When Confederation was declared in 1867, it was widely held that lands in the Province of Ontario were all legally surrendered to the Crown through treaties. By the 1910s, however, concerns were being raised that some of the treaties were problematic and that not all the lands of Central Ontario were covered by a treaty.
Between 1764 and 1862, colonial officials, in an attempt to secure a continuous band of settlement along the St. Lawrence River and along the Lower Great Lakes, negotiated a number of land surrender treaties with the Aboriginal groups of the region.
In fact, throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Chippewa of the Lake Simcoe region and the Mississauga of the north shore of Lake Ontario had complained that some of the treaties concluded during the colonial period were highly problematic with faulty descriptions, incomplete documents and failed payments.
It appeared that an extensive parcel of land covering the Muskoka and Upper Ottawa River region were never included in any of the Upper Canada Land Surrender treaties.
Their complaints were ignored until 1916 when the Federal Minister of Justice appointed R.V. Sinclair to investigate the matter. One of the primary issues that had come to light was the possible claims by the Lake Simcoe Chippewas over the southern lands ceded by the 1850 Robinson-Huron Treaty which they had not signed.
Sinclair concluded that there were a number of problems with the existing treaties and that some lands had never been fully surrendered to the Crown.
In 1921, the federal government approached the Ontario provincial government regarding the Aboriginal claims and after a year and a half, the two levels of government worked out a procedural agreement for addressing the issue.
The agreement called for the appointment of a three-man commission, consisting of Department of Indian Affairs’ lawyer, A.S. Williams, as chairman, R.V. Sinclair, whose experience with the issue dated from 1916, and Uriah McFadden, a lawyer from Sault Ste. Marie.
Their goal was to investigate the claims and, if they deemed it appropriate, to negotiate an arrangement with the Aboriginal peoples involved.
Williams Commission says claims are valid and more extensive than previously thought.
In its 1923 report, the Williams Commission revealed that the Indians’ claims were not only valid, but were also far more extensive than those that had been suggested by the 1916 Sinclair investigation.
The two governments involved, having been suddenly confronted with a report that not only validated the claims to the central portion of the province but also verified ancient claims to lands on the north shore of Lake Ontario and to a sizeable tract below Lake Simcoe, moved very quickly to extinguish the Indian title to those regions.
The lands in question were already being used by the government for settlement and the exploitation of its natural resources. Though part of the territory had likely been acquired by the government more than a century previous, it was decided that new surrender agreements should be taken in light of the problematic documentation for the original agreements.
The treaty commission negotiated two separate treaties, known as the Williams Treaties, one covering the lands between Georgian Bay and the Ottawa River; and another for the lands along the shore of Lake Ontario and the lands up to Lake Simcoe respectively signed on October 31st and November 21st, 1923.
The Williams Treaties saw the First Nation signatories surrender all their rights and title over the lands in question, including hunting and fishing rights.
The agreement signed on October 31st, 1923 addressed the existing claims of the Lake Simcoe groups that had unresolved title claims to the lands of the Muskokas and Upper Ottawa River, as well as any underlying claims to the lands surrendered by the 1850 Robinson-Huron Treaty.
The November 21st, 1923 treaty covered the lands implicated by some of the more problematic land cession agreements dating from the 1780s.
In addition to the initial payments and the continuing annuities, the Treaties preserved the signing bands existing reserves but did not provide for any new reserve lands.
The Williams Treaties also departed from some existing practices included in earlier treaties such as the Robinson Treaties (1850), and the Numbered Treaties.
Where these treaties established continuing rights to hunt and fish, new reserve lands and yearly annuities, the Williams Treaties were more like the Upper Canada Land Surrender treaties with single cash payments, few if any reserves and the surrender of all rights.
This was not only a departure from what had become an established practice, it also created some potential problems. Nearly half of the October 31st treaty overlapped with territory taken in the Robinson-Huron Treaty. This has led to a different sets of rights over the same territories as the Robinson-Huron Treaty clearly recognizes a continued right to hunt and fish throughout that area.
According to Ontario premier Howard Ferguson, speaking on the future of the Williams Treaties, “… every tribe that could possibly have a claim on the ‘white man’s’ government had been taken care of.”
The Williams Treaties secured the surrender of the last substantial portion of land in southern Ontario.
The conclusion of the 1923 Williams Treaties marked the cession of nearly all the remaining Aboriginal lands to the Crown – only two small parcels of lands remain unceded – they also mark the end of the long standing treaty process initiated in 1763.