The Numbered Treaties 1 to 11 (1871-1921)


Much like its southern neighbour, the United States of America, the new Dominion of Canada believed that its future lay in its expansion across North America. To address aboriginal claims to the land, the Crown negotiated eleven treaties between 1871 and 1921. 

While the unification of the British colonies of Canada, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia created a single block under the banner of the new Dominion of Canada in 1867, most political parties had expansionist views which called for the annexation of Rupert’s Land, the huge territory covering the Hudson Bay watershed.

In fact, during the first session of the first Dominion Parliament, several politicians called for the acquisition of Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC).

The rapid expansion of the United States across the West alarmed many Canadian politicians who feared that the United States would annex Rupert’s Land. The fears of American expansionism were real as several different groups throughout the American territories openly called for the annexation of the Hudson Bay Company lands.

This was compounded by a belief that any expansion by Canada across the Prairies was detrimental to US interests.

Western expansion was seen as a vital part of Canada’s economic future.

Without Rupert’s Land, Canada would be hemmed into the North-East corner of the continent, unable to tap into the resources and riches of the Prairies, limited to the narrow strip of arable land between the Great Lakes and unable to attract new immigrants to boost the population and drive commerce.

Immediately following the proclamation of Confederation, the Dominion began negotiations with Britain and the Hudson’s Bay Company for the acquisition of the Company’s Charter to Rupert’s Land.

The charter was secured and full control transferred by the British under the Rupert’s Land Act of 1868 and the Northwest Territories Transfer Act in 1870. After the creation of Manitoba in 1870, the Macdonald Government proceeded to establish the administrative structure of the Northwest Territories.

 The Crown negotiated eleven treaties between 1871 and 1921.

The Northwest Territories Act extended Canada’s legal jurisdiction over the Territories outside of Manitoba and made provisions for an administrative structure and application of Canadian law throughout the Territories.

Regardless of the legal status of the Northwest Territories being as a part of Canada, the fact remained that the Territories were devoid of any Canadian authority and was still the domain of Aboriginal people. Although the Dominion had purchased the title for Rupert’s Land, it had no way of exerting its influence or jurisdiction over the area.

As part of the obligations created by the transfer of the HBC charter, Canada was responsible for addressing any and all Aboriginal claims to land. Taking the form established by the 1850 Robinson Treaties, the Crown negotiated eleven treaties between 1871 and 1921.

These treaties covered the area between the Lake of the Woods to the Rocky Mountains to the Beaufort Sea. Similar to the Robinson Treaties, the so-called Numbered Treaties promised reserve lands, annuities, and the continued right to hunt and fish on unoccupied Crown lands in exchange for Aboriginal title.

Treaties had clauses that were very similar to many of the civilisation programs undertaken in central Canada.

All treaties had clauses for schools or teachers to educate children, and agricultural implements were promised to assist Aboriginal signatories in their transition towards an agricultural lifestyle.

Aboriginal signatories were encouraged to settle on reserve lands in sedentary communities, learn agriculture and receive an education. The Treaty Commissioners explained that the reserves were to assist Aboriginal people to adapt to a life without the buffalo hunt and that the Government would assist them in the transition to agriculture by providing tools and other farming implements.

At their base, the treaties were land surrenders on a huge scale. A total of 11 Numbered Treaties were negotiated during this period culminating with Treaty 11 in 1921. Furthermore, in the eyes of the Federal Government, the act of signing treaty brought Aboriginal people of the Northwest under the jurisdiction of the Dominion of Canada and its laws.

Numbered Treaties 1 through 7

The early Numbered Treaties – Treaties 1 through 7 – became the vehicle by which the Department of Indian Affairs implemented existing and future assimilation policies in the Northwest while the latter treaties allowed for the opening of the North and access to valuable natural resources.

Not all Aboriginal leaders in the Northwest Territories were comfortable or satisfied with the treaty terms being offered by the Crown’s representatives. One such example was that of the influential Cree Chief, Big Bear who was displeased with the agreed terms of the Treaty 6 and did not adhere to it.

Refusing to sign the treaty for another seven years, Big Bear and his followers moved freely across the Prairie in an attempt to pressure the Crown to renegotiate the treaties with terms more favourable for First Nation signatories.

After years of hardship due to disappearing buffalo, living off Northwest Mounted Police rations and the numbers of his followers dwindling, Big Bear finally agreed to sign an adhesion to Treaty 6 in August 1883 and settle on a reserve.

Big Bear and his followers were one of the last major non-treaty Aboriginals groups in the Prairies.

While the treaties negotiated between 1871 and 1921 are largely based on the model of the 1850 Robinson Treaties, they are not all identical. The general form and scope of the agreements are similar, but the individual circumstances of the treaty signings led each agreement to have unique clauses. As a product of a negotiation between parties with at times competing interests, each treaty is a reflection of the parties’ goals and hard fought desires.

Numbered Treaties 1 and 2

As the first of the treaties negotiated in Western Canada, Treaties 1 and 2 concluded in 1871, have fewer clauses than in the ones that would follow. For example, these treaties are the only ones that do not specify that the First Nation signatories maintain an ongoing right to hunt and fish in the treaty area.

The amount of reserve lands per band was also fixed at 160 acres per family of five, a clause that would be repeated only for Treaties 1, 2 and 5 covering present day Manitoba. Furthermore, the amount of the treaty annuity was $3 at the time of treaty signings while those of all other Numbered Treaties would be $5.

These differences, as well as a complaints relating to promises not included in the written text of the treaties, led to the passage of an order-in-council in 1875 that raised the amount of the annuity to $5 and responded to the complaints.

Numbered Treaty 3

On Canada’s third attempt to secure a treaty for the vital lands between Lake Superior and the Red River, Treaty 3 was concluded in 1873 at Lake of the Woods. The heavy bargaining between the First Nations and the strategic importance of the lands in question led to a treaty with different clauses compared to those signed in 1871.

Under this treaty, the reserve land allocation was much larger with 640 acres of land per family of five, guaranteed rights to hunt and fish on unoccupied Crown lands and an annuity of $5. There was also a higher one-time gratuity of $12 per person, and a yearly allocation of $1,500 for the purchase of ammunition and twine.

Numbered Treaty 4

When Treaty 4 was negotiated at Fort Qu’Appelle the following year, the terms of Treaty 3 were the starting point. In the end, the differences between Treaty 3 and 4 are relatively minor, such as in Treaty 4, four headmen were allowed instead of two, chiefs and headmen would receive a larger gratuity, trapping was included with hunting and fishing, and only $750 was allocated for the purchase of ammunition and twine.

When it was proposed to negotiate for the lands around Lake Winnipeg, Treaty 3 was again the starting point.

Numbered Treaty 5

In the end, the terms of Treaty 5 were similar, except that the reserve land allocation was of 160 acres of reserve lands per family of five as in Treaties 1 and 2, and that there was a one time payment of $500 for ammunition and twine, agricultural implements, and tools.

After the disruption of the construction of a telegraph line across the central prairies, Treaty commissioners were sent to conclude another treaty for the rich agricultural lands of the North Saskatchewan River.

Numbered Treaty 6

While Treaty 6 comprised all the usual terms, with 640 acres per family of five for reserve land, it also had three terms that are unique to it. It was agreed that a medicine chest would be maintained by the Indian Agent for use of the band, assistance would be provided in times of famine and pestilence, and once bands had been surveyed, the treaty signatories would receive a supplement of $1000 per year to assist in the cultivation of the land for the first three years.

Numbered Treaty 7

When the final southern treaty was concluded in 1877, the three special clauses of Treaty 6 were not repeated. However, Treaty 7 is different in other ways from the other Numbered Treaties. While the other treaties had provisions providing a number of agricultural implements, the Treaty 7 signatories wished to concentrate their agricultural efforts on ranching.

With this in mind, the treaty commissioners agreed to reduce the amount of the agricultural implements and seed stock in exchange for an increased number of cattle, although with an exception for some bands who wanted to focus on farming.

Another significant difference from the proceeding treaties is that Treaty 7 states that the Crown will pay for teachers’ salaries instead of the maintenance of school buildings. Also, instead of promising schools on reserve, the only guarantee is that the government will pay the salary of teachers.

Numbered Treaties 8 through 11

The treaties negotiated between 1899 and 1921 are all relatively similar with few marked differences. The primary addition in Treaties 8, 10 and 11 is that provisions for 160 acres for individuals who chose to live outside the band. Known as “lands in severalty”, this was a response to the fact that populations were not as concentrated in the North.

Compared to the other Numbered Treaties, Treaty 9 has the largest number of differences. The annuity is $4 instead of $5 and there would be no distribution of ammunition or net twine, no farm implements or carpentry tools, and no salaries or clothing for the chiefs and councilors.