Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? is a new exhibition by Library and Archives Canada (LAC) marking the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation. This exhibition is accompanied by a year-long blog series.
Join us every month during 2017 as experts, from LAC, across Canada and even farther afield, provide additional insights on items from the exhibition. Each “guest curator” discusses one item, then adds another to the exhibition—virtually.
Be sure to visit Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa between June 5, 2017, and March 1, 2018. Admission is free.
The Selkirk Treaty, 1817
Lord Selkirk saw Canada as the next big thing in farming. His vision included Scottish and Irish settlers. It excluded the land’s First Nations peoples, with their nomadic traditions. It also excluded the Métis.
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In my academic life, I research Métis identity and political history. This means that a lot of my writing is focused on 19th-century Métis communities. I’m interested in how Métis viewed the major social, economic, and political forces that shaped their lives and how they organized themselves to influence (and thrive in) a changing prairie west. I’m Métis, and an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Native Studies and the Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta.
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The Selkirk Treaty of 1817 was an agreement between Lord Selkirk—a land-speculating Scottish Earl and major Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) shareholder—and the Nehiyawak and Anishinaabeg (Cree and Saulteaux) in the Red River Valley of what is now southern Manitoba. It allowed for the settlement of Scottish settlers in exchange for a substantial amount of tobacco as “an annual present,” or as Anishinaabe saw it, rent.
Before 1817, Selkirk had tried to settle the land without the permission of local Indigenous peoples by way of a land purchase from the HBC. The pretension to own this 116,000 square mile tract over which he had no presence or influence over was understandably infuriating for those who did in fact “own” the land. Between 1812 and 1816, substantial complaints were raised by many Indigenous leaders, dismissing the absurdity of an unknown outsider claiming to own their territory and threatening action against any outsider who would settle their lands.
This opposition was most pronounced among the bois-brûlés, the “New Nation” of the northwest, who would soon call themselves the Métis. Indigenous communities were also nestled in a complex network of alliances that linked them to two rival fur trading companies—the pro-settlement HBC and the anti-settlement North-West Company, the latter which had significant overlap in membership with the bois-brûlé leadership. In the summers of 1815 and 1816, bois-brûlé soldiers dispersed Selkirk’s first settlers and actively barred outside settlers in the Red River Valley. On June 19, 1816, the bois-brûlé emerged victorious from a spontaneous engagement with HBC servants, killing 21 of them, then seizing their fort, and later Selkirk’s settlement at Red River. While Métis weren’t party to this treaty with Selkirk in 1817, Métis agitation over 1815–1816 was a major motivator in the treaty’s negotiation, and it nonetheless shaped Métis-HBC relations for generations afterwards.
Given the failure of Selkirk’s settlement to win favour with the prevailing political powers in the Red River Valley by 1816, Selkirk undertook the long journey to the region to bring about some form of resolution of the hostility. He thus negotiated with local Nehiyawak and Anishinaabeg to gain permission to settle Scottish families at Red River, in exchange for substantial annual presents that he called “quitrent.” While the treaty was understood by all involved as allowing for peaceable settlement by outsiders, there was little consensus on what the treaty meant in terms of land ownership. For years afterwards, Selkirk and the HBC claimed that the treaty assured the surrender of Indigenous lands to Selkirk and the Company. For Indigenous peoples, it established a long-term rental agreement that recognized them as the landlords while bringing new people into their country, it provided generous annual gifts for Nehiyawak and Anishinaabeg, and it solidified a new alliance with a powerful aristocrat. The Selkirk Treaty is important because the document shows that when attempting to gain ownership of the Red and Assiniboine River watersheds, British leaders needed to navigate ongoing Indigenous title via treaty if they wished to settle their subjects there.
The account of the treaty written down by Selkirk’s entourage is itself fascinating in its inherently contradictory language and confused terminology. Indeed, both of the above interpretations can be pulled from its text. However, it’s my opinion that if read critically, this treaty recognizes Indigenous peoples as “landlords” of the Red River Valley, relying upon feudal language to describe a tenancy relationship that would have been obvious to a Scottish nobleman.
The document is seemingly contradictory. On the one hand the document states that the Nehiyaw and Anishinaabe chiefs agreed with Selkirk “to give, grant and confirm unto our Sovereign Lord the King, all that Tract of Land adjacent to Red River and Assiniboyne River” for “the use of the said Earl of Selkirk, and of the Settlers being established there.” But on the other hand, it states that Selkirk would “annually pay to the Chiefs and Warriors” an annual “Present or Quitrent” of “one hundred pounds of good and merchantable Tobacco” from Selkirk, his heirs, and successors.
What I think is particularly telling in this regard is the language describing this exchange as a quitrent relationship. A common custom in Selkirk’s day, quitrent was a feudal practice in which a tenant farmer paid an annual fixed rent on the land that a peasant farmer occupied, which released him from all other duties owed to his lord. Older feudal conventions required peasants to contribute labour towards public works and military duties defined by their lord. But by the 19th century, in order to maximize their profitability, many estates consolidated all of these various feudal duties into fixed quitrents, or regular payments that replaced all other obligations. As a feudal institution, quitrent explicitly recognized the ownership of the land by the feudal lord as well as institutionalized a specific feudal relationship between lord and tenant. It was generally known in the 19th century that quitrent did not transfer the land title to the tenant and the land remained the property of the feudal lord. Being himself a land-owning nobleman in Scotland, the language of quitrent would have been a concept Selkirk and his associates understood intuitively. Thus, Selkirk also describes a relationship in which he gave an annual quitrent, 100 lbs. of merchantable tobacco, to his landlords in exchange for a right to settle tenant Scottish farmers on the lands around the Red and Assiniboine rivers.
Such an interpretation is also consistent with how Anishinaabe chiefs understood the treaty. Chief Peguis, one of the treaty’s signatories, was adamant that the treaty outlined an annual rental agreement for this tract of land. In 1859, Peguis gave a formal statement, recounting that “no final bargain was made; but that it was simply a loan… I say positively the lands were never sold.” And according to Manitoba historian J.M. Bumsted, Peguis’ son, Henry Prince, likewise told a Métis assembly in 1869 that “the land had only been leased and the annual gratuity now paid…by the HBC was part of the rental.” From the perspective of Peguis and his son, the treaty did nothing to change the ownership of the land in the Red River Valley, which continued to rest with the Indigenous peoples rather than with Selkirk, the Company, or the Crown. Indeed, since Selkirk was the one paying an annual quitrent; he was in the tenant role, in other words, Indigenous peoples were his landlords.
Selkirk in attempting to secure ownership and title of Indigenous lands through treaty-making, intentionally or not, ended up reinforcing Indigenous ownership of the land he wished to settle. Likely this was all he could do in an era of Indigenous political and military ascendency in the West. Having had his countrymen routed by a bois-brûlé party the summer before, he wasn’t exactly in a position to demand control of Indigenous lands, and Indigenous peoples have never been willing to surrender their land and their independence to others. Selkirk’s treaty is therefore an important reminder of Indigenous political power in the early 19th century. It was bois-brûlé power that forced Selkirk to negotiate and it was the Nehiyawak and Anishinaabeg who navigated Selkirk through a terrain of Indigenous power and diplomacy. Selkirk was only able to gain permission to settle his countrymen on Indigenous land in exchange for an annual quitrent, due to those who assumed the role of the country’s landlords. Thus this treaty is a record of a negotiation that initially sought the surrender of Indigenous lands, but Selkirk only succeeded in reinforcing Indigenous political and territorial primacy, by recognizing the ongoing ownership of others to the lands he wished were his own.
Canadians are usually taught to see treaties as documents intended to induce Indigenous peoples to surrender their rights and title, much in the way that Selkirk attempted in 1817. But the history of diplomacy on this continent is both ancient and complex. Rarely, (if ever) did Indigenous peoples see treaties with European empires as alienating land or jurisdiction. Instead treaties, like this one, sought to work out new ways for different peoples to benefit from each other’s presence on the same territory. Selkirk and his settlers were being welcomed into a new place to share in the bounty of the prairie landscape—for a price—and this also involved an ongoing recognition of the original inhabitants of the territory and ensuring that they too would benefit from the increased presence of Europeans. This treaty should remind us that the Indigenous peoples who negotiated these agreements were both powerful and sophisticated diplomats and able to force European negotiators to accept the norms of Indigenous diplomatic systems.
There are also pitfalls to viewing Indigenous-British treaty-making as rooted primarily in land cession and Indigenous disempowerment. Treaties were negotiated in public and in front of large audiences in ways that would ensure accountability moving forward. In these cases those present could remember what was discussed, what was agreed to, and of course what was not. In most cases, Indigenous peoples did not discuss, let alone agree to the permanent alienation of their lands. Much like Peguis and Henry Prince they remember only agreeing to share the bounty of their lands with new allies. Treaties like this sought mutual benefit, not restructuring political relations along lines of massive political inequality. If we view treaties as cession documents—not living, breathing agreements—we miss their purpose, indeed, this is why Selkirk’s treaty—indeed all Indigenous-Crown treaty-making—is so poorly understood. Most historians of the prairie west have long failed to understand either Indigenous motivations or the Indigenous diplomatic context in which negotiations were taking place. By first listening to Indigenous voices—past and present—that understand things differently, and secondly, permitting Indigenous voices the authority to narrate our own histories and political relationships, we’ll get a fuller, more accurate view of history.
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The same issue emerges when attempting to understand Indigenous-Crown treaties that follow Selkirk’s treaty in the West. The Numbered Treaties (Treaties 1-11, negotiated 1871–1921) are also said to have extinguished Indigenous title to the lands, turning it over the Crown—a claim that Indigenous peoples deny, arguing that no such discussion occurred and that their ancestors never agreed to such a thing. So much of this seems rooted in the imperial mentality that Indigenous peoples are too primitive and unsophisticated to have either understood what was being negotiated or were duped by more sophisticated agents of the Crown. These assumptions are both baseless and grounded in a normalized racism reinforced by generations of Canadian colonial practice. As Selkirk’s treaty shows, Indigenous peoples were well aware of what Europeans wanted, and were able to exert their own influence on events, meaning that treaty negotiations were just that—negotiations.
In later treaty-making, Indigenous peoples also were successful in guiding negotiations within their well-established diplomatic traditions. They negotiated the entry of new settlers onto their territory in exchange for ongoing annual presents which would recognize their ongoing stake in the territory. While the Numbered Treaties are still viewed as cession documents by the federal and provincial governments, Indigenous intellectuals take a different (and nearly unanimous) view that these agreements established an enduring relationship that recognizes Indigenous rights and title, rather than extinguishing them. As Canadians are beginning to think more critically of these agreements, developing a better framework from which to approach Indigenous-Canada and Indigenous-Crown relations is paramount.
A critical reading of the treaty documents in conjunction with the written records of the negotiation and the oral tradition is vital. Like Selkirk’s treaty, it is possible to read one line of an official document and assume that it eliminated Indigenous rights and title forever, but we must also go much deeper and understand the sophisticated new relationships being envisioned by all involved. Historians in particular have an obligation to take a broader view of these relationships and engage a broader archive of sources, some of which may not have been written down. In an era of reconciliation, intellectuals must look beyond standard accounts and standard approaches to narrating those accounts. Indigenous peoples have long held different histories about these events, and Canadian intellectuals must take those seriously. Critical readings of these events will allow us to see beyond the contemporary colonial context to see the different relationships envisioned by our ancestors in how we were to live together. Treaties, like the Selkirk Treaty, all provide guidelines for just relationships and co-existence—we just need to look more carefully at them, in order to realize that vision.
Adam Gaudry, Ph.D., is Métis and an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Native Studies and Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta. His research explores 19th-century Métis political thought, the formation of a Metis-Canada treaty relationship in 1870, and the subsequent non-implementation of that agreement. This project argues for the ongoing existence of a “Manitoba treaty” between the Métis people and Canada that necessitates the maintenance of a respectful and bilateral political relationship between the treaty partners. This work is being revised for publication as a book. He received his Ph.D. from the Indigenous Governance Program at the University of Victoria, and his MA in Sociology and BAH in Political Studies from Queen’s University. For his doctoral research on historic Métis-Canada relations, he received the Henry Roe Cloud Dissertation Writing Fellowship at Yale University. He is also a co-investigator on the SSHRC-funded Métis Treaties Research Project. He has published articles in Native American and Indigenous Studies, the Wicazo Sa Review, aboriginal policy studies, and the Canadian Journal of Native Education along with chapters in edited collections on Métis identity, research ethics, and methodology.
- Library and Archives Canada. Treaties, Surrenders and Agreements
- M. Bumsted, Fur Trade Wars: The Founding of Western Canada, Winnipeg: Great Plains Publications, c1999. AMICUS 20975923
- M. Bumsted, The Red River Rebellion. Winnipeg: Watson & Dwyer, c1996. AMICUS 15446457
- Sharon Venne, “Understanding Treaty 6: An Indigenous Perspective,” Pp. 173–207 in Aboriginal and Treaty Rights in Canada: Essays on Law, Equity, and Respect for Difference, Michael Asch, ed., UBC Press, c1997. AMICUS 15883635
- Michael Asch. On Being Here to Stay: Treaties and Aboriginal Rights in Canada, University of Toronto Press: 2014. AMICUS 42148617