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Aboriginals: Treaties & Relations
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Photo: Blood Indian pow-wow dance - NAC/ANC C-024276
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1876 - 1877: The Indian Act, 1876 and Numbered Treaties Six and Seven

Two important events happened in 1876 that had an effect on Aboriginal history in Canada. One was the signing of Numbered Treaty Six, which was arguably the most important and controversial treaty signed during the 1800s. It allowed, for the first time, an Indian agent to keep a medicine chest in his home, a move some Aboriginals later interpreted as a promise by the government to provide free health care. The second was the passing of the Indian Act, which effectively made all Aboriginals wards of the state.

Topics in this section:

The Indian Act, 1876
Treaty Number Six, 1876
Treaty Number Seven, 1877
Other Interesting or Important Documents

The Indian Act, 1876
Once a majority of Aboriginals living on the Prairies had signed the Numbered Treaties, the federal government introduced and passed an act to amend and consolidate previous laws concerning the Aboriginals. Notably, this act turned the Aboriginals into legal wards of the state.

Painting: Indian Burial - NAC/ANC C-100592
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The Act also spelled out conditions for being an Indian under the eyes of the law. For instance:

  • Any woman that married an Aboriginal man could be considered an Indian and could be allowed to live and even be buried on a reserve. These women also received other cultural and social benefits by gaining Indian status. However, any Aboriginal woman who married a white, European male was now considered to be a bona fide member of Canadian society. She lost her Indian status and every right that came with it.

  • All "half-breed" Indians, like the Métis, were not entitled to Indian status. This included Métis who had received scrip - transferable land or cash allowances that were issued on paper certificates.
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The Indian Act, 1876

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Sir John A. Macdonald summed up the government's position nearly a decade later in 1885 when he said, "If they are half-breed, they are [considered by the government to be] white."

This position was maintained until September, 2003, when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Métis were entitles to the same rights as Aboriginal peoples.

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Alexander Morris's Recommendations Regarding Half-Breeds, 1876 - 1880

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The terms of the Indian Act also set out instructions regarding the sale of Aboriginal lands. It allowed the government to set licenses allowing timber to be cut and removed from these properties. This confused many Aboriginals, who thought they were given away land for settlement purposes only and did not understand that the government could take resources - their forests - away from them.

Additionally, Aboriginals who broke the law could now be charged under the Criminal Code of Canada. As of 1876, there were legal punishments for Natives who left reserves or sold liquor on reserves.

The act was rewritten in 1951 and revised again in 1985. However, many provisions - including ones prohibiting Aboriginals from living on land outside of reserves or from drinking - have since been repealed or have simply fallen into disuse.

Did you know?

Following the 1876 Indian Act, Aboriginals who lived on reserves were forced to carry an identity card, like a passport, every time they stepped off reserve land.

Treaty Number Six, 1876

Treaties Number 6 and 7
Treaties Number Six and Seven

At a first glance, Treaty Number Six, signed by the Plains and Woods and Plains Cree Aboriginals, is very similar to the five that preceded it. In exchange for yielding their land on the Prairies in current day Alberta and Saskatchewan, the Aboriginals received smaller tracts of reserve land, cash, farm animals and tools (and so on) from the government. As with the other treaties, they had to promise to not drink alcohol and maintain law and order on the reserves.

This time, however, the government faced more resistance. Aboriginals had new concerns: European settlers were moving onto the Prairies at an alarming rate, and, as they moved westward, they displaced Aboriginals from their land. The buffalo had virtually disappeared from this region as well, and other big game animals like deer were not as plentiful. More and more Aboriginals were now facing starvation. On top of this, diseases like smallpox were decimating Aboriginal populations.

Poundmaker, a famous Cree chief, refused to sign the treaty at first since he felt that the government was trying to grab land from his nation unfairly. He is quoted as saying:

"This is our land! It isn't just a piece of pemmican to be cut off and given in little pieces back to us. It is ours and we will take what we want."

By December 1882, however, he had no choice. The buffalo were so scarce his people were starving. As the best hope for survival lay in accepting government money and resources, he allowed his people to be moved onto reserve land.

Painting: Medicine Circles - NAC/ANC C-000416
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Treaty Number Six was unique as it was the only treaty of its sort with an implied provision for health care. It allows a medicine chest to be kept in the home of an Indian agent for the use and benefit of the Aboriginals. Some Aboriginals have interpreted this provision as extending to all who signed the Numbered Treaties. It is also interpreted by some as an promise by the federal government to provide free health care to every Aboriginal person in Canada - forever.

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Treaty Number Six

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Adhesions to Treaty Number Six

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Sharphead Indians give away Treaty Six reserve land, Sept. 11, 1897

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Treaty Number Seven, 1877

Photo: Arriving to sign Treaty Seven - Glenbow Archives NA-1128-9
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This treaty was signed by a number of Aboriginal bands, including the Blackfoot and Stoney Indians, among others, in present-day southern Alberta. It is very similar to the ones that preceded it, with some exceptions. There was no health care provision as there had been in Treaty Number Six; however, these bands were successful in negotiating for more money and supplies than in previous treaty negotiations. This would be the last Numbered Treaty signed between the government and the Aboriginals until 1899.

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Treaty Number Seven

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Adhesion to Treaty Number Seven

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Other Interesting or Important Documents:

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Dispatch of Alexander Morris, 4th December 1876
(On Treaty Number Six.)

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Letter from Rev. Constantine Scollen, Sept. 8, 1876
(On Treaty Number Seven.)

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Dispatch of David Laird, Oct. 4, 1877
(On Treaty Number Seven.)

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