The North American Experience

By The International Labour Organization
A brief history: Canada

There is also a long history of treaty-making with the indigenous peoples in what is now Canada. France and Great Britain made treaties of peace and trade with the three powerful confederacies of indigenous nations of the Atlantic seacoast and Great Lakes in the 17th century. (Note 3) Other regions were scarcely settled until Canada became self-governing in 1867, and built railways to the west. Settlers from Great Britain, eastern Canada and the wore torn United States flooded into the western prairies to occupy lands purchased under five great treaties from 1873 to 1877. The provisions of these treaties were similar to those made in the US ten years earlier. In exchange for opening most of their lands to settlers, indigenous peoples were promised security of tenure for the lands they reserved for themselves, as well as money and tools for modernization. Most of the indigenous communities concerned lived by hunting, trapping and selling furs, so they also reserved the right to hunt and trap throughout their traditional territories.

As had taken place in the US, the rapid expansion of settlements in Canada during the 1870s was also accompanied by warfare. From 1868 to 1885, indigenous nations and “Metis” (mestizos) in the west fought unsuccessfully to preserve their independence. With the US assistance, Canadians soldiers and settlers suppressed the “rebellion” and executed its leader, Louis Riel.

In the southern more heavily settled parts of Canada, indigenous peoples were confined to relatively small “Indian Reserves”, generally smaller than the people concerned thought they had retained by treaty. The Indian Act 1869 established a basic pattern for the administration of these Reserves by the national (“Federal”) government which changed very little until the 1950s. Although the communities were allowed to elect their own “chiefs and counselors,” their role was advisory, and all decisions were actually made and carried out by Federal officials. Amendments to the Indian Act in 1951 gave the locally elected councils some responsibility for land use and business activities on Reserves, but their decisions still required Federal government approval.

Since Europeans were mainly farmers and ranchers, they had little interest in settling the northern part of Canada, which is cold forest and tundra. However, the discovery of gold and petroleum in the north led to the negotiation of four more treaties (1899-1921), with similar provisions to those which had been made in southern Canada and, before that, the United States. While 90% of Canada’s non-indigenous population still lives on lands acquired by treaties made through 1921, roughly half of the country, including the Pacific seacoast and Arctic regions, remain outside of any treaties until the last 20 years.

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