What is a treaty? By definition, a treaty is a formally concluded and ratified agreement between countries or nations. In Canada, ‘Treaty’ can be a charged word. When we talk about ‘Treaty’ in Canada we are usually referring to the series of treaties made between the Crown and various Nations on Turtle Island. They lay out the rights and responsibilities of both the Settler government and the Indigenous Nations.
These treaties can be contentious issues and this reflects the strained relationship that exists between the Government of Canada and many Indigenous Nations. You may have heard phrases such as ‘spirit and intent’ and ‘we are all treaty people’ in relation to the treaty relationship. You may also hear debates about the responsibilities stated in the Treaties versus those in the Indian Act, and how those responsibilities are or are not being fulfilled.
It is natural to remember the day when large-scale agreements took place. We often mark and remember the ends of wars or the creations of countries, and these Treaties are no different. Across Canada, people celebrate the signing of Treaties and remember the agreements that took place. While remembering these Treaties, celebrants often recall the rights and responsibilities of both parties and reflect on the relationships between the signatories.
October 1st was Treaty Day in Nova Scotia. On this day each year, the Mi’kmaq in the area celebrate the signing of the Peace and Friendship Treaties that occurred between 1725 and 1779.
The first week in November marks Treaties Recognition Week across Ontario. This offers everyone, especially school children, a chance to learn about treaties and the cultures of the Indigenous peoples who make the land now known as Ontario their home.
Communities in Western Canada often remember their treaties throughout the summer. Sometimes, communities opt to remember treaties on June 21st, National Indigenous Peoples Day.
During Treaty Days, Indigenous peoples celebrate their history on the land and their cultures by organizing and attending activities that include powwows, feasts, games, gatherings, and concerts. A large part of these days also involves spending time with friends and family. Halifax has a parade to mark the day, which is seen as a way to help non-Indigenous people in the province learn about the history and culture of the Mi’kmaq people. Treaty Day also kicks off Mi’kmaq History month in Nova Scotia. In Ontario, Treaties Recognition Week is an opportunity for Indigenous groups, organizations, and speakers to teach students about the different communities of Indigenous peoples who live in the province.
Another large part of Treaty Days, mainly for lands covered by the Numbered Treaties, is the Treaty Annuity Payments. These annual payments are provided for through the treaty documents themselves which outline the amounts to be paid. While the amounts of these payments vary from treaty to treaty, they are all quite small. In Winnipeg, which is on Treaty 1 land, the payments are just $5 a year. This would have been a reasonable amount of money in the 1800s and early 1900s when the treaties were being signed, but are now largely seen as a symbol of the continuing relationship between the federal government and Indigenous Nations.
That being said, just as the treaties themselves are sources of much discussion and debate, Treaty Days and Treaty Annuity Payments are as well.
For many Indigenous people, Treaty Days and Treaty Annuity Payments highlight the fact that the Canadian government has not upheld the promises it made in these treaties. In this light, many Indigenous peoples see Treaty Days as a reminder of the everyday struggles they are facing to have their rights recognized. The annuity payment itself is reflective of this struggle. Some see this small payment as a symbol of the continuing rights and responsibilities of the federal government and the Indigenous groups who were signatories to each of the Numbered Treaties. Others see it as another example of how Indigenous peoples are not respected by the government. The fact that the government has not increased these payments along with inflation is often perceived as another way the government is failing Indigenous peoples.
Ultimately, Treaty Days, no matter their form, serve as a day when Indigenous peoples, histories, and rights are celebrated and remembered. They can serve as an opportunity for non-Indigenous people to learn about and honour the cultures and peoples who lived here before them. They can also serve as a reminder to everyone, of how much further we have on our journey to reach a point of true reconciliation.
To learn more about the treaties signed with First Nations and the different perspectives about those treaties, take a look at the resources we have created in collaboration with First Nations communities and schools from across Canada.
One such example is “Two Interpretations of Treaty Making”, which was created in collaboration with Treaty Six Education Council. This video stresses how First Nations and Government signatories often had different understandings of the treaties which were being signed.
We also have resources which discuss Treaties 3, 5, 6, and 10. These can be found on the Learning Bird platform by doing a keyword search for ‘treaty’, or through selecting the ‘Aboriginal Law & Treaties’ filter.