Lands of Treaty 10.
(courtesy Victor Temprano/Native-Land.ca)

Treaty 10 is the 10th of the 11 Numbered Treaties, which were agreements signed between Indigenous peoples in Canada and the Canadian government as the latter sought to expand settlement westward. Treaty 10 covers nearly 220,000 km2 of Saskatchewan and Alberta. While previous treaties had covered portions of these provinces, the land of Treaty 10 was considered undesirable given its unsuitability for agriculture. Therefore, the government was reluctant to gain title to land it didn’t need, despite repeated requests from Indigenous communities for a treaty. Eventually, the need to settle Métis claims and the creation of the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905 forced the government to act, and a treaty was signed in 1906–07.

Historical Context

The Royal Proclamation of 1763 established that Indigenous people had title — that is, ownership — over their land, and became the legal precedent through which the government was supposed to “treat” with them (i.e., make treaties). In order to open up land for settlement, it was first necessary to “extinguish” (surrender) Indigenous title and transfer it to the Crown through the treaty process.

Although treaties had been signed with some Indigenous groups prior to Confederation (see Indigenous Peoples: Treaties), the 1870 acquisition of Rupert’s Land — an enormous parcel of land northwest of Ontario that had been previously administered by the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) — prompted a flurry of treaty-making with Indigenous peoples residing between Ontario and British Columbia, especially in the fertile southern belt and along a planned transcontinental railway route.

However, where treaties had not been made, the government disputed its responsibilities for the welfare of Indigenous people. Therefore, many Indigenous communities, despite facing significant hardships, were more or less excluded from the benefits given to more southerly ones, and received only provisional help (such as fishing twine or ammunition) through the HBC. The HBC, missionaries and Indigenous people themselves frequently challenged this policy.

The first instance of a request for a treaty from the Indigenous groups that would eventually sign Treaty 10 occurred in 1879. In that year, the First Nations of Lac La Ronge, Pelican Narrows and Stanley asked for a treaty that would resolve issues of poor fur prices and food scarcity. The government did not accept this request.

Two years later, the prospect of a rail line that would connect present-day Churchill, Manitoba, to the Peace River area caused the government to take some of these requests more seriously. There were concerns that communities living nearby might interfere with construction. After Chief Red Head of Lac Du Bonnet asked the government for a treaty, the government, in turn, asked Lawrence Clarke, a high-ranking HBC employee, for his opinion on the cost of concluding a treaty there. He estimated that it would cost $16,000, and said that although the land was not good for agriculture, it would be better to act now than to wait because Indigenous groups who had already signed treaties might convince them “to put a greater value on their land.” However, the railroad did not materialize, and despite repeated requests to do so from the HBC, missionaries and Indigenous communities, the government refused to make treaties for land they did not need. Though the commissioners for Treaty 8 (signed in 1899) could have extended the region covered into what is now the Treaty 10 area, they declined to do so because it was far away from their planned travel route and the areas were not part of the established path to the gold-rich North.

It was not until 1902 that the government again began to consider a treaty covering the area north of present-day Alberta and Saskatchewan. Métis communities at Île-à-la-Crosse asked James A.J. McKenna, the region’s scrip commissioner (the person assigned with extinguishing Métis land title) to deal with their claims. Although he was in favour of doing so, the precedent of Treaty 8­ — whereby Métis and First Nations title were dealt with concurrently — prevented him from acting. Discussions nevertheless began and, three years later, the creation of Alberta and Saskatchewan forced the government into action on a treaty that would cover the unceded areas of the new provinces.

There was internal disagreement among government officials, however, about what lands the treaty would cover. Some believed that the people living in the unceded areas should sign adhesions to Treaty 8. Others in the administration disagreed, arguing that this would make the boundaries of Treaty 8 too large, consequently making it difficult to travel there during the times when the annual payments for Treaty 8 were distributed. They also argued that people living in the present-day Treaty 10 region did not deserve the same amount of payment for land of lesser value; and, therefore, favoured terms similar to those of Treaty 9, where there was no offer of agricultural assistance and smaller annuities were given out. As Frank Pedley, the deputy superintendent general of Indian Affairs, wrote in a note to his superior:

I think we should be careful not to burden the Dominion with any extensive charges for the purchase of the Indian title to this country. We may be reasonably sure that it is not an agricultural country whatever its capacities may be, and that to give a quid pro quo on the same basis as for a country with great agricultural possibilities would be a mistake.

In the end, the government decided to use Treaty 8 as a model, possibly because the Indigenous people were already familiar with the terms that had been offered elsewhere.

Terms of the Treaty

As in Treaty 8, signatories were offered either reserves or “land in severalty” — territory for families or individuals who wanted to live off the reserves. This concession was offered because most people in the North did not live as communally as those on the plains. Reserves were sized in proportion to one square mile per family of five, with more or less area given depending on the number and size of families. Individuals or families who preferred to live apart were granted 160 acres per person.

The rights of the signatories to hunt, fish and trap were protected, but subject to government regulation and the need to use certain areas for activities like mining or settlement.

The government offered assistance with both education and agriculture, but in terms less clear than those in some of the other treaties. It agreed to “make such provisions as may from time to time be deemed advisable for the education of the Indian children.” It also agreed to “furnish such assistance as may be found necessary or advisable to aid and assist the Indians in agriculture or stock-raising or other work.”

As was customary, the government also offered money — initially, $32 per chief, $22 per headman and $12 per individual, and a smaller payment every year after. Chiefs and headmen also received medals, flags and suits of clothing.

Negotiations, 1906

Treaty Commissioner James A.J. McKenna (who was also involved in Treaty 8 negotiations), was appointed to lead the negotiations. He set out with two secretaries and the superintendent of the North-West Mounted Police. Bishop Pascal, a local missionary, also joined them — missionaries frequently assisted with treaty negotiations because they were familiar with the locals and generally supported government policies of assimilation. Weather delayed their travels, but they eventually arrived at Île-à-la-Crosse on 26 August 1906. There, they met members of the English River First Nation and some families from Clear Lake.

According to McKenna’s report, the chief of English River, William Apisis, asked for “‘arrears’ from the year the first treaty was made.” It is possible that there were strong feelings about having been excluded from the treaty process for so long. Apisis was also concerned that the government’s education scheme might interfere with the missionary school system. In addition, some Indigenous people made requests for livestock and farming implements. McKenna convinced them to sign without altering the written treaty, and then he moved onto Portage La Loche to settle Métis scrip claims. Scrip was a certificate, awarded by the federal government to individual Métis people that “extinguished” (surrendered) Aboriginal title in exchange for land or one-time cash payments.

Next, McKenna went to Buffalo Narrows, before circling back to Île-à-la-Crosse to meet with members of the Canoe Lake First Nation on 19 September. He again had to address questions about education, this time from Chief John Iron about getting a day school for children to attend. Although McKenna was supposed to continue on his voyage, he cut his trip short because of low water levels and an impending freeze up. The negotiations would have to be concluded the next summer.

At every stop McKenna made, the people he met with wanted better, more definite treaty terms than had been offered by the government, such as medical assistance, and help for their old and poor. They were also anxious that they would be prevented from pursuing traditional livelihoods. According to McKenna, he explained to them that they had to obey the law, but also that he “guaranteed that the treaty would not lead to any forced interference with their mode of life.” In general, McKenna deflected questions and, when asked about specifics, affirmed the government’s benevolent intentions without making direct promises. The strategy worked, as he was able to acquire the signatures of all the people he visited.

Negotiations, 1907

The next summer, Thomas Borthwick, a local Indian agent, was appointed to conclude the negotiations. He was instructed beforehand that terms “should not be added or curtailed,” and that he “should be careful not to make any verbal promises as varying or extending the terms of the treaty.”

Borthwick first went to pay annuities and deliver supplies to the current Treaty 10 signatories. At Buffalo Narrows, he met Chief Iron of Canoe Lake, who was upset that they were given fewer supplies than they had received last year. He also told Borthwick that McKenna had rushed their negotiations the previous year and stopped Iron from fully communicating his opinions — something McKenna later denied. Borthwick additionally met with the English River First Nation, where Chief Apisis claimed that the government had prevented some of Apisis’s people from hunting because of the treaty and other laws. He asked Borthwick to reaffirm the government’s guarantee that their rights would be protected, and also wanted to know when the government would give its promised medical assistance.

Borthwick then moved on to sign new groups. He arrived at Stanley on 1 August, and then moved on to Brochet, where he met with Barren Lands First Nation and the Lac La Hache (Hatchet Lake) Denesuline Nation. A local priest acted as a Dene interpreter. The Barren Lands nation signed on that afternoon, though they asked for time to talk amongst themselves before signing. The Hatchet Lake contingent was more cautious — Borthwick noted that they only signed once the entire document had been clearly read to them in the Dene language.

This successfully concluded the Treaty 10 negotiations. As McKenna did before him, Borthwick secured cooperation by reassuring people that their harvesting rights would be protected, while avoiding concrete promises by telling everyone that their concerns and requests regarding the treaty would be passed on to the government.

Implications and Interpretations

Although government intrusions into traditional life were initially less frequent and intense for northern Indigenous communities than they were for those living further south, the treaty nevertheless led to changes. There has been disagreement between the signatories about what Treaty 10 entails. According to Elder Bart Dzeylion of the Hatchet Lake Denesuline, they signed the treaty based on the understanding that “our land, or way of life, would be protected, would always be there.” This idea of a “way of life” extends beyond hunting and trapping to a philosophy that emphasizes the connectedness of things. Disruptions to this order are failures to honour the treaty. In Treaty Elders of Saskatchewan (2000), interviews with elders in that province more generally have also suggested that they have a much different perspective on the treaties, regarding them as an unalterable sacred relationship based on the intentions of parties rather than a written text.

More fundamentally, however, the written terms of the treaty were also not honoured by the federal government. Neither the Canoe Lake nor English River First Nations were given sufficient reserve land. These, along with numerous unfulfilled obligations to other treaty nations, eventually led to the creation of the Treaty Land Entitlement Framework Agreement in 1992, which provided financial compensation to Indigenous nations that had not been given adequate reserves. English River received over $10 million, which it used, in part, to purchase an urban reserve near Saskatoon. Canoe Lake also received a settlement to make up for the 3,000 acres of land they had not received. Around the same time, Canoe Lake was involved in another claim for land that had been taken to create the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range, a Cold War-era Royal Canadian Air Force facility that significantly affected the community. The Athabasca Denesuline have also been involved in a long-standing dispute with the governments of Canada, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut over land use north of the 60th parallel.