Treaties with Indigenous Peoples in Canada (Plain-Language Summary)

Indigenous treaties in Canada are agreements made between the Crown and Indigenous people (First Nations, Métis, and Inuit). These agreements concern land. Indigenous people agree to share their land in exchange for payments of one kind or another and promises. Before Confederation, Britain controlled the treaty making process. After Confederation, the federal government took control of the treating making process.

(This article is a plain-language summary of Treaties with Indigenous Peoples in Canada. If you are interested in reading about this topic in more depth, please see our full-length entry Treaties with Indigenous Peoples in Canada).



The Royal Proclamation of 1763 created the treaty system. It stated that only the Crown could negotiate treaties with Indigenous peoples. Before Confederation (1867), the British made many treaties with Indigenous peoples. As a result, the Crown took possession of much Indigenous land. The Indigenous peoples often did not understand the treaties. So, they gave much up of their land at a very low price. By the 1830s, most of the farmland in Upper Canada (Ontario) had been taken over by the Crown.

Wampum Belt
Wampum was used by Indigenous people as currency and to record treaties and settle disputes

After 1867, the federal government controlled the treaty making process. Some of the most important treaties they made are called the “Numbered Treaties.” There are 11 Numbered Treaties. They were made between 1871 and 1921. As a result of the treaties, the federal government gained control of vast amounts of land in western and northern Canada. The federal government wanted this land for settlers.

The federal government promised that it would help Indigenous people in return for the land it bought. The government promised it would provide Indigenous people with education, money, and materials. However, the government broke many of these promises. It also made Indigenous peoples live on reserves. They did not have freedom of movement. The Indigenous peoples suffered a lot because of these treaties.

Elsewhere in Canada, settlers simply moved onto Indigenous land without permission. Soon after, the Indigenous peoples were forced to live on reserves.

Canada’s Indigenous people have often fought against (protested) the treaties. For example, the Nisga’a people in British Columbia have argued that they never gave up rights to their land. They later signed a treaty with the federal government. They gained control of 2000 km2 of land and in 2000 they achieved self-government (see Indigenous Self-Government in Canada). In the 1970s, the Cree and Inuit protested Hydro-Québec’s James Bay Project because Hydro-Québec did not consult them about using their land. In 1975, the federal government and the Cree and Inuit signed the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. This is seen as the first “modern treaty.” The Cree and Inuit were granted a certain amount of self-government.

Since the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, many other treaties have been signed by the federal government and Canada’s Indigenous peoples. In 1993, for example, the federal government and the Inuit signed the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement. This eventually led to the creation of Nunavut in 1999. In the future, there will no doubt be more treaties between Indigenous peoples and the federal government of Canada.


Further Reading

  • James Miller, Compact, Contract, Covenant: Aboriginal Treaty-making in Canada (2009).