treaties & change
Confederation and Treaty-Making in the West
Canadian Confederation 1867
In 1867, four British mainland colonies joined to form the Dominion of Canada:
  • Canada East (Quebec)
  • Canada West (Ontario)
  • New Brunswick
  • Nova Scotia

However, lands to the west and northwest of Ontario, called Rupert's Land, which were under the rule of the Hudson's Bay Company, were not part of the new country.

Canadian Prime Minister John A. MacDonald was determined to extend the ownership, control, and authority of the new Government of Canada in Ottawa over the western territories.

A charge on a very early Canadian flag from around 1870, which has crests from four original provinces of 1867, and a new addition: Manitoba's leaping buffalo in 1870.

Responsibility for Relations
With First Nations

Responsibility for relations with First Nations was now transferred from Great Britain to the Government of Canada, including the responsibility for treaty making defined in the Royal Proclamation of 1763.

All previous British legislation applying to the Crown's relationship with First Nations was now transferred to the Government of Canada.

The new Government of Canada had a serious conflict of interest.

It had a fiduciary duty to protect the interests of First Nations people, and at the same time was the only authority who could negotiate to purchase their land.

(A "fiduciary" duty means that you are legally obligated to act for the best interests of the person or group you are representing.)

As government agents travelled to remote reserves in Ontario, William Armstrong accompanied them and painted the Aboriginal people he saw there. His watercolours give us a fine view of First Nations life before their culture was totally transformed by contact with white settlement and development.

Go to William Armstrong


Painter - William Armstrong 1898
Hudson's Bay Company Sells Its Land
To Canada

At the time of Confederation, all the western lands from Ontario to the Rocky Mountains were under the control of the Hudson's Bay Company.

In 1670, the Hudson's Bay had been granted a Royal Charter by the King of England, giving it rights to all the lands that were now Rupert's Land.

(In those days, European countries "claimed" territory, even though there were already people living there.)

In 1869, two years after Confederation, the Hudson's Bay Company agreed to sell its territory of Rupert's Land, from Manitoba to the Rockies, to the new Government of Canada in Ottawa. This would open the way for settlement of the west.

First Nations people were amazed and alarmed, since they believed, and insisted, that  the  land belonged to them, not to the Hudson's Bay Company.

(The Canadian government later recognized the legality of their land rights by negotiating treaties for the use of their land.)

Rupert's Land was purchased by the Canadian government for $1,500,000. The Hudson's Bay Company was to retain 1/20th of the land.

Chief Peguis of Fort Garry was one of the First Nations leaders who - rifle notwithstanding - always argued that peaceful discussion was possible with the white man in order to get a fair deal for Indian people in southern Manitoba.

The Red River Resistance

Plans were made to send immigrants and eastern Canadians to settle in the west.

Surveyors appeared in the Red River settlement area and began to divide up the land into square lots, ignoring the fact that Métis people already lived on that land.

The Métis, led by Louis Riel, protested, and refused to allow the surveyors onto their land.

Riel and his Métis followers drew up a list of demands to present to the government. Ottawa set troops west to put down the rebellion. Riel was forced to flee.

Negotiations eventually resulted in the Manitoba Act that created the new Province of Manitoba in 1870.

This used to be called the "Red River Rebellion," but today Manitobans and historians prefer to call it "The Red River Resistance."

The Aboriginal people watch the Wolseley Expedition going west to put down the Riel Rebellion in 1870. They must have
wondered, how can anyone resist the might of the Government of Canada, even when it is wrong?
Painted by William Armstrong who went with the expedition.

American Expansion West
Go to William Armstrong

At the time of Canadian Confederation, the Americans were expanding their lands westward and southward, and there was a risk that they would try to claim lands north of their current boundaries.

American settlers were pouring into the western territories, and the Indians were actively resisting this expansion. They were trying to protect their own lands, which they had never agreed to give up..

As a result, the United States was spending $20 million a year to fight Indian wars, more than the entire budget of Canada's government.

(When you see old American "Western" movies, with Indians attacking wagon trains full of settlers, remember that the settlers were encroaching on Indian lands illegally and in a hostile manner with no treaties.)

The new Canadian Prime Minister Sir. John A MacDonald had plans for unification and westward expansion for Canada, but not the money or the desire for Indian wars. But it was urgent that he secure Canada's west to prevent American intrusion into the former Hudson's Bay territories.

A popular beer tray celebrating the hanging of 38 Indians in Mankato, Minnesota, after a Sioux uprising in 1862.

Go to Massacre


Canada's Urgent Need for Western Treaties 1870s

By the 1870s, settlers from eastern Canada were pouring into the west expecting land. The government could not legally give out land grants until First Nations signed treaties turning over their land to the Crown. (In legal terminology, the Government of Canada was not known as "the Crown").

There were other pressures on the Canadian government to get treaties signed.

The buffalo were fast disappearing. First Nations people were starving, and the whiskey trade was devastating them.

Some First Nations were petitioning the government to sign treaties with them, because they believed the government would protect and assist them.

First nations people, of course, knew about the treaties that had been signed in northern Ontario, and they knew what was happening in the United States where many Indians were being forced off their land, and were often being attacked and killed.

In 1871, British Columbia joined Confederation on condition that the Canadian government build a railway within 10 years. Suddenly, it became urgent for the government to secure the right-of-way for the railway across the west.

The Canadian Government embarked on the biggest treaty-making enterprise in the country's history.

picGreat Canadian Heritage Treasure
Lo! The Poor Indian and his Family (detail)
Orig. lithograph - Size - 5" x 8"
Found - Cooksville, ON
Canadian Pictorial & Illustrated War News Souvenir Number, Pub. Toronto Lithographing Co. 1885
The Numbered Treaties  1870s  

The 1870s were busy years for the Canadian Government in the west.

Between 1870 and 1877, treaties were made to cover the entire western plains. These are known as the numbered treaties.

The Treaties from 1870-1875 were:

  • Treaty 1 & Treaty 2, 1871:: Manitoba
  • Treaty 3, 1873 : Saulteaux tribe of Ojibwa in Lake of the Woods area
  • Treaty 4, 1874: Southern Saskatchewan
  • Treaty 5, 1875:  Parts of southern prairies
  • Treaty 6, 1876:: The Plains Cree
  • Treaty 7, 1877: The Blackfoot, Blood, Peigan, Stoney, Sarcee of southern Alberta 

Almost all of the lands of what is now the southern half of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta were ceded (i.e. given up) to the Canadian government in return for:

- promises of reserves of land,

- schools built on the new reserves,

- farm implements, seeds, farm animals,

- instruction on farming techniques,

- the prohibition of the liquor trade,

- providing medicine,

- granting hunting and fishing rights forever,

- lump sum cash payments,

- annual cash payments, and

- assistance in case of famine or pestilence.

Treaties were negotiated and signed at grand festivities with hundreds of people lasting several days. All the Chiefs gave long speeches. Government officials handed out medals, flags, and chiefs, 'uniforms.

Government policy was to first complete negotiations with the groups most eager to accept government terms, so that the holdouts would feel isolated, and fear for their future.

Government negotiators made it clear that the settlers were coming, whether the First Nations signed or not, and tried to convince the First Nations their only option was to accept government offers of land and assistance, and signing away their land.

Within a very few years of the signing of the treaties, many of the promises would be broken.

Crowfoot, from Alberta, believed, unlike his American cousins, that you could make an honourable deal with the white man.

Manitoba Métis & Indian land along the Red River

Prairie grasslands of Saskatchewan ploughed under

Painter - John S Perry - 1920

treaty map

Back to the Top
Copyright Goldi Productions Ltd. 2007