83. Alexander Morris,The Treaties of Canada with the Indians

by breavman99

alexander morris

Alexander Morris’s The Treaties of Canada with the Indians is important because it is a primary document about the negotiations of Treaties 1 through 7. What is most valuable about this book is the way it includes (however imperfectly) the voices of the Indigenous negotiators, but it is important as a record of what the Crown’s representatives were thinking as well. I think it’s best written in the context of contemporary reflections on the treaties, particularly those by Indigenous writers, because otherwise one might come away thinking that the texts Morris and his colleagues negotiated are the substance of the treaties, rather than the relationships that were supposed to be created through them.

Throughout the book, it’s clear that the Crown was interested in extinguishing Indigenous title in western Canada, because it was a barrier to white settlement. In the dedication to Lord Dufferin, for example, Morris writes of “obtaining the relinquishment of the natural title of the Indians to the lands of the Fertile Belt on fair and just terms” (no page). This statement is both a recognition of Indigenous title, and a statement of the Crown’s desire to extinguish that title. Whether the terms were “fair and just,” of course, is something that continues to be discussed today. Similar language is used in the accounts of the negotiations, from the Robinson Treaties in Ontario (“the Government of the late Province of Canada, deemed it desirable, to extinguish the Indian title” [16]) through to Treaty 5 (“it was essential that the Indian title to all the territory in the vicinity of the lake should be extinguished so that the settlers and traders might have undisturbed access to its waters, shores, islands, inlets and tributary streams” [qtd. 143-44]). Strangely, that language does not appear in the discussions of Treaty 6 or Treaty 7, perhaps because by that point it was redundant to explain that the government’s purpose was to extinguish Indigenous title, or perhaps because First Nations had realized what the Crown negotiators were up to. Instead, Treaty 6 is described as “a treaty of alliance with the Government” that was desired by the “Cree nation” (168), and Treaty 7 is noted as important because of the need to satisfy “the Blackfeet, Blood, and Sarcees or Piegan Indians,” who had “for years past been anxiously expecting to be treated with” (qtd. 245), and because of the concomitant need “to prevent the difficulties which might hereafter arise through the settlement of whites” (qtd. 246). 

The issue of extinguishment of title, which is central to Sheldon Krasowski’s analysis of the numbered treaties, is key to understanding the written text of the numbered treaties, and I was somewhat surprised to note the absence of any record of an explanation in the record of negotiations of exactly what that would mean to Indigenous peoples. There is a mention in Morris’s report on Treaty 3 of James McKay, the Métis whose work made many of these treaties possible, explaining the written text “in Indian” to the Anishinabe chiefs in attendance (51), but exactly what McKay said regarding the meaning of extinguishment of title is unclear. This is important, since the Treaty Elders whose words are collected by Cardinal and Hildebrandt were emphatic that no chief would have agreed to extinguish their title to the land (58). So even though extinguishment of title was the Crown’s key objective, it remains unclear to what extent the Indigenous negotiators were aware of that fact. It would be surprising if the men who were so vehemently opposed to the HBC’s sale of Rupert’s Land to the Dominion of Canada were to extinguish their title to their land so easily. After all, Chief Pasqua stated that the chiefs wanted the £300,000 the HBC received for that territory (106). It would be surprising if they were to then settle for small annuities and reserves instead. Moreover, as the treaty elders interviewed by Cardinal and Hildebrandt stated, the issue of the transfer of Rupert’s Land is still unfinished business (65-66).

Instead of an explanation of what extinguishment of title meant, the treaty discussions focused on kinship metaphors—being children of the Queen, for instance, and the need to take her by the hand, through her representatives (93)—and assistance with the transition to an agricultural mode of life (with that assistance spelled out in great detail in some cases), including the payment of annuities. Take, for example, Morris’s words on the fourth day of the Treaty 4 negotiations:

The Queen knows that her red children often find it hard to live. She knows that her red children, their wives and children, are often hungry, and that the buffalo will not last for ever and she desires to do something for them. More than a hundred years ago, the Queen’s father said to the red men living in Quebec and Ontario, I will give you land and cattle and set apart Reserves for you, and will teach you. What has been the result? There the red men are happy; instead of getting fewer in number by sickness they are growing in number; their children have plenty. (95)

There was little in the way of explanation of what reserves would be in the Treaty 4 negotiations, compared to the Treaty 6 negotiations, for instance, where the purpose of reserves as a refuge from white settlement was explained, along with the size each family would receive (204-05). Of course, without an explanation of the meaning of extinguishment of title, the purpose of reserves might have remained unclear to the Indigenous negotiators, except as places that white settlers could not occupy.

It is also clear that there was some degree of duress employed by the Crown negotiators; during the difficult Treaty 4 negotiations, for instance, Morris repeatedly threatened to end the discussion if the Indigenous negotiators did not come to an agreement regarding the treaty and cease complaining about the transfer of Rupert’s Land from the Hudson Bay Company to the Dominion of Canada. At one point in the negotiations, Morris stated,

Must we go back and say we have had you here so many days, and that you had not the minds of men—that you were not able to understand each other? Must we go back and tell the Queen that we held out our hands for her, and her red children put them back again? If that be the message that your conduct to-day is going to make us carry back, I am sorry for you, and fear it will be a long day before you again see the Queen’s Councillors here to try to do you good. The Queen and her Councillors may think that you do not want to be friends, that you do not want your little ones to be taught, that you do not want when the food is getting scarce to have a hand in yours stronger than yours to help you. Surely you will think again before you turn your backs on the offers; you will not let so little a question as this about the Company, without whom you tell me you could not live, stop the good we mean to do. (113)

The record of the negotiations makes it plain that the question about the HBC was not a little question to the Cree and Saulteaux chiefs who were present, however, since most of the negotiations were taken up with that issue. No doubt that is why the explanation of reserves and assistance is so meagre in the record of the Treaty 4 negotiations.

Even the word “negotiations” might be the wrong term to use to describe what happened in September 1874 at Fort Qu’Appelle during the negotiations that led to Treaty 4. The Treaty 6 negotiations did result in amendments to the treaty text, and the outside promises made at the Treaty 1 negotiations did eventually find their way into a written document, but it seems that the Cree and Saulteaux chiefs who met Morris at Fort Qu’Appelle were given a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. The treaty text was prepared before the breakthrough of the last day’s negotiations, when “Ka-ku-ish-may,” or Loud Voice, stated, “Let us join together and make the Treaty; when both join together it is very good” (115). As Morris said later that day, “Since we went away we have had the treaty written out, and we are ready to have it signed” (122). Morris repeatedly warned his Indigenous counterparts that he was not a trader, suggesting the inflexibility of his negotiating position: “recollect this, the Queen’s High Councillor here from Ottawa, and I, her Governor, are not traders; we do not come here in the spirit of traders; we come here to tell you openly, without hiding anything, just what the Queen will do for you” (95). However, as Loud Voice’s words suggest, the purpose of the treaty for the Indigenous negotiators was to “join together,” to create a relationship, rather than to accept or reject a specific offer. With such different ideas about what the parties were engaged in, there’s no surprise that they went away with different understandings of what they had agreed to.

Morris’s book includes the written texts of the treaties in an appendix, and (assuming they are identical to the official documents published by the Queen’s Printer) they are an important resource. One of the things I noticed was that all of the treaty texts have some version of the “basket clause” that robbed the Chippewa and Mississauga peoples who signed on to the Williams Treaties First Nations of their rights to hunt and fish. For instance, the Treaty 4 document states, 

The Cree and Saulteaux tribes of Indians, and all other the Indians inhabiting the district hereinafter described and defined, do hereby cede, release, surrender and yield up to the Government of the Dominion of Canada for Her Majesty the Queen and her successors forever, all their rights, titles, and privileges whatsoever to the lands included within the following limits. . . . (331)

Again, I find myself wondering to what extent this clause was explained to the chiefs present at Fort Qu’Appelle, and why this language was not interpreted in the same way that the language in the Williams Treaties was interpreted. No doubt there is some legal nuance I don’t understand here, but “rights, titles, and privileges” could refer to hunting and fishing rights as easily as they could refer to title to the land itself. 

The language of the paragraph about hunting, fishing, and trapping “throughout the tract surrendered” (333) is also puzzling. It subjects Indigenous peoples to “such regulations as may from time to time be made by the Government of the country acting under the authority of Her Majesty” (333), which suggests that provincial hunting or fishing or trapping regulations would take precedence over the right to hunt, fish, and trap. Moreover, the clause about land “required or taken up from time to time for settlement, mining or other purposes under grant” (333) seems to take back the right to hunt, fish, and trap at the Crown’s pleasure. No wonder the Supreme Court of Canada found, in the Grassy Narrows decision, that the Anishinabe people of Treaty 3 had no recourse to the logging of their traditional territory outside of their reserves. I find myself wondering if this clause was clearly explained to the Cree and Saulteaux chiefs who signed Treaty 4 as well. It really seems to take back the rights that are recognized earlier in the paragraph.

My focus here has been on Treaty 4, because that’s my primary area of interest, but one could closely read Morris’s account of the other treaties as well, and no doubt one would come up with other questions and comments. For instance, it seems that the Treaty 6 chiefs were concerned about the smallpox epidemic that had ravaged their territory prior to the negotiations, a concern which explains their amenability to talk about the treaty (compared to the Treaty 4 chiefs) and their demand for the “medicine chest” clause (355) and assistance in case of “pestilence” or “general famine” (354). Indeed, one could continue to sift through Morris’s book—both his account of the negotiations and the treaty texts themselves—to uncover what the treaties meant to the government and to the Indigenous negotiators. Or one could turn to the volumes about treaty-making in Canada, some of which I have written about here; after all, if the written texts aren’t the entire substance of the numbered treaties, then we need to attend to other documents and the oral histories of the treaties as well. Morris’s book gives us part of the picture of the making of the numbered treaties, but it’s important to realize that there are other sources to consult as well.

Works Cited

Krasowski, Sheldon. No Surrender: The Land Remains Indigenous, University of Regina Press, 2019.

Morris, Alexander. The Treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba and the North-West Territories, Including the Negotiations on Which They Were Based, and Other Information Relating Thereto, 1880, Coles, 1971.