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Chief Crowfoot, the Siksika chief and diplomat who helped negotiate Treaty 7, could front Canada's new $5 bill

A renowned Siksika chief and diplomat who helped negotiate Treaty 7 — a historic and controversial 1877 deal between the federal government and the First Nations in what is now southern Alberta — could be the face of Canada's new $5 bill.

Issapomahksika was a primary negotiator in deal between federal government and First Nations in 1877

Issapomahksika, or Chief Crowfoot, is pictured in this 1886 photo, taken by Oliver Buell. Chief Crowfoot's diplomacy led to his role as one of the primary negotiators of Treaty 7, the agreement between the federal government and the First Nations of the region — which the federal government considered to be part of the Northwest Territories at the time.  (O.B. Buell/Library and Archives Canada/C-001871)

A renowned Siksika chief and diplomat who helped negotiate Treaty 7 — a historic and controversial 1877 deal between the federal government and the First Nations in what is now southern Alberta — could be the face of Canada's new $5 bill.

Issapomahksika, or Chief Crowfoot, was one of eight nominees shortlisted by the Bank of Canada on Monday, out of 600 potential candidates. A decision on the new bill will be made by the finance minister early next year. 

The news was welcomed by his descendent Chief Ouray Crowfoot, who currently leads the Siksika First Nation, located about 100 kilometres southeast of Calgary.

"To me, it's about bringing the recognition and the acknowledgement of the Blackfoot people to all of Canada," Ouray Crowfoot said.

"Everybody has a $5 bill in their pocket … [and] it's a way of bringing Chief Crowfoot to every single Canadian."

He said choosing his great-great-great-grandfather would help educate Canadians about an important historical leader.

"I would think it would bring about some curiosity. Maybe people would say, 'Wow. Who is this person? I've never heard of Chief Crowfoot,'" Ouray Crowfoot said.

"And then they … start researching, and they go, 'Wow. I didn't realize that this person was connected with all these things.'"

'He had all the qualities of a leader'

Chief Crowfoot was born in 1830 to parents from the Blood Tribe. He was five when his father was killed during a raid by the Crow Tribe on his community, and his mother remarried a Siksika (Blackfoot) man. He was raised with the Siksika.

As a young man, he gained a reputation as a warrior, before becoming a chief in his 30s. He was known for diplomacy, cautioning against attacks on Hudson's Bay Company traders and building relationships with other Indigenous nations and the North West Mounted Police, according to The Canadian Encyclopedia. 

"He had all the qualities of a leader," said Ouray Crowfoot.

Why Chief Crowfoot is on the short list for Canada's next $5 bill

1 year ago
Duration 4:42
This First Nation chief from what is now known as Alberta could be on the next $5 bill. Find out Issapomahksika's legacy from his great, great, great grandson. 4:42

"You have to know when to be a warrior, as a leader. You also have to know when to be diplomatic. You have to put your people first." 

Chief Crowfoot adopted Poundmaker, a notable Cree chief, cementing a relationship between the Blackfoot and Cree. 

He also negotiated with Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux Chief Sitting Bull, who had proposed waging war against the U.S. and NWMP.

Crowfoot refused the offer, but when Sitting Bull and the Lakota came north as refugees from the U.S., the two chiefs made peace. 

Treaty 7 brought big changes 

Chief Crowfoot's diplomacy led to his role as one of the primary negotiators of Treaty 7, the agreement between the federal government and the First Nations of the region — which the federal government considered to be part of the Northwest Territories at the time. 

Treaty 7, signed on Sept. 22, 1877, at Blackfoot Crossing on what is now the Siksika reserve, resulted in a number of changes.

​It cleared the way for greater settlement of the area but the agreement also created the reserves that are still home to the Blackfoot, Stoney and Tsuut'ina peoples.

The federal government committed in the treaty to assisting Indigenous people by providing education and agricultural assistance as well as annual treaty payments in exchange for the First Nations ceding the land to the Crown.

For the First Nations, it was seen as more of a peace treaty and an agreement to share — not surrender — their traditional lands. 

"When he was going through that treaty situation, he wasn't worried about [himself]. He was worried about his people for the next several generations," Ouray Crowfoot said.

"You've got to have foresight, and the ability to gather all those different nations together."

  • Watch the 2014 video below to see some of the regalia belonging to Chief Crowfoot that the Siksika First Nation hoped would soon be returned after sitting in a British museum for more than a century. The process stalled, but restarted in 2020 and it's now hoped that the regalia will be returned when COVID-19 travel restrictions ease.

Chief Crowfoot regalia returns

8 years ago
Duration 2:24

'Your money is not as good as our land'

Blackfoot Crossing, now a national heritage site, has a story on its website describing Crowfoot's encounter with one of the white treaty negotiators.

According to the story, the white man said he would give Crowfoot money — or pieces of paper. As the story goes, Crowfoot took a handful of clay, balled it up, and threw it on to the fire — then asked the negotiator if he could do the same with his paper money. 

"Oh, your money is not as good as our land, is it? The wind will blow it away; the fire will burn it; water will rot it. Nothing will destroy our land. You don't make a very good trade…. As a present we will give you anything you can take with you, but we cannot give you the land," Crowfoot reportedly said. 

After the treaty signing, Crowfoot became more disillusioned with the Canadian government, according to The Canadian Encyclopedia, as his people faced starvation and mistreatment. 

Despite his disillusionment, during the North West Rebellion, Crowfoot advised the Blackfoot Nation not to join the conflict —"less out of loyalty to the government than from the belief that it was a losing fight," historian Hugh Dempsy wrote — but he did allow Cree refugees to shelter on their land.

His adopted son Poundmaker's band was attacked by Canadian troops as part of the conflict in 1885, and Poundmaker was arrested for treason — dying of illness at home shortly after his release from prison. 

Musical homage and Shatner endorsement

After a long period of failing health, Crowfoot died on April 25, 1890. Crowfoot's grave is located in the valley where Treaty 7 was signed. 

Crowfoot is also the subject of another piece of Canadian history — the country's first known music video. 

The 1968 NFB film Ballad Of Crowfoot, by Mi'kmaq/Scottish folk singer and activist Willie Dunn, is a powerful story of Crowfoot's life and the terrible impacts of settler colonialism. 

Crowfoot already has a celebrity endorsement — William Shatner wrote on social media that out of the shortlist, Crowfoot would be his choice for the bill. 

Other nominees

The nominees for the new $5 bill were chosen based on five guiding principles, the bank said:

  • They changed Canada for the better.
  • Their impact is known nationally.
  • Their impact is relevant today.
  • Their impact reflects Canadian values.
  • They are uniquely Canadian. 

The others on the shortlist, in alphabetical order, include:

  • Inuit printmaker Pitseolak Ashoona.
  • Journalist, author and feminist Robertine Barry.
  • Band chief, Indigenous rights advocate and First World War hero Francis Pegahmagabow.
  • The only person of Chinese descent to have voted before and after the disenfranchisement legislation, Won Alexander Cumyow.
  • Unitarian Service Committee of Canada founder Lotta Hitschmanova.
  • National icon, athlete and activist Terry Fox 
  • League of Indians of Canada founder Frederick Loft, or Onondeyoh.

With files from Colleen Underwood

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