With Confederation in 1867, the Indian policy of the old province of Canada was applied to the Maritime provinces, and, as additional territories were incorporated into the dominion, they, too, became subject to those policies. In 1876, the dominion consolidated and reinforced its legislative position with the Indian Act, which was based directly on the Gradual Civilization Act of 1857. The purpose of the Indian Act was to provide a legal framework primarily for the governance of Indian reserves. This legislative instrument, which has been repeatedly amended since its inception, was, for the most part, imposed without Indian involvement or Indian consent. There was a second major thrust in the dominion government's evolving relations with the First Nations. That thrust involved the making of many new treaties covering large parts of the dominion's newly acquired territories. The negotiation of treaties with Aboriginal peoples continued a constitutional heritage in British North America that had perhaps its most important manifestation in the Royal Proclamation of 1763. One way to look at these treaties is that they perpetuated a tradition of direct diplomatic relations between the sovereign of the British Empire and the Crown's Indian allies. These relations were based on principles of resource sharing and consensual relations.
Except for a few agreements covering a portion of Vancouver Island in the new province of British Columbia, no treaties with First Nations were made during that jurisdiction's early years. The failure to negotiate treaties in Canada's westernmost province, which entered Confederation in 1871, was the result of the contention held by some officials there that the Crown's recognition of Aboriginal title in the Royal Proclamation did not apply. East of the Rockies, however, the story was different. Having acquired a vast domain directly from the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), the dominion government decided that treaties with the Indian inhabitants would be an expedient way of clearing the way for peaceful agricultural settlement and avoiding the costly Indian Wars that had been convulsing the American West. Beginning in 1871 in southern Manitoba and ending in 1929 in northwestern Ontario at Big Trout Lake, a series of 11 treaties and adhesions to those treaties were signed across the Prairies, down the Mackenzie River Valley, and through northern Ontario. These treaties have become known as the "Numbered Treaties."
Most of the treaties involved hard bargaining. Aboriginal peoples did not simply acquiesce to dictated terms. For example, in Treaty 4, the Gambler and others demanded some explanation of how the Hudson's Bay Company had been able to sell Indian lands to the dominion. Why were these negotiations occurring after the deal with the company had already been made? Where did the HBC get its title to sell? Crown officials had no real explanation other than to say, "The lands are the Queen's under the Great Spirit." This answer neglected to address the point that, even in British law, the Queen's titles to Indian lands were, until the terms of the Royal Proclamation were fulfilled, limited and incomplete.
The Canadian government hoped to use these treaties as instruments in its assimilationist program, but Aboriginal peoples did not share that view.