Treaty 8 lands.
(courtesy Victor Temprano/Native-Land.ca)

Treaty 8 was signed on 21 June 1899 by the Crown and First Nations of the Lesser Slave Lake area. The treaty covers roughly 841,487.137 km2 of what was formerly the North-West Territories and British Columbia, and now includes northern Alberta, northwest Saskatchewan, and portions of the modern Northwest Territories and BC, making it the largest treaty by area in the history of Canada.

Prompted by the discovery of valuable resources in Canada’s north, particularly the Klondike gold rush, the treaty involved First Nations whose social organization was different than those of the Indigenous peoples the government had previously encountered in Numbered Treaties negotiations. As a result of this and other factors endemic to the North, the terms and implementation of Treaty 8 differ importantly from those of previous Numbered Treaties, with long-lasting consequences for the governance and peoples of that area.

Historical Context

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Canadian government negotiated treaties with Indigenous peoples as a means of “extinguishing” (surrendering) Aboriginal title to traditional territories. The government wanted these lands for use in settlement and development projects. Certain parts of Canada, however, such as vast portions of the North, were not considered as valuable as other regions, namely the Plains, because they were not generally suitable for farming or settlement. The government was therefore reluctant to make treaties with northern Indigenous groups. As Superintendent General of Indian Affairs Thomas White remarked in 1887, “Within this vast region the Indians are not very numerous… the parts that have been explored are reported to be for the most part unsuitable for agriculture.”

Indigenous people of this area were faced with periods of starvation in the 19th century, and consequently some groups expressed interest in negotiating a treaty with the government that would protect their people and livelihood. Despite requests for assistance from local missionaries, representatives of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), and the Indigenous people themselves, the government refused to enter into treaty negotiations. Limited assistance was offered starting in 1888, as ammunition, fishing supplies and rations were distributed through the HBC and missions using government funds. By 1891, after exploration had revealed potential oil reserves and other minerals throughout the Athabasca-Mackenzie area, the government had begun to plan seriously for a treaty. However, nothing came of it then; it is possible that the political instability following John A. Macdonald’s death in June 1891 prevented the government from reaching a decision about making another treaty.

In 1897, the Klondike gold rush — and the influx of white people into the North — prompted renewed interest in a treaty. There were also reports of gold around the Great Slave Lake region. Accounts of miners stealing and treating Indigenous people with violence and contempt proliferated, raising concerns of reprisals against travellers and demonstrating the necessity of bringing order to the region. It is also possible that the government was motivated to sign treaties before the Indigenous peoples discovered the monetary value of their land. As retired Indian agent James Walker wrote to Clifford Sifton, superintendent general of Indian Affairs, in November 1897, “They will be more easily dealt with now than they would be when their country is overrun with prospectors and valuable mines be discovered. They would then place a higher value on their rights.” The Department of Indian Affairs was additionally concerned that, if they waited too long, contact between the northern and southern Cree-speaking peoples and Métis would lead to the northern peoples’ understanding that what was promised orally was not necessarily embodied in the written text.

After much discussion about the virtues of annual payments versus lump sums and what kind of reserves would be appropriate for northerners, who tended to live in small family groups rather than communally in large tribes, a party of treaty commissioners consisting of former lieutenant governor David Laird, civil servant James Andrew Joseph McKenna and politician James Hamilton Ross set out in the summer of 1899 to negotiate Treaty 8 with the Cree, Denesuline (Chipewyan), Dane-zaa (Beaver) and other inhabitants of the territory.

Negotiations and Signings, 1899

The three treaty commissioners left Athabasca Landing on 3 June 1899 for a territory that was not well-known to settlers. The first signing of Treaty 8 occurred at Lesser Slave Lake on 21 June 1899, and included representatives of the Cree.

The commissioners believed that it would be easy to sign other groups once some had already joined, and missionaries — including Father Lacombe, an influential priest who travelled with the treaty party itself — encouraged Indigenous people to sign. However, the initial negotiations did not go well, according to one observer: “The treaty, as presented by the Commissioners to the Indians…did not contain many things that they held to be of vital importance to their future existence as hunters and trappers and fishermen… They refused to sign the treaty as read to them.” A long discussion ensued; the commissioners had little experience with the ways of life of northern people, and were mocked for using the Prairie nations as a reference.

Eventually, the signatories agreed to the treaty based on a number of oral promises, including that the old and poor would be taken care of, that medical care would be provided as needed and — most importantly — that nothing would be done to interfere with their way of life. The need to guarantee that the Indigenous people would be able to hunt, trap and fish as they had always done emerged at every location that the commissioners visited.

Following Lesser Slave Lake, the commissioners split up in order to cover more ground. James Ross and James McKenna arrived at Fort Chipewyan on 13 July, where similar issues arose; according to Pierre Mercredi, an interpreter for the Denesuline, the treaty that he read to them and that they signed did not include a clause on hunting regulations, which he maintained was added later.

David Laird proceeded that summer to Peace River Landing, Fort Vermilion and Fond du Lac. Ross and McKenna also went to Fort Dunvegan, Fort Smith, Fort McMurray and Wabasca. At these locations, representatives of the Denesuline, Cree and Dane-zaa adhered to the Lesser Slave Lake treaty.

The commissioners reported that their trip was successful, though there were groups they had not been able to reach. Some of these would be included starting in 1900.

Terms of the Treaty

The eventual boundaries of the proposed treaty were based on mining areas, the presence of prospectors, transportation corridors to the Klondike and the need to create peace between the few existing settlers and First Nations. The terms were drawn up prior to the actual negotiations, but finalized during negotiations at Lesser Slave Lake, and were similar to those written down in previous treaties, in that they provided reserves, annual cash payments (annuities), and other promises in exchange for the surrender of the land. The written terms also included the right to pursue hunting, trapping and fishing, subject to certain regulations, and excluding tracts that might be required for settlement, mining, lumbering, trading or other initiatives.

Reserves were to be granted based on the arithmetic of one square mile (about 2.6 km2) for each family of five, and in that proportion for larger or smaller families. However, in an acknowledgement that the social structures of the northern peoples were different, and that, in general, they preferred to live in smaller groups, families or individuals could also be granted 160 acres of land “in severalty” (separately), on which they could live apart from the reserves.

Immediate cash payments for everyone were to be followed by smaller annual payments, with larger amounts going to chiefs and headmen. Initial payments were set at $32 for chiefs, $22 for headmen and $12 for others, while annuities were set at $25 for chiefs, $15 for headmen and $5 for others. Salaries for teachers to instruct the children were also included in the treaty terms.

Agricultural implements and livestock for groups that took reserves and were interested in cultivating the land were to be provided; extra cattle could be acquired by those who wanted to ranch. For groups that wanted to continue hunting and fishing, they were annually to receive ammunition and fishing twine to equal the value of $1 per head of each family.

Adhesions, Post-1899

Further adhesions to the treaty (additional signings) took place after 1899. It is important to note, however, that inconsistent and false reports of the commissioners have led to a muddled understanding of Treaty 8 adhesions and admittances. As a result, gaps in the knowledge may exist.

In February 1900, Indian Affairs Department inspector J.A. Macrae was appointed to obtain the adhesions of the Indigenous peoples at Fort St. John and Fort Resolution. He then signed these adhesions with part of the Dane-zaa band at Fort St. John (more members of the band joined the treaty in later years), the Fort Resolution bands (made up of the Tlicho, T’atsaot’ine, Denesuline and Deh Cho), the Sturgeon Lake Cree and the Upper Hay River Deh Cho. He also included some Denesuline (from east of Smith’s Landing on Great Slave River) to the treaty, as part of the band from Smith’s Landing.

In December 1909, commissioner H.A. Conroy was appointed to negotiate an adhesion by the Fort Nelson bands, made up mostly of Deh Cho and some Tsek’ehne (Sekani). After the elections of representatives, the Indigenous peoples signed the adhesion on 15 August 1910.

Harold Laird, clerk and Indian agent assistant, revisited the Fort Nelson bands in May 1911 to gain the adhesions of those who did not sign the year prior. After much discussion and debate over leadership, 98 Tsek’ehne people signed the treaty on 4 August 1911.

In 1913, government officials noted that there were more bands that had not signed the treaty, including people at Fort Grahame, Moberly Lake, Fort St. John and Hudson’s Hope. In the summer of 1914, the peoples at Moberly Lake were brought into treaty. Evidence suggests that Indigenous peoples who were previously entitled to enter the treaty but hadn’t done so were admitted around this time, including those at Hudson’s Hope.

In 1915, one person from Whitefish Lake entered treaty; there were further entries from Whitefish Lake peoples in subsequent years.

Several Métis were also admitted to treaty in the 1930s, including 42 Métis from Fort Resolution (1930).

Some bands within the Treaty 8 boundaries in British Columbia did not sign adhesions, including the bands of Liard River, Fort Grahame and Finlay River. Bands in other provinces were also passed over by the commissioners, including those in Lubicon Lake in Alberta.

In 2000, the Tsek’ehne of McLeod Lake were officially brought into Treaty 8.

Half-Breed Scrip Commission

Negotiations for Treaty 8 occurred concurrently with the activities of the so-called Half-Breed Commission, headed by Major James Walker, formerly of the North-West Mounted Police, and J.A. Coté of the Land Department. The commission was tasked with extinguishing Métis title. There were concerns that the Métis, who were relatively numerous in the North, would agitate against the government’s activities and discourage First Nations from signing the treaty if their needs were not also addressed. Métis had the option of being treated as Indians and joining the treaty process. The remaining Métis were offered scrip (certificates given to individual Métis people by the government that extinguished Aboriginal title in exchange for land or one-time cash payments) in the amount of $240 or 240 acres of land. The government had previously considered making this scrip non-transferable in order to prevent speculators from purchasing the scrip off of the Métis, as had frequently happened in Manitoba. In the end, however, they decided not to — largely due to the objections of the Métis themselves — and many Métis did in fact sell their scrip to speculators.

Commissioners investigated Métis claims at locations including Lesser Slave Lake, Peace River Crossing, Fort Dunvegan, Wolverine Point, Fort Vermilion, Fort Chipewyan, Smith’s Landing, Fort McMurray, Wabasca, Pelican Portage, Grand Rapids, Calling River Portage, Athabasca Landing and Wapiscan.

In Alberta, the scrip option was removed in 1912 for the boundaries of Treaty 8; Métis claims were subsequently dealt with by admission to treaty.

In total, 1,195 money scrips (a value of $286,800) and 48 land scrips (covering an area of 4461.97 hectares) were issued throughout the Treaty 8 lands in 1899, more than half of which went to the Lesser Slave Lake Métis.

Problems Administering the Treaty

Almost immediately, issues arose with the treaty. Although money and supplies were supposed to be delivered every summer, the government fell behind on payments, and owed money to some groups for several years. Many of the promises that the Indigenous people insisted were made, such as medical care, were also not honoured. Most problematically, however, a series of laws was passed that regulated hunting and trapping, including the 1916 Migratory Birds Act and the 1917 Game Act. This eventually led to acts of political resistance: for example, there was a boycott of the treaty at Fort Resolution in 1920 where First Nations refused to take their annual payments.

Interpretations and Implications

As is the case with other treaties, the nations involved have disputed the extent to which the terms were either communicated or mentioned at all. It is agreed that none of them would have signed had they known that it would result in restrictions on their traditional way of life. The transfer of responsibility for natural resources to the western provinces after 1930 also led to conflicts, as honouring the treaties was a federal rather than provincial responsibility. Supreme Court decisions have since placed limits on the provinces’ abilities to make decisions that affect treaty signatories.

Particularly in what is now the Northwest Territories, outstanding issues of land have long gone unresolved. While some nations have settled their claims, many more — including the Akaitcho Dene First Nations and the Dehcho First Nations (see Dene Nation) — are still in the process of negotiating land, resources, and self-government agreements. The government’s failure to resolve these claims has made it difficult in some cases for it to develop resources. Some treaty signatories in northeastern British Columbia have also opposed the development of oil, gas and hydroelectric projects, saying that it violates their treaty rights (see Rights of Indigenous Peoples).