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Aboriginals
1608 - 1759
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Aboriginals: Treaties & Relations
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Pionniers et Immigrants
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Photograph: Natives Outside a Communal House, Nootka - NAC/ANC C-002822
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Aboriginal Peoples

Long before Canada came into being as a nation, Aboriginal peoples had their own cultures and ways of making collective decisions. Many of their practices survive through to today, and some have had an influence on the Canadian Constitution.

Topics in this Section:

Many Peoples, Many Cultures
No Centralized Government
Decision Making Among the Iroquois
Decision Making Among the Blackfoot
Decision Making Among the Pacific Coast Peoples
Decision Making Among the Inuit
Treaty Making
The Great Peace of 1701
The Legacy
Other Interesting or Important Documents

Many Peoples, Many Cultures
As today, there were many Aboriginal peoples in Canada before the arrival of the Europeans, each with its own culture and ways for making collective decisions. Nor did Aboriginal peoples stay in one place, or stay distinct and separate from their neighbours. They moved apart and merged with one another regularly. Warfare contributed to this state of flux.

No Centralized Government
Despite their differences, however, Aboriginal peoples did have some things in common. For one thing, they did not have centralized, formal government in the European sense.

Aboriginal societies were largely governed by unwritten customs and codes of conduct. For collective decision-making, the family was the most basic unit. Other units could include:

  • The Village

  • The Clan

  • The Tribe

  • The Nation

Below are examples of decision making by some Aboriginal peoples.

Decision Making Among the Iroquois
The Iroquois and Huron were settled, living in villages and towns and farming the land. The Iroquois and Huron Confederacies were a loose federation of nations:

  • Iroquois: Seneca, Cayuga, Onandaga, Oneida, Mohawk and later Tuscarora.

  • Huron: Arendaronon, Ataronchronon, Attignawantan, Attigneenongnahac and Tahontaenrat.

Etching and watercolour: Costumes of Canadians - NAC/ANC C-070624
Copyright/Source

Decision-making was done by in two councils (one for civil matters, the other for war). Men over 30 were members, although lineage was determined by the mother's line. Most matters were decided by discussion and consensus, but old men and heads of large families were the most influential.

On a national level, there were three levels of council:

Iroquois Councils
The Grand Council met at least once a year. Its delegates were men, but were selected by women.

Decision Making Among the Plains Nations
The Plains nations were nomadic, with village sizes being small in the winter and larger in the summer - sometimes holding up to a thousand people. They made decisions through a chief and a council of elders. The chief was usually chosen for skill as a hunter and warrior. Decisions were usually made by unanimous consensus.

When the smaller winter villages joined together in the summer for the buffalo hunt, the most respected of the winter chiefs became the voices with the most authority.

Decision Making Among the Pacific Coast Peoples
The Pacific coast peoples were settled, and had a complex social structure including nobility, commoners and slaves. The leaders of each village would meet during potlatch ceremonies and discuss issues of common interest.

Decision Making Among the Inuit
The Inuit were nomadic. Leaders were selected according to the situation, depending on skill as a hunter, generosity, oratory ability, or skill at reconciliation.

Photograph: A Labrador Eskimo in his canoe drawn from nature - NAC/ANC C-001912
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Treaty Making
The lack of a central government did not mean that Aboriginal peoples could not make treaties. They frequently entered into alliances and treaties of neutrality, although such treaties were not recorded. These treaties were as well respected and as frequently broken as written European treaties.

When the Europeans arrived, they imposed European methods upon the Aboriginal peoples they met. These treaties were usually written, and form the basis of many land claims by Aboriginal nations today.

The Great Peace of 1701
One example of early treaty making between Europeans and Aboriginal peoples, was the Great Peace of 1701. 1,300 delegates of more than 40 First Nations converged on Montreal. The treaty that followed the negotiations ended almost 100 years of war between the Iroquois Confederacy and New France and its allies.

The significance of the treaty lasts to this day, as it set a precedent for negotiation. It set the foundation for the expansion of the "empire" of New France to the south and west, and ensured the neutrality of the Iroquois Confederacy in case of war between the French and English in North America.

The Legacy
The absence of government in the European sense confused Europeans and led to inaccurate judgments about the nature of the many Aboriginal cultures they encountered.

Despite this, they entered into many treaties with Aboriginal peoples, and made guarantees about Aboriginal lands in important documents, such as the Royal Proclamation, 1763. These documents continue to have an impact on the Constitution today, as well as land claims.

Photograph: A Labrador Eskimo in his canoe drawn from nature - NAC/ANC C-001912
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Other Interesting or Important Documents

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