Between 1760 and 1923, the British Crown signed 56 land treaties with Aboriginal Peoples. Part of the protocol was to award a medal to the chiefs who signed certain treaties. On one side of the medal was a bust of Queen Victoria; on the other, a British officer and a native chief shaking hands.

For Michael Anderson, this handshake symbolizes the profound meaning of historic treaties. Anderson is research director of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, an organization that defends the political interests of the some 30 groups that signed treaties 4, 5, 6 and 10.

"The essence of the treaty was to create a nation together that will exist in perpetuity, for as long as the sun shines, the grass grows and the waters flow," Anderson said. "The core concept is to share the traditional land of the First Nations who have entered into a treaty with the Crown and the Canadian settlers, and also to benefit from the Crown’s resources, such as medicine and education."

But the text of the written treaties tells a whole other story. According to these documents, native groups surrendered all of their rights to the land in exchange for small reserves and meagre compensation.

For the British Crown, the treaties offered substantial benefits, such as:

  • freeing up land for loyalists who had supported the British during the American War of Independence;
  • advancing colonization in the West;
  • providing agricultural land and natural and mineral resources.

Sometimes, aboriginal communities themselves sought treaties, because settler expansion had greatly diminished wildlife populations and they feared starvation.

These historical treaties cover present-day Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, the Northwest Territories, and parts of Yukon and British Columbia.

From oral to written treaties

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This treaty was signed between the Crown and native groups in Upper Canada. (Library and Archives Canada)

Were the treaties signed on equal terms? Reports of the negotiations, recorded in the treaty commissioners’ diaries, would suggest not. The oral tradition, maintained by aboriginal elders, also shows discrepancies between the treaty texts and the verbal content of negotiations.

In essence, the surrender of land rights was based on the concept of private property — an incomprehensible notion in aboriginal culture.

The treaties were negotiated in a matter of days, in English, with interpreters who were not always equal to the task. They were signed by aboriginal chiefs who generally could not read English and who had not been advised by anyone. Often, the negotiation process did not respect the community’s hierarchical structure.

On several occasions, aboriginal groups indicated that they wanted to continue hunting and fishing. The English negotiators led them to believe they would be able to do so. In reality, the treaty texts only allowed them to hunt on lands that were not occupied by white settlers, and also included regulations that could prohibit these activities during certain periods of the year.

To make themselves understood, the British used a language very different from that used in the treaty texts. Queen Victoria was referred to as "the Great White Mother," and the native people as her "Red Children."

Take, for example, this speech by commissioner David Laird, who negotiated Treaty 7 with the Blackfoot:

"The Great Spirit has made all things—the sun, the moon, and the stars, the earth, the forest, and the swift running rivers. It is by the Great White Spirit that the Queen rules over this great country and other great countries. The Great Spirit has made the white man and the red man brothers, and we should take each other by the hand. The Great Mother loves all her children, white man and red man alike; she wishes to do them all good."

The Supreme Court of Canada has recognized the need to interpret the treaties in light of what was said before they were signed. "The treaties, as written documents, recorded an agreement that had already been reached orally and they did not always record the full extent of the oral agreement," reads the Badger judgment, handed down in 1996. This judgment states that it is necessary to interpret treaties "in the sense that they would naturally have been understood by the Indians at the time of the signing."

From then to now

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Haida musicians perform a song before a 2004 news conference. The Haida people were celebrating a Supreme Court decision that said the province has a legal duty to consult the First Nation about timber harvesting. (Chuck Stoody/CP)

The land has been developed since the treaties were brought into effect. Some of it has been turned into immense wheat fields. The subsurface is rich in oil, uranium, copper, gold and diamonds that are lining the pockets of oil and mining companies. Forests feed the lumber and pulp and paper industries.

The First Nations living in these areas maintain that their ancestors would never have surrendered their rights to the land and its resources. They continue to hope that the dialogue started at the time of the original negotiations will be continued.

Once again, the Supreme Court can play an important role. Two judgments rendered in 2004 (Haida and Taku River Tlingit) ruled that the government must consult with Aboriginal Peoples when their ancestral rights could be undermined by development, and must accommodate them, if applicable. These ancestral rights are tied to the practices, traditions and customs of aboriginal societies before contact with the Europeans.

For Michael Anderson, the research director of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, this duty imposed by the Court is a means to renew the tie established between the Crown and Aboriginal Peoples at the time the treaties were signed: "We see the duty to consult as a central mechanism to operationalize the treaty relationship in the 21st century."

The notion of a tie of trust is at the heart of the strategy titled Sacred Treaties, Sacred Trust: Working Together for Treaty Implementation and Advancing our Sovereignty as Nations, adopted in 2010 by Canada’s Assembly of First Nations.

This strategy seeks to support treaty signatories and their efforts to have their rights recognized. Planned measures include setting up an independent tribunal and developing mechanisms to share resource development revenues.