Treaty 6 was signed by Crown representatives and Cree, Assiniboine and Ojibwa leaders on 23 August 1876 at Fort Carlton, Saskatchewan, and on 9 September 1876 at Fort Pitt, Saskatchewan. The treaty boundaries extend across central portions of present-day Alberta and Saskatchewan.
When Canada acquired the lands of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) in 1869 (see Rupert’s Land), the Plains Indigenous peoples of present-day central Saskatchewan, including the Cree, Ojibwa and Assiniboine, became concerned about the federal government’s intentions with this land and with the Indigenous peoples who lived on it. As early as 1871, Plains Indigenous peoples expressed interest in negotiating a treaty with the Crown that would protect them from the settlement of outsiders on their lands, including the Métis, white settlers and surveyors. They were also concerned about starvation due to the diminishing supply of bison and other large game on which their economy depended.
The federal government was not interested in negotiating a treaty at this time, believing that it was not essential, even though local missionaries and government agents tried to convince them otherwise. In order to attract the government’s attention, in July 1875, the Cree stopped members of the Geological Survey in North Saskatchewan from moving any farther through their territory. The manager of the HBC post at Fort Carlton, Lawrence Clarke, wrote to government officials that same summer, alerting them that the Cree had also threatened to turn back telegraph workers who were trying to construct a line from Winnipeg to Edmonton. The Cree made it clear that they would not tolerate any trespassers on their lands. A force of North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) was sent to the area to maintain order.
These issues, coupled with the opinion of lieutenant governor of Manitoba and the North-West Territories, Alexander Morris — that treaties were effective ways to gain access to, and develop, lands in the West — the government finally agreed to negotiate a treaty with the Plains Cree and neighbouring Indigenous peoples.
Negotiations at Fort Carlton
On 27 July 1876, Morris left for Fort Carlton to negotiate a treaty with the Plains Indigenous peoples of Saskatchewan. Other members of the negotiating team included treaty commissioners William Joseph Christie (an HBC officer) and James McKay (Métis fur trader and politician), as well as translators, assistants and NWMP escorts.
On arrival at Fort Carlton on 15 August, Morris met with the head chiefs of the Carlton Cree: Mistawasis (Big Child) and Ahtahkakoop (Star Blanket). The rest of the Cree assembled there three days later. Before negotiations began, the Cree performed a sacred pipe ceremony, in which the commissioners participated. Historians Arthur J. Ray, Jim Miller and Frank Tough have argued that this ceremony was significant to the Cree because it invited the Creator to provide guidance to the negotiators and to witness the treaty discussions. By participating, the leaders also took an oath to be truthful during the proceedings.
After the ceremony, Morris explained that the government sent him to Fort Carlton to create an agreement with the Cree that would endure “as long as that sun shines and yonder river flows.” In order to do so, however, he required all of the chiefs and community leaders in the area to be present.
On 19 August, Morris was presented with chiefs, but he noticed the absence of the Duck Lake band leaders. The band had instead sent a messenger to attend the negotiations. Morris then explained to the group that the Crown would create reserves for their people and would assist them in farming initiatives, without “interfer[ing] with their present mode of living.” Morris never explicitly discussed the concept of land cession. This might be because he thought it was obvious that signing the treaty relinquished Indigenous title to the land, or because he did not think that he and his translators could convey the message to them clearly.
Morris’ statement about reserves was immediately met with resistance by Pitikwahanapiwiyin (Poundmaker), a local leader who became a great chief in the 1880s. He resented the notion completely — how could the government give them land that they already possessed? Pitikwahanapiwiyin stated: “This is our land, it isn’t a piece of pemmican to be cut off and given in little pieces back to us. It is ours and we will take what we want.” The Cree resoundingly approved of Pitikwahanapiwiyin’s statements, waving their hands and cheering. Métis observer and translator, Peter Erasmus noted that Morris was shaken by the incident. However, Morris told the Cree that they would find themselves crowded by settlers unless they settled on reserves. The talks then adjourned, and the Indigenous leaders spoke in council for the next two days.
According to Erasmus, Mistawasis and Ahtukukoop essentially silenced Pitikwahanapiwiyin and other dissenters. They believed that their people would suffer if they did not negotiate a treaty with the federal government. The days of bison hunting were coming to an end, and the Cree needed help adjusting to new modes of life; the treaty provided them with that opportunity. Mistawasis asked Pitikwahanapiwiyin, “Have you anything better to offer our people?” Pitikwahanapiwiyin did not respond to that question directly, but held firm in his beliefs that the treaty terms were unfair and inadequate. Chiefs Ahtukukoop and Mistawasis held more influence in Cree political and social circles than Pitikwahanapiwiyin and, as a result, the other chiefs and leaders agreed that entering into a treaty with the Crown was the best option.
On 23 August, the chiefs and commissioners negotiated the terms of the treaty. In addition to rights and provisions similarly enshrined in Treaties 1 to 5, Morris agreed to three terms brought forward by the chiefs that are not found in previous Numbered Treaties. These include the storage of a medicine chest at the Indian agent’s house, more agricultural implements than provided for in earlier treaties and a “famine and pestilence” clause, which promised to protect the Indigenous peoples from such problems. Morris knew that he was offering more than the government would have wanted, but he felt it necessary to finalize the deal.
Once the amendments were made to the treaty text, negotiations came to a close. Treaty 6 was signed by the commissioners and the head chiefs of the Carlton bands on 23 August 1876.
Four days later, Morris met with the Duck Lake band. After explaining the treaty terms, the Duck Lake chiefs and headmen also signed the treaty.
Negotiations at Fort Pitt
On 5 September, the commissioners arrived at Fort Pitt, where they were to negotiate the treaty with the Indigenous peoples there. Some, but not all, locals met them. Some were away, including Cree chief Mistahimaskwa (Big Bear).
Alexander Morris spoke to those present, promising to offer the same terms as at Fort Carlton. Chief Weekaskookwasayin (Sweet Grass) permitted Morris to explain those terms to the congregation. The Indigenous leaders then held council for the rest of the day. They continued to deliberate for the next two days.
On 9 September, Weekaskookwasayin addressed the people, arguing that the treaty terms would help preserve and protect their livelihood. This was met with approval from the people. Historian Hugh Dempsey argues that Weekaskookwasayin’s acceptance of the treaty was likely influenced by Mistawasis’ and Ahtukuoop’s decision to sign Treaty 6, rather than a close reading of the treaty terms.
The same day, the chiefs and headmen of the Fort Pitt bands (including Cree, Chipewyan [Ojibwa] and Assiniboine peoples) signed Treaty 6.
When Mistahimaskwa returned to Fort Pitt, he brought discouraging news with him from the Indigenous peoples on the prairies who had already signed Treaties 1 to 5: the treaties had not amounted to everything that the people had hoped. However, he was too late; the treaty had already been signed. Mistahimaskwa was frustrated and surprised that the other chiefs had not waited for him to return before concluding the negotiations. According to the notes of the commission’s secretary, M.G. Dickieson, Mistahimaskwa referred to the treaty as a dreaded “rope to be about my neck.” Mistahimaskwa was not referring to a literal hanging (which is what some government officials had believed), but to the loss of his and his people’s freedom, and Indigenous loss of control over land and resources. Dempsey argues that if Mistahimaskwa had been present at the negotiations, the treaty commissioners would have likely had a more difficult time acquiring Indigenous approval of Treaty 6.
Mistahimaskwa was not the only chief who initially refused to sign the treaty. Chief Minahikosis (Little Pine) and other Cree leaders of the Saskatchewan District were also opposed to the terms, arguing that the treaty provided little protections for their people. Fearing starvation and unrest, many of the initially hesitant chiefs signed adhesions to the treaty in the years to come, including Minahikosis (who signed in July 1879) and Mistahimaskwa (who signed on 8 December 1882 at Fort Walsh).
In exchange for Indigenous title to their land (see Indigenous Territory), Treaty 6 provided: an annual cash payment of $25 per chief; $15 per headman and $5 for all other band members; a one-time cash payment of $12 for each band member; and reserve lands in the amount of one mile2 (about 2.5 km2) per family of five. Schools were to be established on reserves.
The treaty also provided twine and ammunition at a value of $1,500 per year, and agricultural implements, such as gardening tools, livestock, horses and wagons. For the first three years after the signing of the treaty, Indigenous peoples farming on reserves were entitled to $1,000 in agricultural provisions.
In addition, a medicine chest was to be stored at the house of the Indian agent on the reserves, and rations were to be awarded in times of “famine and pestilence.”
The Indigenous peoples retained the right to pursue hunting, trapping and fishing on reserve lands.
Many chiefs signed adhesions to Treaty 6 in the years after 1876, seeing it as the only viable option to protect their people and provide a better life for them. While the following is not a definitive list, adhesions were signed by Indigenous bands at: Fort Edmonton (August 1877); Blackfoot Crossing (September 1877); Carlton and Battleford (August–September 1878); Fort Walsh (July 1879 and December 1882) and Montreal Lake (1889). Adhesions continued into the 20th century, with the bands of Rocky Mountain House (May 1944 and 1950), Witchekan Lake (November 1950) and Cochin (August 1954 and May 1956).
Michel Calihoo Band
In 1878, Chief Michel Calihoo signed an adhesion to Treaty 6 on behalf of his band. On 31 March 1958, the Department of Indian Affairs enfranchised the entire Michel Callihoo band, meaning that they lost their legal rights as status Indians in exchange for other rights, such as voting (see Indian; Indigenous Suffrage). The band was to serve as a model for group Indigenous enfranchisement. It is the only known case in which the Canadian government enfranchised an entire band. Amendments to the Indian Act in 1985 re-established Indian status to over 750 members of the band. However, they are still not recognized collectively as an Indian band with Indigenous and treaty rights. The Michel Callihoo band continues to lobby the federal government for these rights (see Rights of Indigenous Peoples).
Since the signing of Treaty 6 in 1876, there have been disagreements between Indigenous signatories and the federal government, stemming from misunderstandings about the true meaning and intention of the treaty terms. One of the main questions is whether the signatories truly understood the concept of land cession. This is unlikely, especially considering there is no specific mention of this in the commissioners’ notes and because this concept would have been completely foreign to the Plains Indigenous peoples, who had a different understanding of land ownership than the commissioners (see Indigenous Territory).
In the 1970s and 1980s, the Indian Association of Alberta and the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations conducted reports that outlined elders’ views on the treaty and on the concept of land cession. Both organizations concluded that the Indigenous signatories believed that they were agreeing to share the land and its resources, rather than to completely surrender it to the federal government. Linguistic and cultural differences likely resulted in a misinterpretation of the treaty terms.
The peoples of Treaty 6 also argue that the treaty needs to be interpreted in a modern context. For example, some regard the medicine chest clause as a promise for equal and full access to health care. Similarly, clauses promising farming assistance and reserve schools can be interpreted as a promise to provide general economic assistance for Indigenous businesses and access to modern education.
Treaty 6 Today
Created in 1993, the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations represents the various band governments of Treaty 6. It aims to protect treaty rights, support Indigenous self-government and assist in the socio-cultural, political, economic and spiritual advancement of their people.
Treaty 6 peoples have also protected their treaty rights through land claims and lawsuits. For example, in May 2008, the Beaver Lake Cree Nation in Alberta filed a lawsuit against the provincial and federal governments because proposed oil, gas, forestry and mining activities threatened their rights to hunt and fish on treaty lands; the case is still ongoing. Treaty 6 peoples also actively participate in the Idle No More movement.
In 2013, the City of Edmonton created Treaty No. 6 Recognition Day to commemorate the signing of the treaty in 1876.