IN DEPTH: ABORIGINAL CANADIANS
What is Treaty 8?
CBC News Online | July 02, 2004
On March 7, 2002, a federal court judge ruled that members of 23 native bands in northern Alberta were exempt from paying taxes, even if they lived off reserves. The ruling was based on Treaty 8, a treaty signed more than a century ago. Here's a look at Treaty 8 and what it means for the First Nations people affected.
Signed at Lesser Slave Lake, Alberta on June 21, 1899, Treaty 8 was the eighth agreement between North American Indians and the Queen of England. The signatories hoped Treaty No. 8 would bring peace and friendship between Indians and Europeans.
The treaty involves a land mass of approximately 840,000 square kilometres and covers the areas found in modern-day northern Alberta, northwestern Saskatchewan, northeastern British Columbia, and the southwest portion of the Northwest Territories. It includes 39 First Nation communities, 23 in Alberta, eight in British Columbia, six in the Northwest Territories and three in Saskatchewan. The three official First Nation languages recognized by the treaty are Cree, Dene and Chipweyan.
According to First Nation elders, the treaty was expected to be in place "...as long as the sun shines, the grass grows and the river flows..."
June 21, 1899
The treaty was signed by Winnipeg Indian Commissioner David Laird, Northwest Territorial Governor J.H. Ross and Indian Treaty Commissioner James A.J. Jackson. These men reported to the superintendent of Indian Affairs, the Hon. Clifford Sifton in Ottawa.
Treaty 8 First Nations of Alberta say it guarantees the signatory nations education, health care, hunting and fishing, exemption from taxes and war participation, natural resources, agricultural provisions, justice, 640 acres of land for each family of 5, or 160 acres of land for each person not living with a band. The treaty also guarantees a new suit of clothes for the chief and council every three years.
The treaty also established reserves across the region and First Nations people living on those reserves lived with all rights under the treaty. The law in Alberta currently allows tax exemption for First Nations people living on the reserves, but removes the exemption from those who move off reserve.
Members of Treaty 8 First Nations of Alberta
Treaty 8 First Nations of Alberta argued the case on behalf of Gordon Benoit of Fort McMurray. Benoit first brought the case to court in 1992.
In presenting his ruling at the Federal Court presiding Judge Douglas Campbell noted that under Treaty 8, "The plaintiff's are entitled to claim the benefits of Treaty 8, including the right not to have any tax imposed upon them at any time for any reason."
The 1899 report from the original commissioners to Ottawa says they "…assured them (First Nations) that the treaty would not lead to any forced interference with their mode of life, that it did not open the way to the imposition of any tax, and that there was no fear of enforced military service."
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) intervened in the case and argued that taxation based on race sets a divisive precedent in Canadian society.
"The decision is bad news for Canadian taxpayers," said the Federation's John Capay, " If one group of people on the basis of their ancestry can be exempt from taxes then necessarily it means higher taxes for other people that are not so lucky to be a part of that group."
Capay's organization argued that the progress of civilization is always towards equality, taking up the words of South Africa's anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela and U.S. civil rights champion Martin Luther King Jr. The CTF also argued that interpreting the Treaty in this way creates two sets of laws based on ethnic or racial background and is a recipe for disaster.
The CTF intends to file and appeal with the Federal Court and will take the case to the Supreme Court of Canada if necessary.
James Badger, who advised on the case for Treaty 8 Aboriginal people, accused Capay's group of incorrectly making the case an issue of race, but also recognised that, "Though historic, we have only won the battle, not the war."
Treaty 8 Grand Chief Clyde Goodswimmer expects a final decision on taxes under the treaty will allow his people the ability to leave their reserves to seek work or do business. He said this would allow those eligible under Treaty 8 the opportunity to expand outside the limitations imposed by the existing tax regime.
The ruling is expected to affect around 50,000 people who would have rights under the treaty.