Manitoulin Island Treaty 1836 | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Manitoulin Island Treaty 1836

On 9 August 1836, the Odawa and Ojibwe signed the Manitoulin Island Treaty. This treaty is also referred to as Treaty 45 or the Bond Head Treaty. In signing the document, both the Odawa and Ojibwe agreed to Sir Francis Bond Head’s requested proposal that they would “relinquish [their] respective Claims to these Islands, and make them the Property (under your Great Father's control) of all Indians whom he shall allow to reside on them?” The Manitoulin Island Treaty formed part of Head’s efforts to open more lands for settlement. Part of this included relocating First Nations people in Upper Canada to Manitoulin Island (see also First Nations in Ontario). It also served to remove and isolate First Nations people. Head argued this was meant to allow for their “civilization” or “extinction” away from the negative influences of settlers.


Following the conclusion of the War of 1812, the British Colonial Office, humanitarians and others cast about for new Indian policies. Generally, Europeans felt that maintaining First Nations as hunter/gatherers and military allies hindered settlement in British North America. Simply, it was believed that First Nations lands needed to become settler lands. They believed this would lead to a prosperous colony. By the 1830s, colonial Indian policy had largely shifted from maintaining First Nations as allies and warriors to one of making them settled Christian farmers — at the time known as the civilization policy. This policy shift was exemplified by the transfer of responsibility of Indian Affairs in Upper Canada from the military to civilian authorities. They hoped that by concentrating First Nations into farming villages, the amount of land they needed to feed themselves would be greatly reduced. This would thereby open lands for European settlement. Additionally, by making First Nations self-sufficient farmers, Indian Department expenses would be reduced. The reduction in expense would come with the use of the funds raised by the sale of surrendered lands. Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada Sir John Colborne began the experiment by creating Indian villages and settlements. Two such examples were Coldwater and the Narrows. The aim of these villages was for First Nations people to learn to farm, be Christianized and receive a British education. By 1835, Colborne, convinced of Coldwater and the Narrows’ success, decided to expand the civilization experiment to Manitoulin Island at Manitowaning. Colborne had decided that Manitowaning would become a new Indian village under the guidance of the Indian Department and Anglican Church. It was also meant to be the new centre for present distributions to First Nations.

Colborne’s replacement was Sir Francis Bond Head. Along with Lord Glenelg, colonial secretary in Great Britain, Head was not convinced of the utility of Manitowaning or the success of the Indian village experiments. Glenelg was mainly concerned about the additional expense on Britain’s treasury. Head did not support civilization policies. In 1836, Glenelg instructed Head to report on the efforts undertaken to “civilize” First Nations, as well as to halt the creation of an establishment at Manitowaning. Unfortunately, the directive to stop the Manitowaning experiment did not arrive in time to inform First Nations. As such, in early August, Head began travelling to the island to distribute presents. During this period, Head personally undertook an investigation into First Nation conditions in Upper Canada. By the time he arrived at Manitowaning, Head had come to the conclusion that the civilization policies were a failure. He believed that First Nations people were destined for extinction. Instead of “civilizing” First Nations, he proposed that “the greatest Kindness we can perform towards these intelligent, simple-minded People, is to remove and fortify them as much as possible from all communication with the Whites.”

Upon arriving at this conclusion in August 1836, Head implemented a plan to protect and remove First Nations. First, he ordered Manitowaning closed immediately. Second, during the present giving ceremony, Head delivered a speech to the assembled First Nations people. He spoke of the necessity of removing them to an area where they could continue their way of life without fear of land loss and settler interference. While speaking, Head referenced the 1764 Treaty of Niagara, hoping to link notions of British protection, support and alliance to gain an agreement for his plan. After speaking publicly of his observations and plan, he sought out individual chiefs to further discuss his notions.

Treaty of Niagara

Negotiations and Treaty Terms

On 9 August 1836, Sir Francis Bond Head presented a memorandum to assembled chiefs and people to sign if they agreed with the proposals. The memorandum began by referencing the Treaty of Niagara and the friendship it engendered. The memorandum then claimed that a new arrangement was needed to protect First Nations people from the “encroachment of the whites.” This was followed by the Crown giving up its claim to the islands, while promising to protect the lands and First Nations’ way of life. The Odawa and Ojibwe then agreed to “relinquish your respective Claims to these Islands, and make them the Property (under your Great Father's control) of all Indians whom he shall allow to reside on them.” In essence, the memorandum confirmed Indigenous ownership of approximately 23,000 islands within the Manitoulin Island chain. Sixteen chiefs — Assekinack, Mokomunish, Tawackkuck, Kimewen, Kitchemokomon, Pesciatawick, Paimausegai, Nainawmuttebe, Mosuneko, Kewuckance, Shawenauseway, Espaniole, Snake, Pautunseway, Paimauqumestcam and Wagemauquin — placed their signature totems on the document. This signaled their support and understanding of the agreement. Head then presented the chiefs with a copy of the memorandum and a wampum belt. He kept identical copies for himself in an effort to prevent misunderstanding.

In addition to the memorandum to ensure Indigenous sovereignty over the Manitoulin Island chain, Head signed a memorandum with the Saugeen Nation, referred to as the Saugeen Treaty (1836) and Treaty 45 ½. This document saw the Saugeen surrender most of the Bruce Peninsula, and promise to move north of white settlement or relocate to Manitoulin Island.

Both memorandums were forwarded to Glenelg for approval. Head noted that, while the Manitoulin Island documents did not conform to the legal requirements of the colonial office, 1763 Royal Proclamation and 1764 Treaty of Niagara, they did represent an agreement reached between himself and the signatories. While Glenelg objected to Head’s removal and isolation scheme, he did approve the memorandums, thereby turning memorandums into treaties.

Glenelg and the Colonial Office were not the only ones to object to Head’s removal scheme. The Aborigines Protection Society claimed that in exchange for three million acres of land, the First Nations received “23,000 rocks of granite.” Additionally, groups concerned with “civilizing” First Nations people, such as the Methodist Church, opposed the removal scheme. Head’s removal from office in 1838 ended further efforts to relocate First Nations. However, the treaties the Lieutenant-Governor negotiated were considered valid.


Sir Francis Bond Head had managed, without approval from the colonial office, to obtain two agreements at Manitowaning that opened land for settlement at a minimal cost to colonial officials. The 1836 Manitoulin Island Treaty represents a unique document since it is not a surrender of land by First Nations people. Instead, it is a relinquishing of the Crown’s claim to Indigenous lands. Simply, the treaty recognized and protected Indigenous sovereignty over the Manitoulin Island chain. In other words, the Odawa and Ojibwe agreed to surrender their claims to the land in favour of a broad Indigenous sovereignty held by all who settled on the island.

Subsequently, the settler understanding of the 1836 treaty shifted. In 1858, writing in the Report of the Special Commissioners, Superintendent General of Indian Affairs R. T. Pennefather referred to the Manitoulin Island Treaty of 1836 as a land surrender and that the experiment in First Nations settlement had failed. This new understanding eventually led to a new treaty in 1862. Nevertheless, Indigenous understanding that the treaty recognized their sovereignty over the islands never faltered. Indigenous understandings of the 1836 treaty maintained into the present are likely supported by section 35 of the 1982 Canadian Constitution and various contemporary Supreme Court decisions. Nevertheless, the divergence in understanding has and continues to raise multiple questions for Canadians, their governments and courts surrounding the ownership and sovereignty of approximately 23,000 islands in Lake Huron, extending from the Bruce Peninsula to St. Joseph’s Island, at the outlet of St. Mary’s River.

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