Should the history of the "numbered treaties" with aboriginal peoples be considered broken promises by the government of Canada?
The short answer as to whether the history of the so-called “Numbered Treaties” constitute a history of broken promises is “yes.” The combined imperatives of attaining political sovereignty over the expanse of Canada and ensuring its unfettered exploitation by the fur industry represented another European seizure of territories previously the providence of the native peoples. While treaties and agreements concluded between Canada and aboriginal nations predated the initiation of the Numbered Treaties, the latter effort constituted a more definitive attempt by Canada to legally secure in perpetuity its sovereignty over the whole of the land.
The Numbered Treaties were agreements by aboriginal nations to cede sovereignty over their territory to the Canadian government in exchange for guarantees of continued native sovereignty over carefully delineated reservations as well as hunting, fishing and trapping rights across the entire expanse of the territory “ownership” of which was being transferred to the government. In addition, the aboriginals were promised annual annuities to provide a subsistence level of economic survival.
Whether the negotiation of the Numbered Treaties was intended to maliciously deprive the aboriginal nations of their lands and, ultimately, their cultures is the subject of debate. Robert Talbot’s 2009 book Negotiating the Numbered Treaties: An Intellectual and Political Biography of Alexander Morris paints a benign portrait of the intentions of Morris, the Canadian official tasked with concluding the agreements with the aboriginal nations:
“During his time in the North West, the ‘Indian question’ became more and more present in his mind. The goal of building a transcontinental empire, easily conjured up in the distant Perth, Montreal, or Ottawa, lost some of its immediacy. The realities of the First Nations’ plight could no longer be dismissed or ignored. As Morris invested more personal time and energy in the treaty-making process, he gained a personal stake in the treaties and their long-term outcome. They took on a huge significance for Morris, and he became increasingly disillusioned with Ottawa as he realized that his colleague and superiors were not of the same mind.”
This interpretation of history has been disputed by others who argue that Morris was hardly the innocent well-meaning bureaucrat portrayed in Talbot’s study. Morris, they argue, was not so naïve and the natives not so empowered in entering into negotiations that the outcome was anything more than predetermined. As Derek Whitehouse wrote in his 1994 article “The Numbered Treaties: Similar Means to Dichotomous Ends” [Past Imperfect, Vol. 3, 1994],
“The Indians, realizing that their environment was changing, sought to protect their culture from threatening forces such as non-native agricultural settlement and diminishing buffalo herds. The government, meanwhile, strove to encourage the absorption of the Indian cultures into broader Euro-Canadian society, not only because it wanted to open the North-West for settlement, but also because it believed that assimilation was in the best interest of the Indian peoples.”
The Numbered Treaties were an extension of the Canadian government’s policy of cultural genocide in the interest of nation-building. To that extent, the Numbered Treaties represent broken promises.