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Indigenous Treaties in Canada
Indigenous treaties in Canada are constitutionally recognized agreements between the Crown and Indigenous peoples. Most of these agreements describe exchanges where Indigenous nations agree to share some of their interests in their ancestral lands in return for various payments and promises. On a deeper level, treaties are sometimes understood, particularly by Indigenous people, as sacred covenants between nations that establish a relationship between those for whom Canada is an ancient homeland and those whose family roots lie in other countries. Treaties therefore form the constitutional and moral basis of alliance between Indigenous peoples and Canada.
Upper Canada Land Surrenders
The Upper Canada Land Surrenders (sometimes known as the Upper Canada Treaties) is a title given to a series of agreements made between Indigenous peoples and the Crown. These agreements were made during the late 18th century and into the 19th century before Confederation and the creation of the province of Ontario. The agreements surrendered Indigenous lands to the colonial government for a variety of purposes, including settlement and development. The Upper Canada Land Surrenders cover much of what is now southwestern Ontario. (See also Treaties with Indigenous Peoples in Canada.)
The Easton Treaty (or Treaty of Easton) is an agreement between British and Indigenous peoples, established at the forks of the Delaware River in Easton, Pennsylvania in 1758. The treaty was signed after a conference between British colonial officials and more than 500 chiefs, representing 15 Woodland Indigenous peoples in October 1758. Through the Easton Treaty and several others, the British successfully neutralized the French-Indigenous alliance in the Ohio Valley during the Seven Years’ War (1756–63) by guaranteeing the protection of Indigenous lands from Anglo-American colonists. (See also Treaties with Indigenous Peoples in Canada.)
In the summer of 1859, Superintendent General of the Indian Department Richard T. Pennefather signed three separate but essentially identical treaties with Batchewana First Nation (Treaty 91 [A]), Garden River First Nation (Treaty 91 [B]) and Thessalon First Nation (Treaty 91 [C]). The three treaties were part of a series of land surrenders that occurred after the 1850 Robinson Treaties. The Pennefather treaties opened additional acres for settlement and resource exploitation. (See also Treaties with Indigenous Peoples in Canada.)
Peace and Friendship Treaties
Between 1725 and 1779, Britain signed a series of treaties with various Mi’kmaq, Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet), Abenaki, Penobscot and Passamaquoddy peoples living in parts of what are now the Maritimes and Gaspé region in Canada and the northeastern United States. Commonly known as the Peace and Friendship Treaties, these agreements were chiefly designed to prevent war between enemies and to facilitate trade. While these treaties contained no monetary or land transfer provisions, they guaranteed hunting, fishing and land-use rights for the descendants of the Indigenous signatories. The Peace and Friendship Treaties remain in effect today.
Indigenous Peoples and Specific Claims
Specific claims originate in First Nations’ grievances over outstanding treaty obligations, or the administration of Indigenous lands and assets under the Indian Act. Specific claims have been dealt with by several mechanisms since 1973. The Specific Claims Tribunal — an independent judicial body created by the federal government in 2009 — has the authority to make final and binding decisions.
Enslavement of Indigenous People in Canada
To a tremendous extent, the enslavement of Indigenous peoples defines slavery in Canada. Fully two-thirds of the slaves in the colony of New France were Indigenous. After 1750, the number of Indigenous slaves brought into French Canada began to decline. When slavery was abolished in British colonies in 1834, Black slaves far outnumbered Indigenous slaves. (See also Black Enslavement in Canada.) The enslavement of Indigenous peoples is part of a dark legacy of colonization that has had implications on generations of Indigenous peoples in Canada and throughout North America.
Jordan’s Principle is a child-first principle that ensures First Nations children can access the same public services as other children in Canada. Jordan’s Principle is named for Jordan River Anderson, a young Cree boy who died at the age of five after waiting for home-based care that was approved when he was two but never arrived because of a financial dispute between the federal and provincial governments. Jordan’s Principle was put in place to ensure a tragedy like this never happens again.
Treaty 9 (also known as the James Bay Treaty) is one of the 11 post-Confederation Numbered Treaties negotiated with Indigenous peoples in Canada between 1871 and 1921. (See also Treaties with Indigenous Peoples in Canada.) Signed in 1905-6, Treaty 9 covers most of present-day Ontario north of the height of land dividing the Great Lakes watershed from the Hudson and James Bay drainage basins. The purpose of Treaty 9 was to purchase the interests of the resident Cree and Ojibwe peoples to lands and resources to make way for white settlement and resource development. Treaty 9, like other Numbered Treaties, contained provisions for cash treaty payments, the creation of reserves, education and hunting, fishing and trapping rights.
The Calder case (1973) — named for politician and Nisga’a chief Frank Calder,
who brought the case before the courts — reviewed the existence of Aboriginal title (i.e., ownership) claimed over lands historically occupied by the Nisga’a peoples of northwestern
British Columbia. While the case was lost, the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling nevertheless
recognized for the first time that Aboriginal title has a place in Canadian law. The Calder case (also known as Calder et al. v. Attorney General of British Columbia) is considered the foundation for the Nisga’a Treaty in 2000 — the first modern
land claim in British Columbia that gave the Nisga’a people self-government.
Indigenous Political Organization and Activism in Canada
Political activism among Indigenous people in Canada since the late 19th century has largely reflected attempts to organize political associations beyond the band level to pursue common interests. In the wake of persistent criticism of the federal government’s proposed “White Paper” policy (1969), major Indigenous organizations, most notably the Assembly of First Nations, gained political recognition and became established players on the national scene. These organizations were joined in 2012 by the national movement Idle No More.
This article describes Indigenous political organization as it relates to Canadian federal, provincial or territorial political bodies, not the political structures of specific Indigenous communities, which often predate interaction with Europeans and subsequent colonial infrastructure.
Governors General of Canada Since Confederation
Canada is a constitutional monarchy. The Crown is the head of state, and the governor general acts as their representative in Canada. The governor general has extensive ceremonial duties. They fulfill an important role in upholding the traditions of Parliament and other democratic institutions. Inuk leader Mary Simon was formally installed as Canada’s 30th Governor General on 26 July 2021. She is the first Indigenous person to hold Canada’s vice-regal position.
Comprehensive Land Claims: Modern Treaties
Comprehensive land claims are modern-day treaties made between Indigenous peoples and the federal government. They are based on the traditional use and occupancy of land by Indigenous peoples who did not sign treaties and were not displaced from their lands by war or other means. These claims, which are settled by negotiation, follow a process established by the federal government to enable First Nations, Inuit and Métis to obtain full recognition as the original inhabitants of what is now Canada. Settlement of these claims comprises a variety of terms including money, land, forms of local government, rights to wildlife, rights protecting language and culture, and joint management of lands and resources. Treaties are constitutionally protected, mutually binding agreements. Those signed by Indigenous peoples between 1701 and 1923 are commonly referred to as historic treaties, and modern treaties refer to those agreements negotiated since then.
The Persons Case (Edwards v. A.G. of Canada) was a constitutional ruling that established the right of women to be appointed to the Senate. The case was initiated by the Famous Five, a group of prominent women activists. In 1928, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that women were not “persons” according to the British North America Act (now called the Constitution Act, 1867). Therefore, they were ineligible for appointment to the Senate. However, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council reversed the Court’s decision on 18 October 1929. The Persons Case enabled women to work for change in both the House of Commons and the Senate. It also meant that women could no longer be denied rights based on a narrow interpretation of the law.
Indian Act (Plain-Language Summary)
The Indian Act was created in 1876. The main goal of the Act was to force the First Nations peoples to lose their culture and become like Euro-Canadians. The Indian Act has been changed many times. It does not affect either the Métis or Inuit.
The Guerin case (R. v. Guerin) resulted in a pivotal decision by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1984 about Indigenous rights. It centred on the fiduciary (guardian or trustee) responsibility of the Crown to consult openly and honestly with Indigenous peoples before making arrangements for the use of their land. (See also Duty to Consult.) For the first time, it established that the Crown has a legal responsibility to First Nations and not simply a moral one. It also recognized Aboriginal title to their land to be a sui generis (Latin for “unique”) right.
Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada
It is difficult to generalize about definitions of Indigenous rights because of the diversity among First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples in Canada. Broadly speaking, however, Indigenous rights are inherent, collective rights that flow from the original occupation of the land that is now Canada, and from social orders created before the arrival of Europeans to North America. For many, the concept of Indigenous rights can be summed up as the right to independence through self-determination regarding governance, land, resources and culture.
On 3 October 1873, some Saulteaux peoples (an Ojibwe people) and the Government of Canada signed Treaty 3, also known as the North-West Angle Treaty. This agreement provided the federal government access to Saulteaux lands in present-day northwestern Ontario and eastern Manitobain exchange for various goods and Indigenous rights to hunting, fishing and natural resources on reserve lands. The terms and text of Treaty 3 set precedents for the eight Numbered Treaties that followed. (See also Treaties with Indigenous Peoples in Canada.)
Gerald Stanley Case
On 9 February 2018, Gerald Stanley, a white farmer in rural Saskatchewan, was acquitted of murder and manslaughter in the killing of Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old Cree man. The acquittal caused great controversy but was not appealed by prosecutors. However, it led the Justin Trudeau government to abolish peremptory challenges, which allowed Stanley’s legal team to keep five Indigenous people off the all-white jury that acquitted him. In 2021, an investigation conducted by a civilian watchdog concluded that that the RCMP was insensitive and racially discriminatory toward Boushie’s mother, and that the police mishandled witnesses and evidence. A Globe and Mail investigation also found that the RCMP “destroyed records of police communications from the night Colten Boushie died.”