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The treaties in the Prairies are not well understood; what they are, when were they signed, and what areas do they cover. What rights were given up and what were granted to those who signed it?

Hello Flatlanders,

First some good news. The Flatlander now has more than 2,000 subscribers, which isn’t bad considering this newsletter only launched in November.

This week’s topic was suggested by a Flatlander named Percy, who lives in Manitoba.

He wrote: The treaties in the Prairies are not well understood; what they are, when were they signed, and what areas do they cover. What rights were given up and what were granted to those who signed it?

Good questions.

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“We are all treaty people” is an expression we sometimes hear in Canada. In fact, the University of Toronto has a free course you can take online that is called just that.

“We are all treaty people” is an expression we sometimes hear in Canada. In fact, the University of Toronto has a free course you can take online that is called just that.

The synopsis for the course is as follows:

Many people think of treaty rights as “special” indigenous rights however, all people living in Canada are treaty people with their own set of rights and responsibilities.

Treaties are a foundational part of Canadian society. Every road, house, building or business that exists today in a treaty area was made possible because of a treaty.


Canada’s history and borders are shaped by treaties, long before the country entered the Numbered Treaties with the First Nations that many of us are aware of today.

A deal for Acadia. For instance, in 1654, there was the Treaty of Breda where, in exchange for Acadia, France received the British piece of St. Christopher Island, which is now St. Kitts, southeast of Puerto Ricco.

France gave up all its North American territory in 1763 via the Treaty of Paris, except for Saint-Pierre and Miquelon off Newfoundland, as well as Louisiana.

The border between Canada and the United States was defined by the Webster-Ashburton Treaty in 1842, which was signed by America and Britain. This allowed for the surveying and mapping of the New Brunswick-Maine border.  

Four years after Canada became a country, the first Numbered Treaties with the First Nations were signed in 1871.

Treaty 1 was signed at Lower Fort Garry in Manitoba, which has since become a national historic site. You can visit it if you happen to be in the Winnipeg area in the summer. It’s about a 30-minute drive from downtown Winnipeg, just south of Selkirk.

Why was it signed? Initially, Canada at the time of Confederation only included Quebec, Ontario, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and the politicians at the time were looking to expand west.

Manitoba become a fifth province on July 15, 1870 through the Manitoba Act. The following year British Columbia would become a part of Canada too.

The land in the middleRupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory—was owned by Hudson’s Bay Company, which still exists today as The Bay, although it is now owned by the American company NRDC Equity Partners.

A lot of valuable resources on these lands meant Canada’s politicians worried that America would probably buy this area from Hudson Bay. They had already annexed Alaska in 1867.

The U.S.’s Manifest Destiny had Canadians worried that America was looking to expand across all of North America. To prevent this from happening, Canada acquired Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory in 1870.

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Canada had to address Indigenous land claims to honour Hudson Bay Company’s obligations in order to acquire Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory.

It took 50 years to negotiate the treaties. Between 1871 and 1921, Canada would sign 11 treaties with several First Nations in exchange for reserve lands, annual payments and hunting and fishing rights to unoccupied crown lands (which is why traditional land extends beyond the reserves today). Each treaty has its own complex story of how it would come to be signed.

Saskatchewan is covered by Treaty 4 , Treaty 5Treaty 6Treaty 8 and Treaty 10. Treaty 2 and Treaty 7 also spill over into Saskatchewan a bit too.

Manitoba is made up of Treaties 1 and 2Treaty 3, Treaty 4 and Treaty 6 and Treaty 10.


The First Nations were strong-armed into signing the treaties by both the American and Canadian governments that had policies that encouraged European settlers to overhunt the buffalo to starve and demoralize First Nations and drive down the value of bison hides. (You can read more about this in an earlier edition of The Flatlander: Where do the buffalo roam these days?)  

To assimilate Indigenous people into white, colonial society and culture, the Numbered Treaties had provisions for education and encouraged farming.

Some Indigenous people were hopeful that the treaties would mean the federal government would provide training and funding to transition to an agricultural life, instead of relying on the buffalo.

Other Indigenous people were skeptical and thought they had more to lose than gain.

Plains Cree chief Big Bear refused to sign Treaty 6 in 1876 because he worried his people would lose their freedom and ability to practice their traditional ways of life.

Their concerns weren’t taken seriously enough by the government thought many First Nations at the time, but they signed the Numbered Treaties because they saw no other option for being able to provide for their people.

There were differences in interpretation of the treaties because of the cultural and language barriers between First Nations and the Canadian government. There were different ideas about what territory is and what ownership means. Certain English terms, like “cede” and “surrender,” may not have been fully understood by First Nations leaders. Errors in translation are also believed to have caused misunderstandings.

Outside promises were the government’s verbal commitments to First Nation leaders that weren’t written down. For instance, in Treaties 1 and 2, First Nation leaders were promised assistance for agricultural development. This deal wouldn’t be honoured until years after the treaties were signed, after many complaints. Even then, the government didn’t do all that it had said it would do.

The impact of the treaties. The Numbered Treaties continue to have legal and socioeconomic consequences. There are still disputes over land use, fishing and hunting rights and natural resources, which Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada are working to resolve today.

Hunting and fishing rights

The Constitution in 1982 preserved traditional hunting and fishing rights. And while an Indigenous person can hunt and fish in their treaty area, those areas aren’t clearly defined.  

No official document exists to prove a person has a treaty right to be hunting in any area. First Nations people bring their status cards with them while hunting, but this doesn’t prove they have the right to harvest on that land.

A Shipman letter allows Indigenous people to hunt outside their treaty area. It is issued by a host First Nation. The letter acts as a license that can stipulate what animals visitors are allowed to harvest and when.

Conservation concerns. The government can ban Indigenous people from hunting and fishing if there are conservation concerns over a specific species in a specific area after harvesting thresholds have been met. But this has rarely been done since conservation thresholds are not well defined, so such a ban would have the potential to turn into a lengthy and expensive court case.

As for Percy’s question: “What rights were given up and what were granted to those who signed” the treaties? We will have to go a little deeper into this question at a future date.
One could argue that Indigenous people didn’t have much in the way of rights for a long time. For instance, First Nations people didn’t get the right to vote in Canadian elections until 1960, so basically up until then, they were governed by laws they had no say in. And under the Indian Act, First Nations were essentially thought of as a ward of the state until such a time came when they were fully assimilated into Canadian culture.
If you are interested in learning more about the Numbered Treaties, the City of Winnipeg recommends several books.
On a related note, Percy recommends the book The Northwest is Our Mother about the Métis Nation by Jean Tiellet, the great-grandniece of Louis Riel.

Five stories from Manitoba you may have missed

  1. Snowmobile crashes have been on the rise in Manitoba.
  2. The likelihood of spring flooding along the Red River is high this year.
  3. A junior hockey player got into trouble for making a racist gesture during a game.
  4. An old boarded-up house in Winnipeg has a significant history.
  5. Harvest Manitoba says demand for food hampers is at a record high.

Five stories from Saskatchewan you may have missed

  1. Warman and Martensville lead the way as the fastest growing Saskatchewan cities.
  2. A Saskatchewan woman now finds herself jailed in Brazil after falling for an inheritance scam.
  3. The Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities is calling for a moratorium on wild boar farming, saying the boars escape and become “invasive beasts.”
  4. Ghost guns are a growing concern in Saskatoon.
  5. Saskatchewan’s crop insurance program has been reworked.

Photo of the week

A woman in Saskatoon performs a Fancy Shawl Dance along the North Saskatchewan River. GETTY IMAGES.

Until next week…

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Thanks for reading, and kind regards,

Kelly-Anne Riess

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