Lands of Treaty 11.
(courtesy Victor Temprano/Native-Land.ca)

Treaty 11 is the last of the Numbered Treaties signed between First Nations and the Canadian government following Confederation, as Canada expanded its borders north and west. It covers more than 950,000 km2 of present-day Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut. The First Nations involved were predominately Dene, and include the Gwich’in, Tlicho (Dogrib) and Sahtu. As with other Numbered Treaties, the government did not want to enter into treaty until its interests would be served by doing so; accordingly, Treaty 11 was only created in 1921, after oil and gas prospects in the Mackenzie region sparked its interests. However, hasty negotiations combined with weak implementation of the terms — particularly with regard to reserves and land claims — have led to considerable disagreement between the parties on what was meant by the treaty and which promises have not been fulfilled. As a result, many of the signatories to Treaty 11 have also been involved in the modern treaties process (see Indigenous Peoples: Treaties).

Historical Context

The Royal Proclamation of 1763 established the concept of Aboriginal title: that is, Indigenous people had the right to use and occupy the land that they inhabited. The Canadian government was therefore at least theoretically obliged to make treaties with Indigenous people prior to the settlement or use of that area. Following the purchase of Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) in 1870, the government set out on an ambitious treaty-making project in order to extinguish title to the fertile belt of Western Canada that they intended for settlement. Treaties were also necessary prior to creating infrastructure, such as the planned railway — the Canadian Pacific Railway — that would connect the east and west of the country and cut through various Indigenous territories.

However, the government had no interest in making treaties in areas that appeared to be of no use for settlement and industrial development, and this was particularly true in the North. The government did not want to take on the financial and administrative burden that treaty-making in the North entailed. Many officials were also of the opinion that, despite the government’s expressed commitment to assimilating “Indians,” Indigenous people were typically better off left living their traditional lifestyles. The government maintained this stance despite evidence of extreme poverty and repeated requests from missionaries, the HBC and some First Nations to settle treaties in uncovered areas and extend the benefits these treaties provided. Although the government did provide aid to Indigenous peoples of the North through the HBC, it became clear that they would only enter into treaty negotiations when it was beneficial for the government. The Klondike gold rush of the late 1890s provided that impetus. The gold rush resulted in an opening of the North, where Treaty 8 was created in 1899 and Treaty 10 in 1906–07.

Similarly, Treaty 11 arose out of political and economic necessity. While it had been known since the late 1880s that the Mackenzie region had significant oil deposits, exploratory drilling was increasing, and an oil strike at Norman Wells in the summer of 1920 launched an exploration mania. At least one Canadian newspaper described it as the “Biggest Oil Field in the World”; the Calgary Gazette suggested it was 600 miles (about 965 km) wide. Politicians immediately began discussing the best way to develop this resource, despite the fact that the land had not been ceded.

In 1920, Henry Anthony Conroy, who had been a member of the Treaty 8 party and had for many years advocated the extension of treaty to the rest of the North, wrote to Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs Duncan Campbell Scott expressing his opinion that a new treaty be made:

Indian title has not yet been extinguished with respect to the entire country north of Great Slave Lake and in my opinion it would be desirable to take a surrender of this territory from the Northern Chiefs as soon as possible in order to avoid complications with respect to the exploitation of the country for oil.… I have in past years recommended this line of action, but as there was no great influx of Whites in the district the matter has been held in abeyance.

Conroy’s opinion took on new significance following the Norman Wells oil strike, and establishing a treaty was suddenly of the utmost importance. As the Deputy Superintendent General wrote in a letter that November to the Minister of the Interior, James Lougheed, the “rapid and unexpected exploitation of the country, the establishment of oil industries and the increasing immigration” made treaty-making an urgent matter. And, he added, “the Indians themselves are very anxious to be taken into treaty.”

Terms of the Treaty

Similar to the other Numbered Treaties, Treaty 11 provided money, supplies, reserves and other guarantees in exchange for the land. However, the terms laid out in Treaty 11 are somewhat vaguer than others, particularly in relation to agriculture and education. They suggest that the government did not necessarily expect the signatories to adopt a sedentary (non-mobile) lifestyle.

Reserves were to be allotted in proportion to one square mile per family of five, with more or less land provided depending on the size of each family. The government could take parts of these reserves for public works such as roads if necessary, assuming compensation was provided. Signatories had the right to hunt, fish and trap, subject to government regulation and the need to use those lands for settlement or development.

Once reserves were selected, each group was to receive 10 axes, 5 hand-saws, 5 augers, 1 grindstone and files and whetstones to keep the equipment sharp. Each group would also receive $50 per family worth of equipment for fishing, trapping and hunting. They would get $3 worth of twine, ammunition and other necessary supplies annually. If anyone wanted to pursue agriculture, the government was willing to give “assistance as is deemed necessary for that purpose.”

As a one-time payment, each chief would receive $32, each headman would receive $22 and all others would receive $12. Then, every year after, each chief was to receive $25, each headman $15 and each other person $5. The chief was to receive a silver medal commemorating the treaty, a flag and a paper copy of the treaty. Chiefs and headmen would get a new suit of clothing every three years.

For education, the government agreed “to pay the salaries of teachers to instruct the children of said Indians in such manner as His Majesty’s government may deem advisable.”

Negotiations and Signings, 1921

Henry Conroy was named the treaty commissioner. Together with Catholic bishop Gabriel Breynat, the so-called “flying bishop” who had for years ministered to the widely dispersed people of the Mackenzie region, they were to set out the summer of 1921. Notices had been sent out in advance, listing the dates and locations for treaty meetings (and for the Half-Breed Commission — as had been done previously, Métis and First Nations claims would be settled at the same time).

Before they left, Breynat and Conroy met with the Fisheries Department and asked to get a clause into the treaty that would guarantee the rights of First Nations people to fish. They were rebuffed, and received a reminder that they “should be guided by the terms set forth [in the treaty] and…no outside promises should be made by you to the Indians.” Conroy’s job was predominately to receive agreement to the existing terms rather than negotiate. As Breynat later complained: “The Royal Commission arrived from Ottawa to negotiate with them the terms of a treaty, which terms were prepared in advance to be imposed upon them rather than freely discussed in a spirit of reconciliation and mutual concessions as often happens in the negotiation of treaties.”

Another complication was that, as part of the treaty process, groups were required to elect a chief who would sign on behalf of his people. However, the concept of “chiefs” was largely foreign to many northern Indigenous peoples, as was the idea of investing a single person with the power to make decisions on behalf of everyone. The reasoning and process by which these chiefs were elected was therefore sometimes haphazard, and affected the negotiation process.

The treaty party arrived at their first stop, Fort Providence, on 24 June 1921, with Breynat travelling from Fort Smith. Most people had already gathered in anticipation. A man named Paul Lefoin was unanimously selected as chief on the basis of his generosity and strengths as a hunter. According to First Nations witnesses, Lefoin was hesitant to sign, having heard about the Cree in the south being placed on reserves and prevented from hunting. He apparently refused to touch the pencil — indicating his assent — until the freedom to hunt, fish and trap as usual was guaranteed. The guarantee was given and negotiations concluded, although it is possible that Lefoin did not physically sign the document. A group from Trout Lake arrived two days later and signed an adhesion to the treaty.

Next, the commission proceeded onto Fort Simpson, where they encountered further questions on the subject of hunting rights. The Catholic mission’s diary cryptically records for 8 July that the “Indians have no desire to accept the treaty,” yet, three days later, it states that “the last of the Indians has accepted the treaty.” It is likely Breynat swayed them: he claimed to be “responsible for the treaty having been signed at several places, especially Fort Simpson,” and Fort Simpson had a large Catholic population. But the proceedings also illustrated an issue with the elected chiefs. Some witnesses said that the chief who had been originally chosen to negotiate, Johnny Norwegian [Korwergen], did not want to sign, but was replaced by Old Antoine [Nakekon] when Norwegian went for lunch. In the intervening time, Antoine agreed to the terms.

The commission left Fort Simpson on 12 July and headed to Fort Wrigley. When they arrived, the usual spokesman did not want to be involved in the treaty. According to Julian Yendo, who is listed on the treaty as the main signatory but was not present for most of the negotiation, “[I] had three uncles. The three started talking together and they were pointing at me, that is how I got to be chief and other people were kind of scared…so they made me chief.”

There was considerable confusion. Another witness claimed that they did not understand what the treaty was about, but they were reassured by Breynat’s presence: “His role was to keep God’s words, and so we trusted him.”

Next the party went to Fort Norman, near the oil discovery. While only two-thirds of the people were there — the rest were hunting — they had apparently left a message saying that they would take the treaty. Conroy promised those who remained that nothing would change and that the money was a kind of gift. Again, Breynat was also instrumental in reassuring the predominately Catholic community that the government was well-intentioned.

On 19 July, the commission arrived in Fort Good Hope, and quickly secured agreement to the treaty. Five days later, the commission was in Arctic Red River and managed to finish negotiations the same day they arrived.

At Fort McPherson, Breynat did not travel with them, as the population was Anglican. Conroy discovered that many people were away fishing, but endeavoured to persuade the rest that their ability to pursue their traditional way of life would not be affected. He succeeded, and the party moved onto their last stop: Fort Rae, which, at 800 people, was the largest First Nations settlement in the Northwest Territories.

According to Tlicho accounts, their chief, Monfwi, was initially dismissive of the treaty. Other Tlicho had signed a previous treaty at Fort Resolution, and had been upset that promises were not kept: white hunters and trappers encroached on their land, and game laws that they were told would not apply to them had been enforced. In the end, Monfwi delivered an ultimatum: he selected land boundaries for his people on a piece of paper, circumscribing an area in which their freedoms would never be restricted, and asked for a guarantee that this would be upheld. Breynat promised that this would be the case, and signed his name to it. The treaty was then signed, with Monfwi keeping a copy of both the map and the treaty. However, both of these items have since disappeared.

The party arrived back in Edmonton on 11 September, having made treaty at all the necessary stops, except for Fort Liard. The next year, Indian Agent Thomas William Harris was authorized as a commissioner to secure the adhesion there, as Conroy had died that spring. While the negotiations went swiftly — they were completed in a day — the terms were probably not explained clearly. For example, one Acho Dene Koe man who was present, Baptiste Dudan, still did not know why he received $5 every year from the government almost 50 years later.

Implications and Interpretations

In general, the negotiations were typified by haste and a desire to reassure people that the treaty was in their best interests. There is certainly a question as to how clearly and thoroughly the terms of the treaty were explained; Victor Lafferty, the translator at Fort Providence, later claimed that he did not “read and translate any piece of paper or writing.” Even those who could speak English were typically illiterate. Therefore, understandable confusion existed when it came to the interpretation and enforcement of the treaty. Bishop Gabriel Breynat later maintained that he and commissioner Henry Conroy had in fact made oral promises regarding the rights of signatories to pursue their traditional way of life, and he had expected that those would be reflected in the final written version of the treaty. Ultimately, they were not, and following Conroy’s death, he had no evidence of this.

In terms of benefits, the treaty did not bring about many of the positive changes that the First Nations who signed it had expected. Medical treatment remained largely inaccessible, and a flu epidemic, along with tuberculosis and pneumonia, devastated Northern communities in the following years. Mission schools remained the only option for education for two decades. Meanwhile, First Nations continued to face increasing competition from white trappers, who depleted fur-bearing animal populations so significantly that further game regulations became necessary.

As in many other treaties, it seems unlikely that any of the signatories were aware that the treaty involved land surrender, or what that would even entail. In 1959, the Nelson Commission was established in order to investigate the unfulfilled provisions of Treaty 8 and 11. Among other things, they found that Indigenous concepts of land ownership had changed very little and that “it [is] impossible to make the Indians understand that it is possible to separate mineral rights from actual ownership of land.” (See Indigenous Territory).

In 1973, Justice William Morrow of the Northwest Territories Supreme Court ruled that the Indian Brotherhood (now the Dene Nation) could file a claim covering more than 1 million km2, largely on the basis of elder witness testimony that explained how the treaties were perceived as peace and friendship agreements, not land surrender. Though this decision was later overturned, it established the basis of the modern claims process in the North. In 1976, negotiations between the Dene Nation, the government of Canada and the Métis Association began. These developments took place in the middle of the Berger Inquiry, an investigation into whether the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline should be built despite unsettled land claims and the protests of Indigenous people.

Since then, the North has been the site of many comprehensive land claims, including agreements with the Gwich’in, Tlicho and Inuvialuit. Many more are ongoing. However, as Justice Thomas Berger presciently noted in his report, “the settlement of native claims is not a mere transaction.… It would be wrong, therefore, to think that signing a piece of paper would put the whole question behind us.”