Know your Treaty: the story behind Treaty Three

Published in Collections Canada

In the spirit of Treaties Recognition Week, we’re printing a small excerpt of “The Context and Making of Treaty Three, 1869-73” By Brian Walmark. Treaties Recognition Week encourages all residents to become educated on the treaties, and how they were created. Treaty Three has a particularly interesting history. This 100 page report examines the full history of the treaty negotiations, and people involved. The full text of Treaty Three is also widely available online.

“Treaty Three is significant for a number of other reasons as well. Assuming that the timetable set by the Canadian government had been adhered to, Treaty Three would have been Treaty One; however, the Saulteaux along the Line of Route were not prepared to cede title to their territory. Unlike the Cree and Chippewa, who were forced to sign Treaties One and Two relatively quickly, the Saulteaux resisted federal negotiators for four years, before finally agreeing to sign Treaty Three in 1873. Why did the Canadian government take so long to reach an agreement with the Saulteaux compared with the First Nations of Western Canada? This question can best be addressed by re-examining the political and economic context in which this treaty was achieved. Treaty Three, in fact, provides some of the best available evidence that the Amerindians understood their political relationship with Canada as government to government.

For the Saulteaux, Treaty Three was important for other reasons. This was the first time they entered negotiations knowing the true intentions of the Canadian government and took appropriate precautions to protect their interests. Chief Powasson, one of the Saulteaux who signed Treaty Three, asked Joseph Nolin, a member of a prominent family of the Red River Metis from Point du Chene, to prepare a transcript of the negotiations with the Canadians in case of future misunderstanding. The Saulteaux were well aware of disputes arising out of Treaties One and Two and the problems their relatives across the border experienced after they signed treaties with the American government.

Like the other Amerindians of the West, the Saulteaux were skilled negotiators as a result of their long trading relationship with French traders from Montreal, the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company. Arthur Ray argues that Aboriginal fur traders were seldom cheated by the Hudson’s Bay Company. On the contrary, they forced the HBC to improve trade goods in order to maintain access to furs. While the economic situation of many Amerindian fur traders changed drastically after the “amalgamation” of the Northwest Company with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821, there is ample evidence that the Saulteaux traded successfully with independent traders and with representatives of American fur companies throughout the Nineteenth century. The Hudson’s Bay Company, ironically, aided Saulteaux self-sufficiency by closing posts (in order to reduce costs) and by concentrating its efforts west of the North West Angle. As a result, the Saulteaux enjoyed a degree of independence from the Hudson’s Bay Company that was due in no small part to their access to other traders, their relative isolation and the richness of the country they occupied.”