Reflecting on the Atmosphere of Treaty Negotiations

This week FNT2T Life Long Learning spent time reflecting on the atmosphere and setting of treaty negotiations. It can be difficult to ascertain the tone between First Nations leaders and government officials during those negotiations, but by conducting close readings of treaty records and literature we can  work to discern the views of First Nations leaders.

Many may not be aware or have learned about the Robinson Treaties (Robinson-Huron and Robinson-Superior) of 1850, which pre-date Treaty 2 (1871). These treaties cover the areas along Lake Superior and Lake Huron in southern Ontario, largely Anishinaabek (Ojibwe) territories. This would include Thunder Bay, Sault St. Marie, and Sudbury, to name a few. Written records from the negotiations at the Robinson Treaties have included the following:

“When Vidal and Anderson had asked Chief Joseph Peau de Chat of Fort William  what compensation he sought [in treaty], the chief responded, ‘If I knew how long the world would last I could answer, but now I can not.’ Presumably, Chief de Chat meant that he could not respond because he could not say how long his community would need the payments.”  (Appendix A to Report of Commissioners Vidal & Anderson. Extracts from notes taken at the conference with the Indians at Fort William, Lake Superior, Sept. 25 and 26th, 1849 quoted in J.R. Miller, pp.115).

We can understand these words to mean that First Nations leaders, of course, knew and communicated to treaty negotiators the value of their traditional territories that they occupied since time immemorial entrusted to them by the Creator. Chief de Chat made it known that the value of his Nation’s traditional territories would increase over time as would the cost of living. De Chat knew the value of the land, its resources, and its provisions for generations to come. He understood that a number could not be attached to the land as its value was and is infinite.

At the signing of Treaty 3 in 1873, Chief Mawedopenais expressed similar understanding: “Now you see me stand before you all; what has been done here today has been done openly before the Great Spirit, and before the nation…in taking your hand, I hold fast all the promises you have made, and I hope they will last as long as the sun goes round and the water flows, as you have said.” (Morris, pp. 75).

Certainly, these leaders held a common worldview when it came to the value of the land and the treaties: For as long as the world should last. Wording that is associated with the spirit and intent of treaties today: As long as the sun shinesthe rivers flow and the grass grows.

We can see the close proximity between Chief de Chat, Mawedopenais, and the words used by many First Nations leaders when it comes to describing the spirit and life of treaties between First Nations and Canada.

Most government officials who negotiated and signed treaties with First Nations on behalf of the Crown participated in sacred protocols including pipe ceremonies. Indeed, many First Nations today choose to practice other spiritual ways, but many honour that treaty negotiations and signings included revered ways that brought truth and respect to everyone involved. J.R. Miller writes: “[Perhaps] officials did not realize that the protocol, including the pipe ceremony, converted the product of the talks into a covenant to which the Great Spirit was also a party, that the heart of treaty was the kin-like relationship it created, and that everything spoken was as much part of the treaty as whatever the government scribers recorded ” (Miller, pp. 295). In other words, officials may not have fully understood what they were participating in, or perhaps they only participated to appease First Nations leaders; regardless, the sacredness of treaties does exist (Craft, pp.83).

A close reading of treaty records and literature reveals the common view that many First Nations leaders had when they signed the treaties – that they were sacred and that they would last. Thus, it is an important responsibility of all signatories to ensure that the promises made in treaties are honoured because they are the foundation of Canada.


Craft, Aimee, Breathing Life into the Stone Fort Treaty: An Anishinaabe Understanding of Treaty One, 2013, pp.83.

Miller, J.R., Compact, Contract, Covenant: Aboriginal Treaty-Making in Canada, 2009, Appendix A to Report of Commissioners Vidal & Anderson. Extracts from notes taken at the conference with the Indians at Fort William, Lake Superior, Sept. 25 and 26th, 1849, pp.115

Morris, Alexander, The Treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba & the North-West Territories including the Negotiations, 1991, pp.75.