What are Treaties? Why should you know about them?

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When attending events around Manitoba, hosts usually begin with a land acknowledgement. They would say:

“We would like to acknowledge that we are currently on Treaty # __ territory.”

They may go on to mention that the place is the traditional territory of the specific First Nations groups that were signatories to the certain Treaty. Have you ever wondered why this is done and what it means?

First off, what are Treaties?

A Treaty is an agreement which was made in a sacred trust between the Indigenous Peoples of Canada and the Crown. First Nations Treaties are “negotiated agreements that clearly spell out the rights, responsibilities and relationships of First Nations and the federal and provincial governments” ( Treaty Relations Commission Manitoba). These agreements were about solidfying alliances and often dealt with the sharing of land, resources and coexistence in exchange for assurances. Examples of assurances include annuities as an acknowledgement and annual reminder into perpetuity of the solemn agreement that was made between the two historic Treaty partners (First Nations peoples and the Crown as represented by Canada) and continued right for First Nations to practice their traditional livelihoods of hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering. Meanwhile, Canadians (represented by the Crown) gained rights to settle and make a living on the land.

Treaties are significant pacts and contracts. They are “an enduring relationship of mutual obligation” that facilitated a peaceful coexistence between First Nations and non-First Nation people. They have been negotiated in Canada between First Nations and the British Crown as early as 1701 and continued in both pre-and post-Confederation periods. Treaty No.1 consists of seven First Nation Communities which are: Broken Head First Nation, Sandy Bay First Nation, Swan Lake First Nation, Rouseau River First Nation, Peguis First Nation, Long Plains First Nation, and Saakeng First Nation. Today, the Canadian government acknowledges 70 historic and 24 modern-day Treaties. These are considered important building blocks of the nation.

(TRCM/CTV Vignette: Share the Land)

The acknowledgement of Treaty lands speaks volumes about the importance of these pacts. This is a traditional practice that recognizes and acknowledges the First Nations People who have lived on the land for generations before the arrival of settlers. The recognition of the land also shows respect and gratitude. Indigenous Peoples have a strong connection to the land in language, culture practises, and oral traditions. They are the stewards of the land and have responsibilities to take care of Mother Earth.

When making a Treaty Land Acknowledgement, we have to remember which territory we are in because not all land acknowledgements are the same. Each territory has its own distinct treaty acknowledgement (see examples below).

Do you want to know whose land you’re on? Check the Native Land map. Key-in the location on the search tab to highlight the area on the map.

Why should you learn about Treaties?

“We are all Treaty people”.

This means that Treaties do not involve only the First Nations and the government or the Crown, it also involves you. Every Canadian has Treaty rights. For example, if you own property or plan on owning property in Canada, you are exercising a right that goes back to the very first signed Treaties. Treaties benefit all Canadians. They ensure the well-being of both parties to the agreement through economic and political means.

Learning about Treaties is especially important for newcomers to Canada. It helps us better appreciate the relationship (and the continuing relationship) between the First Nations peoples and the federal and provincial governments. More importantly, it is a big part in understanding the country’s origins and how it developed. As James B. Wilson, former Commissioner of the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, says: “It (knowing what Treaties represent) is fundamentally important to understanding the country we live in. To me you can’t be a fully engaged citizen unless you acknowledge and understand that shared history – it’s part of our collective identity.”

“First Nations peoples do not have anything for free. Outside of the items defined by statute and agreement, Indigenous peoples pay for their own expenses.”

Why are Treaties still relevant today?

Historic and modern-day Treaties continue to be key elements in future relationships between the First Nations and the Crown. According to Research Director Michael Anderson, “the essence of the Treaty was to create a nation together that will exist in perpetuity, for as long as the sun shines, the grass grows, the waters flow” (cited from Treaties from 1760-1923: Two sides to the story, Isabelle Montpetit, CBC News). They continue to be the foundation upon which Indigenous and non-indigenous people build the nation and enjoy its benefits in the context of mutual rights and responsibilities. In fact, there are still modern-day Treaties being negotiated in Canada today. These concern First Nations traditional territories that were not included in the Treaty-making process. They also reflect First Nations peoples’ choice at the time to not be part of the Treaty process but rather retain their lands despite the dangers of encroachment by others.

As a newcomer to Canada, you may also wonder about current concerns regarding First Nations Peoples rights. You may hear about disputes and claims that relate to an unfulfilled obligation of a Treaty or another agreement, or a breach of statutory responsibilities by the Crown. These usually stem from the interpretation of the Treaties. Today, in examining these issues, “the Supreme Court of Canada has found that the written text alone cannot grant an understanding of the “spirit” of the Treaties: the courts must now examine the historical context and the perception that each partly likely had of the agreement” (Issues of modern-day interpretation, The Canadian Encyclopedia). This process requires consideration and inclusion of the First Nations’ oral tradition.

Knowing about the benefits of Treaties to the First Nations will also help dispel the myths about Indigenous Peoples of Canada in areas such as: education, housing, health, taxes. First Nations peoples do not have anything for free. Outside of the items defined by statute and agreement, Indigenous peoples pay for their own expenses (Dispelling the Misconceptions about Indigenous Peoples). This is why understanding Treaties is one of the steps that can prevent us from making quick judgments and become more discerning members of society.
With thanks to Rose Roulette, Indigenous Engagement Coordinator of Immigration Partnership Winnipeg; Amanda Simard, Education Manager and Cynthia Bird, Lead Writer, Treaty Education Initiative, Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba for reviewing this article.
Article updated July 15, 2020.
Sources: Treaties, Treaty Relations Commission Manitoba; Treaties with Aboriginal People in Canada, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada; Issues of modern-day interpretation (Treaties #1 and 2), The Canadian Encyclopedia; The importance of Treaty education, Working effectively with Indigenous Peoples blog. Retrieved April 18, 2018.

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Community Resources

Want to learn more about Treaties? The Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba has many resources that you can start with. Go to their Webinar Series page to view six videos on the basics of Treaties. Their Multimedia video gallery features various lectures from experts, including Elders, historians, and academics on various aspects of Treaty rights.

Here is a list of Treaties in Manitoba: Treaties in Manitoba.

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Everyday Conversations

Examples of Treaty 1 Land Acknowledgement:

  • Université de Saint-Boniface (Winnipeg): “We [I] would like to begin by acknowledging that we are in Treaty 1 territory and that the land on which we gather is the traditional territory of Anishinaabeg, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota, and Dene Peoples, and the homeland of the Métis Nation.”
  • University of Manitoba (Winnipeg): “The University of Manitoba campuses are located on original lands of Anishinaabeg, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota, and Dene Peoples, and on the homeland of the Métis Nation. We respect the Treaties that were made on these territories, we acknowledge the harms and mistakes of the past, and we dedicate ourselves to move forward in partnership with Indigenous communities in a spirit of reconciliation and collaboration.”
  • Office of Indigenous Achievement at University of Manitoba “We [I] would like to begin by acknowledging that we are in Treaty 1 territory and that the land on which we gather is the traditional territory of Anishinaabeg, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota, and Dene Peoples, and the homeland of the Métis Nation.”

Note: Only the U of M Thompson campus is on Dene territory, but people are left with the sense that the southern campuses are Dene territory too. Dene peoples probably travelled through here on their way southward, but students should be aware of this history.
Provided by Rose Roulette, Indigenous Engagement Coordinator of Immigration Partnership Winnipeg (IPW).

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