One group of Native peoples actually rated a mention in the founding document of the Canadian Confederation. The 1867 British North America Act contained a clause that listed "Indians and lands reserved for the Indians" as an area of jurisdiction assigned to the Parliament of Canada. This bland labelling of "Indians" hid the fact that they were only one of several Aboriginal peoples, not to mention the fact that within the designated category of "Indians" there were many diverse and distinctive communities. 1

Mi'kmaq Family, Prince Edward Island, ca. 1900.

Mi'kmaq Family, Prince Edward Island, ca. 1900.

The Mi'kmaq were among the earliest First Nations to establish and maintain contact with Europeans (1534). They adopted many features of European culture and technology. This family is dressed in Victorian garb.
PARO/PEI (Acc. 2320/9-11).

An investigating party of strangers approaching Canada's East Coast would have had to look hard for evidence of Native peoples in most parts of the original provinces of Canada. In Newfoundland, which would not be part of Confederation until 1949, the original inhabitants, the Beothuk, had become extinct when the last surviving Beothuk, Shanawdithit, died from tuberculosis in 1829. The Beothuk were the original red Indians, as Hollywood would later designate Native peoples: French explorers in the sixteenth century described them as peaux rouges (literally, red skins) because of their practice of decorating their bodies with red clay. The demise of the Beothuk, however, had not left Newfoundland totally void of Native peoples. About 150 Mi'kmaq people resided and made their living mainly by hunting and fishing in the resource-rich interior of the rugged island.

The Newfoundland Mi'kmaq were only one branch of a larger family that could be found in several parts of what are now the Atlantic provinces during the 1860s. Compared to Newfoundland, probably twice as many Mi'kmaq lived on Prince Edward Island, which would become a province of Canada in 1873, while rather more lived in Nova Scotia. In the two mainland Maritime provinces (New Brunswick and Nova Scotia), the First Nations community of approximately 2,500 was made up mainly of Mi'kmaq but also included smaller groups of Maliseet and Abenaki, particularly in New Brunswick. All of these Native nations belonged to the Algonkian linguistic family, and all had traditionally been people who maintained themselves by hunting, fishing, gathering, and trading among themselves. By the time of Confederation, the non-Native settlers had seriously disrupted these traditional means of subsistence. Further, the three First Nations of the Maritime provinces found themselves crowded off the best lands and out of the emerging commercial and industrial economy. The Crown and the Indian nations of the Maritime colonies did not negotiate land-surrender treaties, and, as a result, the approximately 2,500 Mi'kmaq, Abenaki, and Maliseet were not well provided with reserve or other lands. The "Indians" who came under federal jurisdiction with Confederation had few "lands reserved for" them about which the government in Ottawa had to concern itself. The result of these conditions was that the First Nations of the Maritimes lived a hand-to-mouth economic existence in the new dominion.

 Mohawk became an integral part of the cultural life of Quebec on select ceremonial occasions

Dancers from Mohawk Nation, Montreal, QC, 9 Oct. 1869

Although often isolated from "proper" society, the Mohawk became an integral part of the cultural life of Quebec on select ceremonial occasions. These dancers performed for HRH Prince Arthur at the Montreal lacrosse tournament in 1869.
NAC (PA-172573, photo by James Inglis).

The dispossession and marginalization of the Maritime Algonkians was largely mirrored by the experience of the approximately 5,000 First Nations peoples of southern Quebec in the 1860s. This region possessed an extraordinarily diversified Native population, mainly because of a series of historical developments. Many of the First Nations communities in the river valleys of Quebec had congregated around Roman Catholic mission sites because of either alienation from the non-Christian groups in their former home communities or the need for refuge from setbacks in wars with other First Nations. The southern Quebec groups were a mixture of Algonkian nations such as the Abenaki, Algonkin, or Nipissing, and of Iroquoians such as the Mohawk located at three Catholic missions. The Mohawk of Akwesasne (St. Regis) opposite Cornwall, Ontario, Kahnawake (Sault St. Louis) on the south shore of the St. Lawrence across from Montreal, and Kanesatake (Oka) on the Lake of Two Mountains had long since lost the traditional Iroquoian orientation to growing corn, beans, and squash. Like their Algonkian brothers and sisters, they depended on an economy that combined hunting-gathering with gardening for subsistence, and seasonal employment. The three Mohawk groups in southern Quebec would have a significant impact on Canadian life in the late twentieth century.

Neither in southern nor northern Quebec did these First Nations enjoy a treaty relationship with the Crown. Indeed, nothing resembling a land agreement in northern Quebec would exist until the signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement in 1975. In the south, the explanation for an absence of treaties was primarily historical: the French, who had been the imperial power in the region until 1763, did not make land treaties with First Nations, and the Royal Proclamation of 1763, issued by their British successors did, not apply to Quebec. Nonetheless, the proclamation, by spelling out how Indian lands in the interior might lawfully be obtained from First Nations, stimulated treaty-making elsewhere. In northern Quebec, a region dominated by the Precambrian, or Canadian, Shield, First Nations continued to live an economically successful traditional life because of an absence of agricultural settlement in most of the vast expanse. Accordingly, the approximately 3,500 Cree and other Algonkians in the north at Confederation were still engaged in a hunting-gathering-fishing-trading economy.

Ontario had by far the largest number of First Nations people of any of the original provinces of the dominion. The Mississauga, an Algonkian group, had mainly populated southern Ontario when non-Native settlement began to be significant in the 1780s. The Crown had made treaty with the Mississauga to prepare the region for settlement by two groups: non-Native Loyalists who left the United States after the American Revolution (1775-1783) and a small numbers of Aboriginal allies who had fought with the Crown against the American rebels. Mohawk allies had important reserves near Brantford and Belleville. Later, smaller groups of pro-British Natives located in other places in southwestern Ontario after the War of 1812. Tens of thousands of British immigrants followed in the 40 years before Confederation. This group transformed the region, making farms and towns and, as in the Maritimes, displacing and marginalizing the original inhabitants. As in southern Quebec, in southern Ontario Christian missionaries, here mainly Methodist and Anglican, ministered as best they could to these groups as social and economic change swept over them from the 1820s to the 1860s and beyond.

1850 - The Robinson Treaties

Increased pressures on the natural resources of what would become northern Ontario led to tension and even warfare between Native groups and between Native tribes and mining corporations during the mid-nineteenth century. In 1850, the government empowered William Benjamin Robinson to negotiate with the Ojibwa bands of the area in order to establish reserves. In so doing, the government hoped to ease the competition for the limited resources available and open up the land for exploration and settlement. Chief Peau de Chat and Chief Shinguaconse, as well as other leaders from their respective Lake Superior and Lake Huron regions, agreed to a payment of £2,000  in cash and further annuity payments of £500 for the Lake Superior band and £600 for the Lake Huron group. The Robinson Treaties set the example for later negotiations between the Canadian government and Native tribes, establishing standards such as public negotiation processes, Crown takeover of surrendered lands, payment of annuities, and guarantees of full hunting and fishing privileges for Natives on Crown lands. The Robinson Treaties also broke with prior practice in treating for extensive tracts of land not needed for immediate settlement.

In Ontario's near north, particularly along lakes Huron and Superior, the predominantly Ojibwa, or Anishinabe, population had begun to experience non-Native intrusion later than the more southerly Mississauga. The Ontario north, like that of Quebec, was dominated by the rocks and rivers of the Canadian Shield and would remain largely immune to the agricultural settlement that devastated First Nations elsewhere. However, the Ontario north was one of the earliest regions to experience the intrusion of a mining frontier, the other form of Euro-Canadian economic activity that disrupted First Nations throughout Eastern Canada. Early mining exploration in the Sault Ste. Marie region provoked Ojibwa resistance in the late 1840s, leading to the negotiation of two 1850 treaties that were important as models for Post-Confederation treaty-making in the West. The Robinson Huron and Robinson Superior treaties, as these agreements were known, covered a vast area north and east of each of the upper Great Lakes. Further north, in a region dominated by Cree rather than Ojibwa, treaty would not be made until 1905. In northern Ontario, as in northern Quebec, First Nations were able to maintain themselves by traditional means longer than in the south. In both Central Canadian provinces, however, mining exploration, hydroelectric development, and even agricultural settlement in pockets of suitable soil would begin to transform the regions and disrupt the First Nations from the 1880s and 1890s onward.

Posed photo of Chief Walking Buffalo and his family

Chief Walking Buffalo and His Family, n.d.

The Lakota (Stoney) Nation was part of the powerful Blackfoot Confederacy. The Lakota were skillful horsemen and formidable warriors. After the signing of Treaty 7 in 1877, they took up residence on their reserve, part of their traditional territory in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains west of Calgary.

The treaties that government-appointed treaty commissioner W.B. Robinson negotiated in northern Ontario would serve later as models for agreements with the Plains and woodlands nations of the Western interior. A major reason that treaty making was such a dominant feature of relations with the Western Natives was sheer numbers. In the early years after Confederation, the non-Native population of what would become the three Prairie provinces probably counted fewer than 2,000. However, the Aboriginal population—First Nations and Métis—between Lake of the Woods and the Rocky Mountains totalled approximately 45,000. If mere numbers alone were not enough to capture Ottawa's attention, the Red River Resistance would have convinced the federal government to pay attention to the land rights of the Indigenous Western population. Led by Louis Riel, the approximately 12,000 Métis, or mixed-blood, people residing in and near present-day Winnipeg, challenged Canada's assertion of its title to the region in 1869-1870. When federal leaders turned to examine that Western population, they found that there were about 33,000 First Nations people belonging to no fewer than five distinct groups.

Map of Select Reserves and Treaties with First Nations Peoples.

Select Reserves and Treaties with First Nations Peoples.

Paul Hackett.

Three separate linguistic families were represented between Lake of the Woods and the Rockies. An Algonkian nation and close relative to the Mississauga and Ojibwa of Ontario, the Saulteaux, or western Ojibwa, were found in northwestern Ontario and parts of southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan. The Siouan family was also present in Manitoba and Saskatchewan in the form of the Dakota, Assiniboine, and, in southern Alberta, the Stoney of the foothills. The Stoney were part of the formidable Blackfoot Confederacy. Algonkians were also numerous, principally as Cree, in the forests of northwestern Ontario and the parklands and northern woods of the Prairie provinces. Two cultures divided the Western Cree, who, like the Saulteaux, were western extensions of nations who had migrated in pursuit of economic opportunities. These two groups were the southerly, or Plains, Cree, who had adapted to the Plains culture that had developed by the early eighteenth century, and Woods Cree, who still resembled their eastern ancestors in their forest-based culture. Also representing the Algonkian linguistic family were several of the constituent nations of the Blackfoot Confederacy of southern Alberta. The Piikuni (Piegan), Siksika (Blackfoot proper), and Kainai (Blood) were Algonkian. Among the other members of the confederacy were, as mentioned previously, the Stoney in the foothills to the west and the Tsuu T'ina (Sarcee), a group that resided near Calgary. The Tsuu T'ina were actually descended from an Athapaskan nation that had migrated from the northern reaches of what would become the North-West Territories.

Photo of a Slavey Native woman ice fishing at Hay River

Slavey Native Woman Ice Fishing, Hay River, NT, ca. 1900.

The Slavey Nation was one of many Native groups pushed northward as the Cree expanded to the west in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
GA (NA-4433-31).

The First Nations of the Western interior might have constituted many nations and represented three linguistic families, but, by the late 1800s, they could be categorized culturally as woodlands or Plains peoples. In the forests to the north, the Cree and Dene pursued hunting-fishing-gathering lifeways that made them migrate seasonally among the various resource-harvesting and trading sites. These groups were dependent especially on the moose and woodland caribou. Many of the northern First Nations were also heavily involved in trade with non-Natives, principally the traders of the Hudson's Bay Company. The company's demand for the furs the Natives harvested and gathered had been a powerful economic influence in the region since the 1670s. To the south of the forest-dwellers, the Assiniboine, Saulteaux, Plains Cree, and Blackfoot had fashioned the Plains culture. The colour and excitement of this way of life impressed everyone who came in contact with it. Plains culture utilized English firearms acquired from Hudson Bay Company men in the north and horses that the Spanish had introduced far to the south to augment the traditional hunting and fighting skills of the First Nations. These elements combined to create a way of life that emphasized trade, warfare, and diplomacy. In Plains society, warring and acquiring horses as prizes vied with hunting the buffalo and trading as the principal pursuits. This was particularly true of the men within the community. In no small part because hunting buffalo required large numbers of participants and considerable discipline, political organization was fairly highly developed among the Plains peoples and their Métis kinfolk. Annual buffalo hunts were simultaneously economic, social, and military occasions in which Plains peoples celebrated and renewed many of the values and practices that made them unique. The Plains warrior astride his swift horse, ideally with eagle-feather war bonnet trailing behind him, was, and remains, one of the most powerful and positive stereotypes of First Nations peoples in Canada.

If the Native peoples of the Western interior could be classified fairly simply according to their Plains or forest orientation, no such easy generalizations were possible west of the mountain ranges that divided the Prairie region from British Columbia. In describing the First Nations of British Columbia, as with so many other features of Canada's westernmost province (B.C. entered Confederation in 1871), it is essential to appreciate that the territory consists of at least three geographical regions. These different regions within British Columbia were home to a dizzying variety of Indian nations.

Photo of West Coast Natives in masks and robers.

West Coast Natives in Traditional Masks and Robes, n.d.

The finely crafted wooden masks and woven robes, integral to the culture of the West Coast First Nations, were indicative of their high level of craftsmanship.
NAC (PA-023081).

Several nations that resembled the hunter-gatherers of the northern and eastern woodlands lived in the northern interior. These included groups such as the Chilcotin, Carrier, Gitksan, and Sekani. To the south, although still in the interior region, were the Kootenay, a linguistic isolate, or unique linguistic group, and Interior Salishan peoples such as the Shuswap, Okanagan, Thompson, and Lillooet. The most extensive ethnic and linguistic diversity, however, was found along the Pacific coast and on Vancouver Island. There were Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka) and Southern Kwagiutl on Vancouver Island, while Coast Salish dominated the mouth of the Fraser River and southern coast. Northward, up the shoreline, were more Southern and Northern Kwagiutl, Tsimshian peoples, Nisga'a, and, in present-day Alaska, Tlingit. The Haida lived on what became known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, a location that the Haida lovingly called Haida Gwaii. Well over 50 nations that were part of almost as many linguistic families had developed and, in 1867, still thrived in the valleys, fjords, and resource-rich coastal regions of British Columbia.

At Confederation, the Pacific province was still more Native than newcomer in population, although the Indigenous peoples were declining dramatically because of disease and Euro-Canadian invasions of their territories.

Photo of Totem Pole in British Columbia, ca. 1910.

Totem Pole, British Columbia, ca. 1910.

The intricately carved and meticulously painted totem pole is one of the most recognizable and famous cultural symbols of the First Nations on the West coast.
NAC (PA-060018).

The First Nations population of the future British Columbia had been a robust 70,000 in 1835, a period prior to the advent of prospectors, miners, settlers, missionaries, and colonial administrators when the land-based fur trade still dominated the local economy. However, by 1885, Native numbers would shrink to about 28,000. Even so, the First Nations population of British Columbia probably constituted well over one quarter of the 100,000 to 120,000 Indians throughout the territory that was or would become Canada at the time of Confederation. To that uncertain total must be added around 12,000 Métis in the Western interior, and an imprecise number—perhaps 15,000 to 20,000—of Inuit in the Arctic, lands to the north over which Canada would not get formal title until 1880.

Written By

J.R. Miller
History Professor Emeritus
University of Saskatchewan


Powered by ChronoForms -