perspective. When I am an educator, I will remember what these two types of treaty education looked like side-by-side. I will likely not remember all of the details from the History answer, but I will remember what the sacredness of treaties felt like and will be able to help my students feel it too.