The Treaties

When the Hudson's Bay Company sold its rights to the British Crown in 1869, Rupert's Land (a vast interior region encompassing most of northern Ontario and north Qu├ębec, all of Manitoba, most of Saskatchewan, the southern half of Alberta, and a large part of what is now the Northwest Territories and Nunavut) and the Northwest Territories entered the Canadian Dominion.

But even before it took the full measure of the richness of the northern territories, the government of Ottawa refused to take charge of these regions' native populations, much in need of assistance following famines, or to sign treaties with them. Since 1873 (when the Canadian Parliament passed a bill authorizing the creation of a horseback police for the Northwest Territories), only a few detachments of the Mounted Police have maintained order and a governmental presence in the region. After the discovery of gold deposits in the Klondike in 1896 and oil fields in Norman Wells in the Mackenzie basin in 1920, Ottawa realized the potential of these territories and signed two treaties with the region's Indians: Treaty 8 in 1899 and Treaty 11 in 1921. The areas covered by the first treaty included northwestern Saskatchewan, northern Alberta, northwestern British Columbia, and part of the southern Northwest Territories (south of the Great Lake of Slaves); the areas covered by the second treaty were the Northwest Territories north of the Great Slave Lake.

In retrospect, it seems obvious that the Indians did not realize the full consequences of these treaties. As a matter of fact, a 1973 ruling of the Supreme Court of the Northwest Territories confirmed that the Dene never consciously gave up their territory. This ruling is an important moment in the history of Dene claims, because even if the Supreme Court of Canada somewhat contradicted it, it nevertheless marked a major change in the importance granted to the Amerindian point of view. Indeed, Judge Morrow's ruling states that: "... there is enough doubt as to whether the full aboriginal title has been extinguished, certainly in the minds of the Indians, to the caveators attempt to protect the Indian position until a final adjudication can be obtained" (Indians Claims Commission, 1977: 19). Their chief preoccupation was the protection of their hunting and fishing rights and the wave of non-Native populations that crossed or settled on their land (at its high point, Klondike's main center of activity, Dawson City, reached a population of approximately 10,000). As elsewhere in Canada (even if the situation was not identical everywhere), there was a difference of interpretation between the Dene and the Canadian government with resepct to the purpose and the function of these treaties. The Dene considered the treaties as an opportunity to maintain their lifestyle in a changing environment (exploitation of natural resources, arrival of settlers), and mostly as an opportunity to preserve their autonomy and freedom of movement on their territory. In their eyes, the treaties represented a sharing of the land with settlers and other exploiters, not a transfer of their rights of use. The Ottawa government's aims were simply to put an end to the rights of Indians over these territories because the promise of mineral and oil wealth suddenly enhanced the value of these so far neglected northern regions. The end of native rights allowed for the legal exploitation by the government of natural resources and the opening of lands to settlement, in exchange for financial compensation in the form of yearly sums of money distributed to each individual. To a certain extent, the Royal Proclamation of 1763 had protected the rights of Indians against settlers as far as their land was concerned, until these rights were handed over to the Crown. But the treaties were not fully honored by the government. Laws restricting game hunting were passed and extended to the Dene (who should have been exempt), no reservations were created, and the government did not take charge of education.

In Alaska (which the United States obtained from Russia in 1867), things were different since the American government abolished its system of treaties in 1871. The General Allotment Act (or Dawes Act) promulgated in 1887 by the American Congress considerably reduced the area of reservations. The process was the following: the government granted a certain number of acres to each Amerindian of the United States, and then took for itself whatever was left of the lands of the former reservations. In this way, the Indians lost two-thirds of their lands or nearly a hundred million acres. The law was repealed in 1934 by the Indian Reorganization Act created by John Collier. In addition, in 1906, the Alaska Allotment Act permitted Alaska natives to own land. Natives could gain 160 acres of nonmineral land as an "inalienable and nontaxable" homestead. In 1936, the Alaska Native Reorganization Act extended the Indian Reorganization Act to Alaska.

Around the 1960s, Alaska became coveted for its underground wealth, especially for oil. Inspired by the Indian movement, the Alaska Natives banded together to defend their rights. In 1966, the Alaska Federation of Natives was created. For more than 10 years the Alaska Natives fought to defend their interests.

But once again, in 1971, the Native's rights were modified by a new Act. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act changed aboriginal rights to economic benefits. This new situation created some cultural and economic problems. In consequence, this Act was amended in 1988.

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