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Impact of treaties in Canada


The impact of treaties in Canada


Treaties have been part of Canada’s history as they were commonly used to constitutionally recognize agreements made between the indigenous people and the Crown. Canada opted to use treaties as a way to describe the exchange engaged with the indigenous people for various reasons such as sharing ancestral land by the indigenous people on condition that the crown would in turn provide some form of payment and other benefits. Although the treaties represented the agreement reached on by the two parties, they both had varying opinions regarding what the treaties were and what they sought to accomplish. The indigenous people for instance considered treaties as sacred covenants established with the Canadians. They respected the agreement because they believed that through the treaties, people with roots from different regions could be welcomed into Canada, and preserving these treaties was considered a moral obligation. The crown however had varying opinions regarding the importance of the treaties. Other than the advantages that the crown was able to gain from the treaties, the relationship with the indigenous people was mostly influenced by the fact that the indigenous people had occupied the land before the crown. The importance placed on treaties by the crown was therefore dependent on the benefits the treaty offered. The varying opinions regarding treaties and what they represented are greatly responsible for the varying views that people have +of treaties even today and ought to be resolved to develop better relationships that favor the indigenous people as much as they did the Crown. 

           A significant portion of the settled lands of Canada like Ontario, Alberta, and Manitoba originally belonged to the indigenous people before they were transferred to the government through treaties. The transfer was facilitated by the promises made by the government to offer payment and other benefits in exchange for control and having interests in the indigenous people’s ancestral land (Asch, 2011). Although both the indigenous people and the government were present when the treaties were signed, there have been various disagreements in both implementation and acceptance of the terms dictated by the treaties.          The indigenous people and the government have always had varying concepts over what the treaties symbolized and what each side would be required to sacrifice or give up to fulfill the treaties (Asch, 2011). The confusion was mostly because, during the time the treaties were enacted, the indigenous people had different world views compared to the crown. The indigenous people and the Canadian government had different definitions of land ownership. The idea of land belonging to an individual and the provision that the individual could make decisions regarding how to use the land, including keeping others out was a new concept for the indigenous people. Such differences have attributed to the conflict revolving around the agreements made through treaties. 

           The indigenous people relied heavily on word of mouth and information was passed down from one generation to the next through oral tradition. Unlike the crown, the indigenous people paid more attention to what was said through the word of mouth rather than what was written down in paper and the same approach was practiced even during the signing of treaties. Rather than writing, the indigenous people relied on sawn beaded wampum belts to record important events (Montpetit, 2011). In the early stages, the wampum belts made to signify the treaties were regarded as sacred objects and would be brought out to commemorate ceremonies. The belt was however a tradition practiced by the indigenous people and while they were important to the people, their importance to the crown may have only served the interests of maintaining the treaties with little emphasis on their use as traditional symbols (Montpetit, 2011). The government viewed the treaties as agreements that gave the crown freedom and authority over various aspects of the indigenous people’s lives. The promise to offer payment and other benefits was mostly done to entice the indigenous people to give up control mostly for the benefit of the crown.

How indigenous people interpreted treaties

           The indigenous people believed that the agreement made through the word of mouth was more important than the terms written on the treaties. They were therefore bound by their word and also their customs and traditions. In commemoration of their customs, ceremonial conventions would be held during the negotiation and signing of treaties (Miller, 2009). Those involved would smoke sacred pipes and also exchange gifts such as the wampum belts. Since elders were considered more informed due to their experiences and possession of information on oral history, they were often elected to represent the indigenous people during the signing of treaties (Miller, 2009). While the representatives were familiar with the indigenous people’s customs and traditions, they had little understanding of what customs existed in Canada and how the government regarded treaties. 

           To the indigenous people, the treaties brought the promise of a better future for both parties especially because of the relationship they sought to build. They considered the crown an added advantage to the protection of the indigenous people especially because they believed that the crown would protect the indigenous people the same way they did their interests (Miller et al, 2000). Concerning land, the terms stipulated in the treaties were interpreted to mean that the crown would only use some of the land owned by the indigenous people for farming and other purposes. When the negotiations were being made, the indigenous people used their customs and traditions to interpret the occupation by the crown as a lease or on for a limited time, but the land would remain under the control of the indigenous people (Miller et al, 2000). This was especially because the indigenous people considered land as an entity that could not be possessed by any one person or used to deny entry to others. Their tradition of sharing land made it difficult for them to grasp the idea that the agreements they were signing on the treaties would allow the crown would force the indigenous people to extinguish all rights and titles they had to the land agreed upon in the treaties. 

           The indigenous people also believed that the treaties only sought to establish some form of peaceful coexistence with the crown. Their communities were often led by a chief who was the leader of the system of government used and was made up of a council of advisors and elders from the community. Since the indigenous people were already governing their communities, they never intended for the treaties to force them into assimilation as this would force them to abandon their traditions and give up their status as a sovereign nation (Miller et al, 2009). The crown however failed to elaborate on the difference in culture and that signing the treaties and took advantage of the fact that the indigenous people would focus more on their customs rather than that of foreigners.

Since consensus was used to make major decisions especially ones that would affect the entire community, the crown may have opted for treaties as they would go in line with some of the traditions used by the indigenous people (Borrows, 2017). Another custom that the treaties exploited was where land was owned in common and controlled by chiefs and the councils. This meant that decisions made by the council, such as giving possession of land to the crown, would be regarded as law even if individuals occupying the land objected. The indigenous people however failed to identify the full impact of the treaties because they did not fully understand what treaties meant and the binding contract they created with the crown. 

How the Crown interpreted treaties 

           The Canadian government saw treaties as an opportunity to take possession of the land occupied by the indigenous people. The treaties facilitated the legal expansion of the crown into settlements owned by the indigenous people for various purposes such as mining and setting railway lines. Through the treaties, the crown was able to mislead the indigenous people into signing over the rights to their land, forcing them to move to the regions specified by the crown as reserved land for the indigenous people (Borrows, 2017). While the terms of the treaties required the crown to offer some form of payment or compensation for the land they possessed, it was not clear to the indigenous people that the agreement would mean that the crown would have permanent control over the land they took. 

           Treaties were also viewed as a tool to help the indigenous people live better since the crown viewed their customs and traditions as superior. The crown believed that their influence would be beneficial especially in areas such as fishing and hunting. Although the treaties did offer protection to the indigenous people, they infringed on different rights that made the rewards meaningless (Government of Canada, 2020). The treaties became the first step towards assimilation and the crown pushed the indigenous people to abandon their customs and traditions and adopt the Canadian culture. The indigenous people were forced to change their religious beliefs, learn new languages, and even refrain from practicing some of their ceremonies.  

           The crown also had a contrasting view of land and the purpose it served. When the first treaties were signed, the indigenous people were more trusting of the crown because they believed that land was sacred and that it was custom to accommodate those that sought to be part of their ancestral land. The belief was great as a result of their customs and traditions which prevented the ownership of land by an individual (Morriss, 2014). Although each person occupied land and used it for various purposes, the indigenous people did not believe in sole ownership of land as it was controlled by the councils. To the crown, however, the land was a source of profit that could be exploited to further their course. The idea of sole ownership of land was influenced by activities such as farming (Morris, 2014). Individuals sought to own and control all rights and access to land because of the profit they could gain from activities like farming and fishing. The group ownership of land made treaties an ideal tool as it would make it easy to transfer land to the crown without having to deal with each owner individually.

Consequences of treaties

When the treaties were first introduced, they were presented as agreements that would benefit all parties involved. However, after less than 50 years after the first treaties handing over land ownership to the crown were signed, Canadians had already exceeded the population of people occupying upper Canada and other parts originally occupied by the indigenous people such as the Great Lakes basin (Asch, 2014). More land was claimed as additional colonists occupied the land as they needed room for farming activities. The indigenous people signed about 35 treaties and unknowingly surrendered all the lands in upper Canada and all the rights to the productive lands for farming on the south and the natural resources that existed in regions such as Georgian Bay and Lake Superior. 

Although the occupation started as peaceful dealings between the crown and the indigenous people, the demand for more land as more settlers came led to pressure between the two as the crown pushed the indigenous people further away from the prime land (Borrows, 2010). The errors made by the elders when they failed to fully understand the terms of the treaties or the authority they held began to be felt. The crown exploited loopholes created by poor description of terms, missing signature, and lack of clarity on where boundary lines were drawn to take advantage of the indigenous people (Borrows, 2010). This led to the onset of complaints and inquiries by the indigenous people as they sought to regain control of their land. 

           Although the treaties favored Canada more than the indigenous people, they benefited both parties involved especially in the early stages. The Maritime treaties for instance sought to establish peace and foster friendship between the crown and the indigenous people (Aldridge & Fenge, 2015). Some of the terms agreed on in the treaties also sought to enable the indigenous people to engage in trade without restrictions and carry out fishing and hunting as they had in the past. Other than the treaties, the crown further provided food and ammunition as well as offering protection to the indigenous people. 

           Another example is the Seven Years War where the French, British, and Americans established treaties with indigenous people like the Indians due to the advantage they had in battle. Since the war was fought on foreign lands, the indigenous people were accustomed to the environment and could fight in environments that were too hostile for the foreigners (Montpetit, 2011). During the war, it became clear that strong alliances with the indigenous people created an advantage and the crown sought to establish such relationships through the treaties. In 1775 for instance, the British Imperial Government in London took control over treaty-making as a way to better control the colonies (Morin, 2020). To enhance their control, the British Imperial Indian Department was established and placed between the northern and southern branches which were separated by the Ohio and Potomac Rivers. The department functioned as an extension of the military as it governed under the king’s authority. 

           Attempts to gain more control in the region led to Sir William Johnson being elected as the head of a branch established to the north and greatly influenced the development of English speaking in the regions occupied by Canada. The northern branch was responsible for the continuity originating from Johnson's leadership which was an improvement of the old Covenant Chain and how Canada handles modern-day affairs related to the governing of indigenous people (Morin, 2020). The alliance established between Sir William Johnson and Molly Brant; his Mohawk adviser helped the crown to neutralize the French influence in the region. The treaties established by the two parties helped to protect the indigenous people's land from falling under the control of the Anglo-American colonies as doing so would have given them control of the northern border. 

           After the war, agreements were made between Johnson and the indigenous people that made up the seven nations of Canada. they included the Mohawk, Huron, Anishinaabe, Abenaki, and Onondaga people. the agreements guaranteed protection of the regions near St. Lawrence Valley and along Lake Ontario as well as the right to trade and practice religion (Borrows, 2010). The Murray Treaty of Longueil for instance was singed by General James Murray and the Indigenous people of Huron and it promised that the crown would offer protection to the indigenous people thereby safeguarding their security following the French retreat. 

           Various developments have been made to ensure that treaties protect the interests of both the indigenous people and the crown. Although treaties that addressed issues related to portions of Aboriginal rights to land in different parts of Canada occurred in the past, there are various on-going negotiations related to land and distribution of resources still ongoing (DOJ, 2020). The years after 1973 for example are considered an era for the modern treaties. This was facilitated by the decision by the decision made by the Supreme Court in Canada to recognize Aboriginal rights. The Northern Quebec and James Bay agreements were signed following the Supreme Court's ruling as comprehensive land claims policy and modern treaties were enacted. The modern treaties comprise 25 additional treaties signed after 1975 to advocate for positive change such as advocating for indigenous people to be allowed to govern themselves (Aldridge & Fenge, 2015). The treaties have helped to develop positive relationships between the federal government and 97 different indigenous communities which comprise roughly 89000 indigenous people. 

           Through these treaties, indigenous people have been granted control of land that is almost the size of Manitoba, 600000 km², and have overseen capital transfers of more than 3.2 billion dollars (Asch, 2014). Other than offering compensations, the treaties have also facilitated the protection of the indigenous people's way of life. The locals are allowed to practice their customs and traditions and are given more opportunities and access to resources. The indigenous people also actively participate in decisions affecting the ownership, management, and use of land as the treaties seek to protect the rights and freedoms of the indigenous people. 

           Throughout history, Canada's approach when negotiating treaties has evolved to be more accommodating to the interests of the indigenous people. The relationships that the indigenous people have had when signing treaties combined with the new indigenous laws and joint innovations during the signing of new treaties have greatly helped to ensure that the indigenous people are not exploited (DOJ, 2020). The government continues to advocate for cooperation and respectful dealings during treaty negotiations as a way of ensuring that all parties involved reach agreements that are beneficial to everyone. Discussions are also being held to try and come up with solutions for treaties enacted in the past that continue to oppress the indigenous people to develop better treaties. 

The evolution of the treaty process in Canada reveals the various steps that were involved in the evolution and shaping of Canada. The continuing discussions and new treaties signed are an indication that the challenges that existed in the past have been dealt with or are being addressed in ways that do not affect the overall impact that the treaties have had on the Crown and the indigenous people. Different terms are being discussed to help offer better opportunities to the indigenous people and increase the protection of their rights and freedoms. 

In the past, the forming of treaties was often instigated by the Canadian government to gain unlimited access or unrestricted control to a piece of land or available resources. Although the treaties were designed to benefit the government, some of the policies enacted were intended to benefit the indigenous people as well or compensate them for parting with a piece of land or for compromising their rights (DOJ, 2020). Although some of the negative outcomes were unintentional, the majority of the negative outcomes were mainly because the crown placed its interest over those of the indigenous people (Morris, 2014). Later on, however, indigenous people started understanding the concept of treaties and how they differed from the approach taken by the indigenous people when making agreements. The realization led to the enactment of policies that sought to protect the interests of the indigenous people above all else (Morin, 2020). Rather than focusing on the interests of the crown, the new treaties focused on benefiting the indigenous people and any positive outcome on the side of the crown was mostly as a result of the activities carried out in favor of the indigenous people. 

The misinterpretation of terms that existed in the past has been rectified by the inclusion of indigenous laws and stakeholders who represent the indigenous community to ensure that the terms stipulated in the treaties do not end up oppressing the indigenous people. While there is little need for protection against attacks, the indigenous people still need policies that protect their rights and freedoms from being infringed upon (Morin, 2020). Since most treaties in the past tended to favor the interests of the crown, new treaties tend to focus on rectifying the unfair conditions and oppression that was carried out under treaties intended to take advantage of the indigenous people especially concerning ownership of land.


The varying opinions that exist regarding the impact that treaties had especially on the indigenous people are greatly influenced by the two viewpoints that existed when the treaties were introduced. although the treaty was the binding agreement, the indigenous people perceived the interaction with the Crown as the treaty. agreements and discussions held through word of mouth were often misinterpreted as the actual terms in the treaties. The belief made it difficult for the indigenous people to pay attention to the terms themselves an only relied on the explanations provided by the crown regarding the treaties. Since the government was responsible for enacting the treaties, they fully understood the terms dictated in them, as well as how to go about creating loopholes that benefited Canada, often at the expense of the indigenous people. 

           Although the treaties were supposed to benefit both Canada and the indigenous people, the difference in culture created communication barriers that resulted in the indigenous misinterpreting what the treaties sought to achieve. in the end, Canada was able to occupy land that originally belonged to the indigenous people. although the indigenous people enjoyed some benefits such as protection from hostiles, most of their rights were infringed on and their customs and traditions had to give way to the new mode of life introduced by the Crown. 














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