A land cession is a transfer of land from one party to another through a deed of sale or surrender. Land cessions may also be referred to as land surrenders and land purchases. In Canada and the United States, Indigenous land cessions generally took place through negotiated treaties. There are cases, however, where Indigenous peoples claim that lands were taken unjustly. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 established the protocols for land cession in both Canada and the United States.
Definition: Treaties and Land Cessions
In Canada, treaties are not the same as land cessions. Although many treaties contain land cession clauses, there are examples of treaties — such as the Peace and Friendship Treaties — which do not contain cession clauses. Even for those treaties that do have land cession clauses, there are typically other clauses that offer details on the creation of reserves, the granting of annuities, and the guarantee of treaty rights for hunting and fishing as well as continued access to Crown Land.
Indigenous lands were ceded for a variety of purposes relating to the needs of the settlers. For example, on Vancouver Island, land cessions were for the immediate needs of the Hudson’s Bay Company posts and nearby settlements. In Upper Canada, land cessions were seen as a way to ensure the peaceful settlement of Loyalists and subsequent immigrants as well as to enable the defense of British holdings against a potential invasion by the United States. (See also Upper Canada Land Surrenders.) Treaties and land claims agreements signed since 1850 were about access to lands for resources, settlement and securing Canada’s claims to those lands. (See also Robinson Treaties of 1850 and Numbered Treaties.)
Perspectives on Land Cessions
Land cessions are often understood differently by the Crown and Indigenous peoples. In many treaties and agreements, land cessions typically were interpreted by the Crown to have resulted in the complete surrender of lands. The only retention of rights to the ceded lands comes from the wording within any treaties that may have finalized the cessions. First Nations see these land cessions as only surrendering or sharing title to the lands, not a surrender of all their rights on or to that land. In many cases, First Nations argue that their culture and languages did not provide an understanding of the British concept of land surrenders and ownership. As First Nations came to understand the concept, treaties became more complex; Indigenous negotiators demanded assurances concerning the cession of lands and their continued access to ceded lands under the terms of the treaties.
In addition to different understandings of land cessions, there are other problems regarding some land cession treaties. Specifically, the documents, such as maps, negotiation records and treaty texts were sometimes lost. The description of surrendered lands were sometimes vague. Lands ceded by a First Nation could include land claimed by others or land that it held no interest in. These issues, as well as the different perspectives, continue to raise questions about land cessions in contemporary Canada.