77. Arthur J. Ray, Jim Miller, and Frank Tough, Bounty and Benevolence: A History of Saskatchewan Treaties
Bounty and Benevolence, a collaboration between three historians, was originally commissioned as a research report for Saskatchewan’s Office of the Treaty Commissioner, along with Treaty Elders of Saskatchewan: Our Dream Is That Our Peoples Will One Day Be Clearly Recognized As Nations, by Harold Cardinal and Walter Hildebrandt, an oral history of the treaties that is intended to be complementary to Bounty and Benevolence’s focus on documentary history. Bounty and Benevolence is structurally similar to and covers much of the same territory as Miller’s later Compact, Contract, Covenant, although the focus is on Saskatchewan. That means the commercial compacts with the Hudson Bay Company are discussed first, followed by the Selkirk Treaty of 1817, treaties in eastern Canada that were precedents for the numbered treaties in Saskatchewan, and earlier numbered treaties in Manitoba and northwestern Ontario. After discussing the treaties that affect this province—numbers 4, 5, 6, 8, and 10—there is a chapter on the problems of treaty implementation, followed by a conclusion. Perhaps it’s unnecessary to read both Compact, Contract, Covenant and Bounty and Benevolence because of their similarities, although the focus on one province means that the discussion in Bounty and Benevolence is somewhat more detailed. I read Bounty and Benevolence last summer, as part of a course on the treaties, but I thought it would be useful to revisit the book for this project. After reviewing my notes, I think it’s worthwhile including Bounty and Benevolence here.
The chapter on commercial relationships between First Nations and the Hudson Bay Company notes the importance of protocol and ceremony in those relationships, and the continuity between trade relationships with the HBC and the later numbered treaties: “all the major components of pre-trade gift-exchanges—the calumet rite, the presentation of outfits of clothing to Aboriginal leaders, and the distribution of food—were carried over into the treaty-making process in the late nineteenth century” (9). Ceremony and protocol were also important in the negotiation of the Selkirk Treaty, which in some ways became a bridge between earlier commercial negotiations and the later numbered treaties (31). Moreover, like the later numbered treaties, the Selkirk Treaty was marked by confusion over what the two parties actually agreed to (30).
The discussion of other treaties in eastern Canada includes the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and the Two-Row Wampum that records the negotiations concluded at the 1764 Niagara Conference. According to the authors, in the 1990s John Borrows “made a strong argument that the proclamation, when read together with the solemn agreement made shortly thereafter at Niagara, constituted a treaty between First Nations and the Crown that positively guarantees First Nations the right of self-government” (33). Borrows’s essay is important and I ought to re-read it. (Borrows is an essential writer on treaty issues and I have several of his books on my reading list.)
The more pertinent forerunners of the numbered treaties are the Robinson Treaties, which, like the later treaties, allowed First Nations economic rights on all ceded lands (outside of reserves) that were not developed by settlers. As the authors point out, “This right included the subsistence and commercial use of fish, fur, and game resources on the understanding that this justified offering the Aboriginal people much lower annuities than they had demanded in treaty negotiations” (44). The later numbered treaties made similar promises. However, it’s not clear to me whether the Crown negotiators in the 1870s understood that the agricultural use of land would make hunting and gathering difficult, if not impossible. That was the experience of First Nations in Nova Scotia (according to Daniel Paul) and in Ontario (according to Miller and Donald Smith): the impact of settlement on populations of game animals left First Nations in those territories starving early in the settlement process. It’s hard to know if the Crown negotiators were just ignorant or acting in bad faith.
Ray, Miller, and Tough make an interesting argument about the first three numbered treaties: the federal government “was soliciting information from locals and providing negotiators with ‘large powers,’” and this fact “indicates that the dominion government did not have an inviolable draft treaty.” Therefore, First Nations negotiators “had scope to influence the relationship created by treaty negotiations” (63). This situation is perhaps different from later numbered treaties, where the federal treaty commissioners had a clearer sense of the kind of agreement they wanted, and entered negotiations with drafts of treaties already prepared.
Nevertheless, the authors argue that the first three numbered treaties were forerunners for the later numbered treaties, and in this their arguments parallel Miller’s later book. Kinship metaphors, they suggest, were not just paternalistic but were symbolic language—an idea other writers will develop further (66). Specifics about reserves were not made explicit (67), and First Nations were assured that their traditional livelihood would continue after the treaty was negotiated (67). Moreover, they argue that “[t]reaty-making involved an unequal meeting of two property systems” (69). In 2000, when this book was published, this aspect of treaty-making had received little attention, they suggest, and the fact that “the terms describing ownership, land use, and occupancy are used in an imprecise way in the historical records,” as well as “conflicting scholarly theories about the nature of Aboriginal tenure systems,” has caused much confusion (69-70). Much of the research in the area since this book was published has set out to clarify these questions, and oral history has been, I would argue, invaluable in this work. Nevertheless, the documentary record does make clear “that Indian chiefs were well informed about land and resource issues, both in terms of their own needs and of the values Whites placed on them. Significantly, Indians wanted to establish treaty relations with the Crown to address their Aboriginal interest in the land” (69-70). According to the authors, the documentary record can also be used to establish, to a certain extent, the views of First Nations negotiators, at least as far as Treaties 1, 2, and 3 are concerned, using both government records and newspaper accounts (74). Moreover, “[d]ecades of fur trade bargaining gave Indians considerable experience in dealing with European commercial impulses and in seeking the satisfaction of their livelihood needs. Ultimately, Morris was forced to limit the scope of the negotiations by placing the treaties on the basis of some kind of trust: a belief in the Queen’s good intentions” (75). The way I read those sentences, it seems that in the first three numbered treaties, Crown negotiators found themselves being outmatched by their First Nations counterparts. As with other numbered treaties, there are controversies about the differences between oral and written versions of the agreements in Treaties 1, 2, and 3 (77, 81), and “the dominion government sought refuge in the written version of the treaties (81). First Nations used political pressure to get some of the so-called “outside promises” included later in the 1870s (83-84). The authors therefore acknowledge the importance of going beyond the written text of the treaties by examining the context in which they were negotiated in order to understand what the negotiators actually thought they were agreeing to (86).
Both the Crown and First Nations faced challenges when they negotiated Treaty 4. Epidemics of smallpox, buffalo scarcity, and difficult relationships between Métis and First Nations were causing political and military instability, and the federal government was informed of these problems by senior HBC officials and missionaries. For its part, Canada feared the military strength of the Cree and Saulteaux, and did not want to fight (104). Moreover, First Nations were still angry over the transfer of Rupert’s Land from the HBC to Canada without consultation. As a result, Treaty 4 negotiations happened without a pipe ceremony or other rituals (107-08). According to the authors, there is a sharp contrast between accounts of the negotiations provided by Morris and First Nations elders (111), and Morris’s language in speeches was vague compared to the precise language of the treaty document (112). These facts may lead one to assume that Morris was not being truthful in the negotiations, an argument that Michael Asch repudiates but that Sheldon Krasowski seems to support. Nevertheless, most of the terms of Treaty 4 ended up being identical to Treaty 3 (113). Reserves would be small, but hunting, trapping, and fishing rights off reserve were promised, with limitations for land taken up by settlement or other purposes (115). The relationship with the Queen promised First Nations protection and equal justice (117). The chiefs present at the negotiations asked for copies of the written treaty (118), a sign, perhaps, that they did not entirely trust the Crown to hold up its end of the bargain.
The Treaty 5 negotiations affected only three First Nations in northern Saskatchewan, and it left First Nations with reserves that were much smaller than in Treaties 3, 4, or 6. Treaty 6, however, covered a large area in Saskatchewan and Alberta. The First Nations chiefs won more emphasis on famine relief and medical assistance because their people were suffering from the continuing decline of the bison and the severe effects of the smallpox epidemic. The clauses they negotiated, according to Ray, Miller, and Tough, were compatible with the assistance First Nations had received from the Hudson Bay Company previously (130). Morris presented the treaty to First Nations as a gift from the Queen: “They would have the use of their lands ‘as before,’ but with the addition of presents, annuities, and other benefits” (130). Unlike the Treaty 4 negotiations, Treaty 6 talks began with a pipe ceremony, and it appears that the federal commissioners didn’t quite understand the significance of this (133). “Treaty 6 was the culmination of the treaty-making tradition in western Canada,” the authors state, perhaps because it is the treaty in which the most concessions were wrung from the federal negotiators (146-47). Later treaties reduced the commitments of the federal government, and as Asch notes, Morris lost his job for making concessions in the Treaty 6 negotiations.
Treaty 8, which covers part of northern Saskatchewan, was negotiated 20 years later, with a great deal of haste and carelessness. The Crown wanted to open up northern areas of the western provinces to prospectors, and that was its rationale for beginning the negotiations, which First Nations had been requesting for some time. There are no records of the discussions, just the final text. First Nations sought more explicit protection for hunting, fishing, and trapping rights, because they were aware of what was happening on the prairies south of the boreal forest (the pass system, for example). The government tried to assure the chiefs that First Nations people would not be restricted to their reserves. Treaty 8, the authors write, “allowed for the peaceful economic development of the region at a time when federal and provincial policing powers were stretched thin. . . . It is certain that the economic development of the Athabasca, Mackenzie, and Peace River districts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries could not have been accomplished peacefully without Treaty 8” (168). However, the oral histories of Treaty 8 people make it clear that the promises of guarantees of fishing, hunting and trapping rights were not kept (169). Like Treaty 8, Treaty 10 was negotiated because of pressure of economic development, and because the creation of the province of Saskatchewan resulted in pressure to bring northern First Nations into treaty (171-72). Treaty 8 served as a model (186), and the concerns raised by First Nations echoed those raised in previous negotiations (186). Again, First Nations were looking for the same kinds of benefits they had previously received from the HBC (186).
The chapter on treaty implementation tells a familiar and terrible story. There were problems about the way the treaties were implemented almost immediately, and in 1878 the First Nations that signed Treaty 4 threatened to refuse their annuities, thereby repudiating the treaty (187-88). Complaints were made by First Nations to Lord Lorne, the Governor General, in 1881 (188). The differences between the written text and oral promises were a large part of the problem. Meanwhile, Sir John A. Macdonald and Edgar Dewdney were cutting government spending on the Indian Department while diverting its budget to residential schools (190). There was little direct resistance, however; the authors cite the Yellow Calf incident of 1884 as one of the few examples of armed resistance to the failure of the government to live up to its treaty promises (190). It is clear, they write, from the lists of grievances written by First Nations chiefs that Treaty 4 included a guarantee of government assistance sufficient to enable First Nations to maintain themselves when settlers arrived and interfered with their ability to live by traditional methods (192)—guarantees that were ignored by the government. In Treaty 6 territory, similar issues arose: the government failed to provide farm implements and cattle (196), and First Nations demanded control over their own affairs (196). After 1885, the implementation of the pass system, along with the “peasant farming” and severalty policies later in the 1880s, made the situation worse in southern Saskatchewan (200-01). “All these retrograde policy developments help to explain both the serious problems with treaty implementation that southern First Nations experienced in the 1880s and 1890s and the heightened suspicions with which northern Nations approached treaty-making in the 1890s and first decade of the twentieth century,” Ray, Miller, and Tough write (201). In Treaty 10 territory, there were conflicts over the right to fish, hunt, trap, and gather (201). Part of the problem was the 1876 Indian Act, which led to policies of political control, enforced economic transition, and cultural subjugation and assimilation that bore no resemblance to the attitudes the treaty commissioners displayed in the 1870s (202-03). According to Ray, Miller, and Tough, “This study belongs to the unfolding process of reinterpreting the genesis, contents, and impact of the treaties that is still going on” (204).
Unlike Asch, the authors don’t seem to like Morris very much, referring to the “complacent self-satisfaction” his book on the treaties reveals (204). They suggest that Harold Cardinal’s The Unjust Society (another important book, also on my reading list) played a key role in changing the attitudes of historians towards the treaties, and cite the work of Gerald Friesen, Jean Friesen, and John Tobias as central to creating a viewpoint that, by the late 1990s, “could legitimately be described as the new, more critical orthodoxy” (208). Although their book focuses on the documentary record, they write that these texts “cannot provide a complete and finished historical version of the meanings of a treaty relationship between First Nations and the Crown” (214). They argue that their study has uncovered important findings regarding the continuity of the relationship between First Nations and the HBC, and First Nations and Canada; the Crown’s consistent position during negotiations of various treaties; promises to ensure First Nations livelihood; and the problems of treaty implementation (214). “In the immediate treaty-signing era, problems arose that reflect on the different understandings of the treaties and/or the failure to implement the treaties in good faith,” they write (214). So much waffling is contained in that phrase “and/or”! I would have hoped for a much clearer conclusion regarding this crucial issue. Did the government implement the treaties in good faith? No. Did the two sides understand the treaties differently? Yes. But did the Crown negotiators act in good faith? That’s a central question that’s left open here. It might be the central question of the history of the numbered treaties.
Bounty and Benevolence is an important work, but it is now somewhat out-of-date, I think, especially given the importance of works by First Nations writers like Aimée Craft and Harold Johnson, as well as the Treaty Elders of Saskatchewan book. After all, if the documentary record is incomplete, and if oral history can fill in the gaps in that record, then it’s important to use that testimony as well. In fact, I tend to find the books that rely on oral history more useful than works like Bounty and Benevolence, although as Sheldon Krasowski’s No Surrender indicates, there are resources in documentary history that previous historians have ignored. In any case, despite its limitations, Bounty and Benevolence is a useful overview of treaties in Saskatchewan.
Ray, Arthur J. Jim Miller, and Frank Tough, Bounty and Benevolence: A History of Saskatchewan Treaties,McGill-Queen’s UP, 2000.