Treaty 6

Treaty 6, between the Queen and bands of Cree and Stoney First Nations, was negotiated and signed at Fort Carlton and Duck Lake in August, and at Fort Pitt in September, 1876. There were many subsequent adhesions to the treaty by individual bands, well into the 20th century. Treaty 6 covers 121,000 miles2 (309,760 km2): in what is now Alberta, the Treaty 6 area situated between the Athabasca and South Saskatchewan Rivers, east of the mountains; in what is now Saskatchewan, it extends roughly from a northern limit between 55° and 54° latitude to the South Saskatchewan, then Qu’Appelle rivers. The treaty contained, with some variations, the standard written clauses of the earlier numbered treaties signed with First Nations: surrender of Indian land rights; provision of assistance in the transition to an agricultural economy; provision of reserves (in Treaty 6 the equivalent of one square mile per family of five); establishing schools on reserves; and annuities of $5 per person (more to chiefs and headmen).

However, Treaty 6 was unique in several respects as a result of bargaining between Lieutenant-Governor Alexander Morris and Chiefs Mistawasis and Ahtahkakoop, who led the First Nations negotiators at Fort Carlton. Treaty 6 contained significantly increased agricultural assistance, in the form of animals and supplies, than other treaties did or would. In negotiating these increased agricultural provisions, the First Nations probably had considerable assistance from the expert translator they hired, English-Métis farmer Peter Erasmus. The treaty contained a unique clause stipulating that a “medicine chest” be kept for the benefit of each band. That clause remains controversial, but it probably signifies what we now call “medicare.” The most substantial change contained in Treaty 6 was an entirely new clause written at Fort Carlton, guaranteeing that if the First Nations in the treaty were “overtaken by any pestilence, or by a general famine,” then relief would be provided; that “famine clause” was demanded by Red Pheasant headman (and later chief) Poundmaker.

The Cree and Stoney at Fort Carlton probably understood well the amounts of agricultural supplies and some other treaty provisions they actually negotiated. However, although they had in Peter Erasmus probably the best translator available, it is doubtful that they understood such terms as “cede, release, surrender and yield up … all rights, titles and privileges” to their land. In the record of the treaty negotiations that Alexander Morris submitted to Ottawa, there was no indication that land rights surrender was even discussed or explained. Erasmus read the written treaty, including the legally worded surrender clause, to the assembled First Nations; but the semantic differences between the languages and cultures may well have been too vast for even the best translator to bridge. It also appears likely that a key part of the surrender clause, that defining the limits of the territory actually surrendered, was absent from the written document when Erasmus read it and the chiefs signed it at Fort Carlton and Duck Lake. Because of a small change he made in the territorial limits from the instructions he had received from Ottawa, it is possible Alexander Morris added the boundaries description at or after the subsequent talks at Fort Pitt. During 1877 and 1878, several bands that had not been present at the initial negotiations signed adhesions to Treaty 6.

Soon after the treaty was first signed, some bands chose reserves, moved to them, and began receiving treaty agricultural supplies. Others refused to choose reserves, and tried to hold out for better terms. But in 1879 the last of the great buffalo herds vanished, and the holdout bands had to adhere to the treaty to survive. Chief Big Bear was the most determined, but he finally signed in 1882; by that time, he had negotiated promises of additional treaty supplies, promises that continued to be sweetened as he delayed taking a reserve. Treaty 6, as well as the other numbered treaties, contained no provision compelling the First Nations to take reserves: these and other treaty provisions were meant to be in addition to the First Nations’ usual way of life, Morris said at the negotiations at Forts Carlton and Pitt. The right to hunt and fish, with some restrictions, was contained in the written treaty text.

However, after 1879 the Canadian government used increasing hunger among the First Nations to force them on to reserves: only First Nations who were actually settled and working for rations would receive food. The government believed that keeping First Nations in a state of near-starvation would bend them to its will; it also realized that this policy was likely to cause death and illness—as it did. The First Nations interpreted the loss of the buffalo to be the “general famine” covered under the famine clause of Treaty 6, and many observers in the North-West agreed. But the Canadian government insisted that its grudging distribution of rations was a matter of favour, not a treaty obligation. As for the provision of treaty agricultural supplies, it was done in a disorganized, parsimonious and careless manner, with the result that many bands did not receive anything like the quantity or quality they were entitled to under the treaty. The lack of implementation, or at best the very poor implementation, of the provisions of Treaty 6 was the major reason some First Nations individuals participated in the North-West Resistance of 1885.

Bob Beal