TreatiesFrom the time of the British conquest of New France in 1763, the British government had recognized that Aboriginal people had legitimate claims to the lands that they occupied. Furthermore, the government took the position that these Aboriginal claims could only be surrendered to the government following an open assembly at which the Aboriginal people had consented to give up the land. Following Confederation in 1867, the newly created Canadian government continued this policy, eventually negotiating 10 treaties with the Aboriginal people of the West and the North. From the government's point of view, the purpose of the treaties was to open the door for White settlement by gaining the right to Aboriginal land.
While the treaties differed in detail, they all contained common elements: in exchange for their land rights specific Aboriginal bands were granted reserves whose size was based on the number of people in the band, there was to be an annual payment to the banned members, commitments were made to provide educational opportunities and economic support, and alcohol was banned from the reserves. Some treaties also protected Aboriginal hunting and fishing rights. While there have been numerous criticisms of the treaty making process, it constituted a recognition of the legitimacy of the Aboriginal governments.
Treaties 1 and 2, the first of the numbered treaties, were negotiated in Manitoba in the summer of 1871. Much of the pressure for the treaties came from Aboriginal people. They recognized that the buffalo was disappearing and that settlers were coming. While they did not welcome the new order, they wanted to protect their traditional livelihood and receive assistance in making the transition to an agricultural economy. Through the fur trade, they had considerable experience in negotiating what amounted to treaties of friendship and kinship with Europeans. As part of their campaign for a treaty in June 1871, Aboriginal people posted a notice at a church near Portage la Prairie stating that "We have not yet received anything for our lands, therefore they still belong to us."
Lieutenant-Governor Adams Archibald invited the Saulteaux and Swampy Cree bands to meet with Canadian government representatives at Lower Fort Garry in late July 1871. In the upcoming negotiations Archibald had been authorized by the federal government to take whatever steps might be needed to make it possible for settlement of the Prairies. The talks took place against the background of the bloody Indian wars being waged in the western United States. The Canadian negotiators were well aware of the fact that the US budget for these wars was greater than the entire Canadian budget, while the Aboriginal leaders knew only too well of the hardship the war had created for Aboriginal people in the United States.
For their part, the Aboriginal negotiators sought to win as much protection as possible for their traditional way of living. In their first proposal, the Saulteaux and Cree leaders asked for what amounted to two-thirds of the land in Manitoba. In response, Adams told them that "whether they wished it or not, immigrants would come in and fill up the country, that every year from this one twice as many in number as their whole people there assembled, would pour into the Province, and in a little while would spread all over it." In other words, if they did not agree to surrender the land, the settlers, with the backing of the government, would take it. In addition to land, the Aboriginal people sought support in making the transition from hunting to farming. One chief said, "Grant me wherewith to make my living," while another asked for "cattle, tools, agricultural implements, and assistance in everything when we come to settle."
The negotiations over the sorts of tools and supports that the federal government would provide to Aboriginal people in Treaty One were the most difficult part of the treaty process. In the end, the government negotiators agreed to provide agricultural implements, cattle, and seed to those Aboriginal people who took up farming. At the same time the Aboriginal people were left with the impression that they would be able to continue to hunt and fish over much of the land. Unfortunately, a number of the promised provisions were not written into the treaty itself. Not surprisingly this angered the Aboriginal leaders who had to spend several years campaigning before the federal government agreed to include the promised provisions in the treaty. In the coming years differences in the ways Aboriginal people and the Canadian government understood the treaties would become more apparent as Aboriginal people increasingly found themselves confined to their reserves, often forbidden from taking part in their traditional spiritual ceremonies, and in many cases separated from their children who were forced to attend residential schools. By the end of this period, the treaties that Aboriginal people had thought would recognize their rights to self-government would be used to place them under the control of the Canadian government.