First Nations' livelihood, identity, and links to Canada are tied to the treaty relationship. In this column, though the topic of treaties is vast, I will do my best to explain what treaties are, how they began, and why they are still important to First Nations people today.
First of all, here is a definition of what a treaty is:
"A treaty is an express agreement under international law entered into by actors in international law, namely sovereign states and international organizations. A treaty may also be known as an (international) agreement, protocol, covenant, convention or exchange of letters, among other terms. Regardless of terminology, all of these forms of agreement are under international law, equally considered treaties and the rules are the same." (Wikipedia)
According to the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada website, "Starting in 1701, in what was to eventually become Canada, the British Crown entered into solemn treaties to encourage peaceful relations between First Nations and non-Aboriginal people," and "Over the next several centuries, treaties were signed to define, among other things, the respective rights of Aboriginal people and governments to use and enjoy lands that Aboriginal people traditionally occupied."1
The government of Canada and the courts understand treaties between the Crown and First Nations peoples to be solemn agreements that set out promises, obligations and benefits for both parties. However, as decades passed after first contact and as more Europeans came to North America, First Nations and Europeans began to need formal co-operative agreements.
These agreements included treaties and trade contracts, some of which were dated back to the 1600s. The benefits of these agreements varied for all those involved. Some of the agreements were written and others were oral. Some were recorded by other means, such as wampum belts or strings. Some of the agreements were made official through ceremonies.
Although treaties and agreements in the eighteenth century were legitimate for First Nations and Britain, they were made formal in traditional ceremonies and were based on written British law -- it is highly contestable whether the First Nations and the British perceived the agreements the same way. From a First Nations perspective, "trade was meant for distribution of wealth to group members rather than for personal accumulation. Misunderstandings at this time had profound consequences later."2
The purpose of these agreements also varied. When conflict arose between European nations, between First Nations, or between European and First Nations -- alliances were formed to resolve the conflict. These alliances often meant that the agreements secured good business relationships. This all changed, however when Europeans focused their attention on colonization and land acquisition. For First Nations peoples, the terms of the treaties evolved from peace and friendship to a means of security as they faced overwhelming numbers of colonizers and settlers as well as the disintegration of their traditional way of life.
Treaties include historic treaties made between 1701 and 1923, and modern day treaties, which are known as "comprehensive land claim settlements." Treaties already in existence in 1982 (the year the Constitution Act was passed), and those that came afterwards, are recognized and affirmed by Canada's Constitution.
Several treaties were signed after the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and before Confederation in 1867. These include "the Upper Canada Treaties (1764 to 1862) and the Vancouver Island Treaties (1850 to 1854)."3
It was under these treaties that First Nations surrendered interests in lands in areas located in what's known today as the provinces of Ontario and British Columbia. They surrendered their interest in lands in exchange for certain other benefits that could include reserves, annual payments or other types of payment, and certain rights to hunt and fish. The Crown also made promises such as maintaining schools on reserves, providing teachers or educational help to the First Nation named in the treaties. For instance, Treaty No. 6 included the promise of a medicine chest.
It was between 1871 and 1921 that the Crown entered into treaties with various First Nations so that it could enable them to actively pursue agriculture, settlement and resource development of the Canadian West and the North. These treaties are called the "Numbered Treaties" because they are numbered 1 to 11. The numbered treaties cover Northern Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, parts of the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and British Columbia.
Under the numbered treaties, there were specific benefits that were to be enacted upon by the Crown. Upon giving up large tracts of land to the Crown, in return the treaties were to provide reserve lands, and other benefits such as farm equipment and animals, annual payments, ammunition, clothing and certain rights to hunt and fish.
The understanding of treaties differs between the First Nations of Canada and the Crown (government of Canada). According to the book Nation to Nation: A Resource on Treaties in Ontario, written and produced by the Union of Ontario Indians, "On a deeper level Indian treaties are sometimes understood particularly on the Aboriginal side, as solemn pacts or sacred covenants between peoples that establish the underlying principles for the relationship linking those for whom Canada is an ancient homeland with those whose deepest family roots lie in other countries."4
Modern treaties today include comprehensive claims, specific claims and self-government. These types of claims can be difficult for the layperson to understand; even I have some difficulty understanding them, but from my research I have learned that comprehensive land claim settlements deal with areas of Canada where Aboriginal peoples' claims to Aboriginal rights have not been addressed by treaties, or other legal means. Specific claims deal with the past grievances of First Nations, and these grievances relate to Canada's obligations under historic treaties or the way it managed First Nations funds or assets, and lastly, self-government agreements are one means of building sound governance and institutional capacity that will allow First Nations communities to contribute to and participate in, the decisions that affect their lives and carry out effective relationships with other governments.
Self-governance will also provide greater certainty over rights to natural resources, contribute to a more positive investment climate and create greater potential for economic development, jobs and growth.
The Canadian federal government has settled twenty-four self-government and comprehensive land claim areas with the First Nations people in Canada, but there is still a long way to go.
1. Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada: Fact Sheet: Treaties with Aboriginal people in Canada
2. Kainai Board of Education, Metis Nation of Alberta, Northland School Division, Tribal Chiefs Institute of Treaty Six. Aboriginal Studies 20. Peoples and Cultural Change, p.136
3. Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada: Fact Sheet: Treaties with Aboriginal people in Canada
4. Switzer, Maurice: Nation to Nation: A Resource on Treaties in Ontario, p. 5