The Numbered Treaties were a series of 11 treaties made between the Canadian government and Indigenous peoples from 1871 to 1921. The Numbered Treaties cover the area between the Lake of the Woods (northern Ontario, southern Manitoba) to the Rocky Mountains (northeastern British Columbia and interior Plains of Alberta) to the Beaufort Sea (north of Yukon and the Northwest Territories).

The treaties provided the Canadian government with land for industrial development and White settlement. In exchange for their traditional territory, government negotiators made various promises to Indigenous peoples — both orally and in the written texts of the treaties — including special rights to treaty lands and the distribution of cash payments, hunting and fishing tools, farming supplies, and the like. These terms of agreement are controversial and contested. To this day, the Numbered Treaties have ongoing legal and socioeconomic impacts on Indigenous communities.

Lands of the Numbered Treaties.
(courtesy Victor Temprano/Native-Land.ca)

List of Numbered Treaties

The following chart details the year in which each of the Numbered Treaties was signed. Click on Treaties 1–11 to read more about these specific agreements.

Treaty Number

Date of Treaty

Treaty 1

1871

Treaty 2

1871

Treaty 3

1873

Treaty 4

1874

Treaty 5

1875

Treaty 6

1876

Treaty 7

1877

Treaty 8

1899

Treaty 9

1905

Treaty 10

1906

Treaty 11

1921

Historical Context

The years immediately following Confederation were characterized by the Canadian government’s desire to expand westward as a means of securing the nation’s economic future. The lands of the Hudson Bay Company, namely Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory, were of particular interest to expansionists because they were sources of valuable natural resources and vast space, which could be used for European immigration and industrial and commercial developments. With the Americans expanding westward, many Canadian politicians feared their neighbours to the south would annex these lands (see Manifest Destiny). In order to extend its sovereignty over portions of northern and western Canada, the federal government acquired Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory in 1870.

As part of the Hudson Bay Company’s obligations for the transfer of Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory to the federal government, Canada had to address all Indigenous claims to those lands. Based on the model of the 1850 Robinson Treaties (see Indigenous Peoples: Treaties), the Canadian government signed 11 treaties with various Indigenous peoples between 1871 and 1921 that would allow the Crown access to, and jurisdiction over, traditional territories in exchange for certain promises and goods, such as reserve lands, annual payments and hunting and fishing rights to unoccupied crown lands.

Purposes and Provisions

Treaties 1 to 7, concluded between 1871 and 1877, solidified Canada’s claim to lands north of the US-Canada border, enabled the construction of a national railway and opened the lands of the North-West Territories to agricultural settlement.

Treaties 8 to 11, concluded between 1899 and 1921, facilitated access to natural resources in northern Canada, opened the West for settlement and also secured a connection between British Columbia and central Canada.

Similar to other federal Indian policies and programs at the time, the Numbered Treaties were intended to assimilate Indigenous peoples into White, colonial society and culture. For example, the treaties included provisions about education on reserves and also encouraged the farming techniques and settlement patterns of colonials.

Many Indigenous leaders sought to use the treaties as a means of coping with the destruction of traditional economies — notably, the decimation of the buffalo on the Prairies. From some Indigenous perspectives, the Numbered Treaties included a commitment from the Canadian government for the instruction and material aid necessary for transitioning to a new way of life.

However, not all Indigenous leaders were satisfied with the treaty terms offered by the government. For example, Plains Cree chief Mistahimaskwa (Big Bear) refused to sign Treaty 6 in 1876, fearing that he and his people would lose their freedom and ability to practise traditional ways of life, including hunting. In another instance, during the negotiation of Treaty 1 in 1871, Indigenous leader Ay-ee-ta-pe-pe-tung became so disillusioned with the negotiations that he considered walking away from the bargaining table. In these and similar cases, many Indigenous peoples felt that their concerns were not being taken seriously and that they stood to lose more than gain in the process of treaty negotiations. Although many Indigenous leaders signed the Numbered Treaties, most saw no other viable option.

Varied Interpretations

Differing interpretations of the treaties have led to disputes between the federal government and Indigenous groups. Some have argued that since concepts of territory and ownership are different in European and Indigenous worldviews, Indigenous leaders did not understand the meaning and implication of such treaty terms as “cede, release, yield up and surrender.” Indigenous peoples may have interpreted the treaties as instruments to share, as opposed to own, the land and natural resources with the colonizers (see Indigenous Territory). Errors in translation may have also caused misunderstandings.

Another common source of discontent about the treaties concerns what has become known as the “outside promises” — verbal commitments made to Indigenous leaders not included in the written treaties. In Treaties 1 and 2, Indigenous leaders claimed that the government verbally promised to provide assistance for agricultural development. This promise wasn’t honoured until several years after the treaties were signed, following complaints from affected Indigenous communities. Even then, the government didn’t provide all that it had promised. Verbal commitments that differed from written accounts in the Numbered Treaties remain ongoing issues of dispute and discussion.

Impacts

The Numbered Treaties have had long-lasting legal and socioeconomic impacts on Indigenous peoples. The creation of reserves, schools and other instruments of assimilation have affected Indigenous cultures, customs and traditional ways of life. In addition, ongoing disputes about the oral and written terms of the treaties pertaining to land use, fishing and hunting rights, natural resource use, and the like, have led to modern land claims. In order to address concerns about treaty fulfilment, the federal government established a policy recognizing comprehensive and specific claims in 1973. Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada continues to negotiate disputed claims.

In spite of inadequacies in the treaty-making process, the Numbered Treaties have helped to guide the relationship between the federal government and Indigenous peoples by providing a context of mutual responsibilities and rights. As modern land claims are resolved and concluded, the Canadian government and treaty First Nations work together towards improving the lives of Indigenous peoples.