treaties & cultural change
What Are the Treaties? Two Different Views

Most of the settled lands of Canada, in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, were transferred from First Nations to the Crown (the Government) through treaties. 

Today both sides agree that the so-called Indian Treaties are agreements between the Crown (the Government) and First Nations, in which the First Nations exchanged some of their interests in specific areas of their ancestral lands in return for various kinds of payments and promises from Crown officials. However, each side has a different interpretation of what was intended by the agreements.

The Canadians (British) and the First Nations were at the same meetings, listened to the same speeches (translated) and signed the same pieces of paper. Yet they had (and still have) two totally different concepts of what the treaties were about, and what each side was promising. The differences in understanding are rooted in two totally different world views, and two totally different concepts of land ownership, and two colliding purposes.

The concept of private ownership of land by an individual, who could build a fence and keep others out forever, was totally foreign to First Nations people.

First Nations had an oral tradition. They passed down important information by the spoken word during important ceremonies and at celebrations. What was said was what was important to them, not what was written on paper. Though they did not have a written tradition, in the European sense, they recorded important events by sewing beaded wampum belts. Wampum belts signifying treaties became sacred objects that were brought out at certain times, Then elders recited the terms and understandings of the agreement commemorated by that ceremonial wampum belt.

The Government View of Treaties The First Nations View of Treaties

The British and Canadian governments saw treaties as a way to legalize the ceding of Indian lands to clear the way for European settlement, mining, and railways. Treaties were intended to extinguish all First Nations claims and rights to their land forever, except in those lands set apart as Reserves of land for the bands to live on. 

In return, the government would make a one-time payment to the bands, plus a specified annual sum.

As well, treaties had terms dealing with hunting and fishing rights, as well as education and health care. Treaties were also intended to offer the Indians some protection from the consequences of new settlement, and some assistance in adapting to new ways of living as the old ways became less feasible.

Treaties were also expected to be the first step towards assimilation.

Government expected First Nations people to give up their culture, including their customs, their language, their religious beliefs, their ceremonies, and everything else that differentiated them from Canadians of British origin.

First Nations saw treaties in a different light. To them, treaties were solemn pacts establishing the future basis of relations between their people, for whom Canada is an ancient homeland, and the new Government of Canada and its people.

First Nations representatives signed the treaties to ensure that they would receive some government assistance in the future to ensure the survival of their people. They believed (because all the Treaty Commissioners told them so) that they would be cherished and protected by the Crown with whom they had a special relationship.  

In return, First Nations believed they were merely giving the new settlers the right to use some of their lands for farming. First Nations people are certain they had no thought of giving up all title to their land, nor could they even comprehend the concept of extinguishment of all title and all rights to their land forever.

They also are absolutely certain that they never relinquished their status as sovereign nations. And they certainly have never had any intention of assimilating and giving up their traditions.

Views of Land Ownership Leadership & Consensus

Europeans had a concept that land could be divided up into packages, and individually owned and controlled, by an individual, a company, or the government. Individuals or companies could create wealth from the land they owned by farming it, mining it, exploiting it for other commercial purposes, or renting it to others.  

First Nations, however, recognized only group rights to land, not individual rights. They respected territorial rights of other tribes, but not individual rights to control a package of land.

Tribes recognized tribal right to certain regions of land, and did not intrude uninvited onto other tribes' territories, except in war. However, First Nations people did not divide land up into packages that could be "owned" or controlled by individuals.

First Nations people also regarded their lands and the plants and animals on those lands as a sacred trust to cherish for future generations.

Most First Nations had a system of government that included a Chief, who was a respected individual, and a Council of advisors and elders. Ways of choosing the Chief varied. Some First Nations chose their Chief by consensus of the Council. Iroquois Chiefs were chosen by clan mothers.

Decisions that affected the group were made not by individuals, but by consensus. Matters of importance were discussed, then a conclusion reached that seemed to reflect the majority viewpoint.

The British recognized the First Nations way of land holding, of leadership, and of consensus decision-making, because they designed their treaty-making process to work within the First Nations framework. 

They knew that the land was held in common, and that Chiefs and Councils could make decisions by consensus that would bind the group.

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Copyright Goldi Productions Ltd. 2007