Treaty 7 is the last of the Numbered Treaties made between the Government of Canada and the Plains First Nations (see Indigenous Peoples: Plains). It was signed on 22 September 1877 by five First Nations: the Siksika (Blackfoot), Kainai (Blood), Piikani (Peigan), Stoney-Nakoda, and Tsuut’ina (Sarcee). Divergent understandings of the treaty’s purpose, combined with significant cultural and linguistic barriers and what some have argued were deliberate attempts to mislead the First Nations on the part of the government negotiators, have led to ongoing conflicts and claims.
In 1870, the newly created nation of Canada acquired Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company, an enormous tract of land stretching north and west; one year later, British Columbia entered Confederation based in part on the promise that a transcontinental railway would connect it to the rest of Canada within 10 years. In order to construct the railway and encourage future settlement, the government considered it necessary to extinguish Aboriginal title to the land (see Indigenous Territory). Bound by the terms of the Royal Proclamation, Canada was responsible for the protection of its Indigenous people and promised to preserve their rights to unceded traditional territories.
The mid-19th century was a time of upheaval for the Indigenous nations that eventually became Treaty 7 signatories. There had been repeated outbreaks of smallpox, and the buffalo herds upon which they had relied began to diminish, in part due to increased competition from Cree and Métis hunters (see Buffalo Hunt). At the same time, settlers from the United States set up trading forts and introduced whiskey into communities, causing significant chaos at a number of trading forts. In 1874, the North West Mounted Police (NWMP) arrived under Colonel James Macleod and put an end to the trade. The First Nations were appreciative and, by many accounts, came to trust Macleod, though the extent to which this trust determined their willingness to sign a treaty has been disputed.
While the federal government sought to extinguish Aboriginal title to the land prior to settlement, the First Nations sought to make peace between themselves, the government and incoming settlers.
In the summer of 1875, Crowfoot, one of the leaders of the Siksika, was informed by a local Methodist missionary named John McDougall (who had a year earlier taken a government commission to explain the arrival of the NWMP to local Indigenous nations) that treaties were being planned for Blackfoot territory. Soon after, Crowfoot had the opportunity to ask questions of Major General Edward Selby Smyth, who was out west inspecting the NWMP, about the government’s plans for his territories.
That fall, Crowfoot and the Siksika met with the other members of the Blackfoot Confederacy, the Piikani and Kainai. A petition was drawn up and sent to the lieutenant-governor of the North-West Territories, Alexander Morris, listing a series of complaints (such as the arrival of settlers and Cree and Métis buffalo hunters) and requesting the presence of an Indian commissioner so that the “invasion” of their country would stop until a treaty had been negotiated.
Meanwhile, the Lakota, who had just defeated the US army at the Battle of Little Bighorn, arrived in Canada and met with the Blackfoot. In 1877, Sitting Bull met with Crowfoot face to face. Although they made an alliance of peace rather than war, the possibility of facing off against a large, united group of Indigenous nations gave the Canadian government yet another impetus to negotiate a treaty.
Negotiations were eventually set for the fall of 1877. Although the nations involved in Treaty 7 had not had extensive contact with the Canadian government, each had a history of treaty-making in order to resolve conflicts with other Indigenous groups. Some leaders from the Blackfoot Confederacy had additionally been involved in an 1855 treaty with the US government; many of the promises on the American side had not been fulfilled, leaving them frustrated and skeptical.
The treaty commissioners were David Laird, who had recently been appointed lieutenant-governor of the North-West Territories, and James Macleod, commissioner of the NWMP. The question of who was empowered to negotiate on behalf of each Indigenous nation involved is more complex. The Blackfoot Confederacy, for example, lacked a distinct hierarchical structure; the person in charge varied depending on the situation. Although Crowfoot negotiated on their behalf, it is uncertain if his people perceived him to be their leader in this negotiation.
It is additionally clear, based on First Nations testimony, that they had a different understanding of the purpose of the negotiation. Each understood it to be primarily a peace treaty, whereby they allowed settlement and promoted peaceful cohabitation in exchange for a series of promises. None thought that it was a land surrender. Part of the confusion stemmed from cultural misunderstandings, but also from serious translation issues. Jerry Potts, one of the interpreters brought along by the commissioners, has been accused not only of having little or no fluency in the languages spoken by the Treaty 7 nations, but also of having a poor grasp of English — particularly in relation to legal terms.
The site for the treaty was originally set to be Fort Macleod, but the Siksika preferred to meet at Blackfoot Crossing, a site on their territory. This was problematic for some of the other nations, as it was distant from their hunting grounds, and a few Kainai chiefs said they would not attend — another suggestion of the relative unimportance that many attached to this negotiation. When the treaty commissioners arrived on 16 September, the Siksika, Stoney-Nakoda and Tsuut’ina were already there. At a meeting the next day, it was decided that they would postpone the treaty-making process for two days to give the Kainai and Piikani time to get there.
On 19 September, the commissioners and some of the leaders met to discuss terms. Not all the leaders had yet arrived, including the main Kainai bands. Negotiations proceeded, however. Laird gave a speech in which he enumerated the positive efforts of the government, including passing laws to protect the buffalo, on which everyone was dependent for food, and putting an end to the whiskey forts. He said, however, that the buffalo would soon be gone, and that the government wished the Indigenous people to transition to agriculture and ranching, and would be given support to do so. Many of the leaders wanted assurances that they would be able to continue to hunt and fish across all of the land. Annual payments, reserve land, and education were also discussed. However, Crowfoot said a decision could not be reached until the arrival of Red Crow, the head chief of the Kainai.
On 21 September, Red Crow arrived. He was a friend of Macleod, and trusted him. After Crowfoot explained what he believed to be the terms of the treaty, Red Crow assented to it. While some leaders were still hesitant, a consensus was soon reached and, on 22 September, all parties signed the agreement.
Terms of the Treaty
The written treaty ceded roughly 130,000 km2 of land from the Rocky Mountains to the west, the Cypress Hills to the east, the Red Deer River to the north, and the US border to the south. All nations retained the right to use the land for hunting.
In exchange, each group was to receive land equal to 2.59 m2 (6.47 km2) per family of five, and in proportion to that number depending on whether the family was larger or smaller. The Siksika, Tsuut’ina and Kainai were allocated a reserve along the Bow River; the Piikani were assigned a reserve at an area near the Porcupine Hills called Crow’s Creek; and the Stoney-Nakoda, on the advice of John McDougall, the Methodist who had been ministering to them, were assigned a reserve near the Methodist mission in Morleyville.
An immediate payment of $12 was given to every man, woman and child. Annual payments of $25 would be given to every chief, $15 for every minor chief or councillor and $5 to all others. All chiefs were also to receive a Winchester rifle, while head chiefs and Stoney chiefs were to receive a medal and flag to commemorate the treaty. Chiefs and councillors were also to receive a new suit of clothing every three years.
The government agreed to pay the salaries of teachers on reserves. It also agreed to distribute $2,000 worth of ammunition each year. Various tools were also promised by the government, including axes and handsaws.
Finally, each family was to be given cattle in proportion to their size (two for a family of five; three for a family of five to ten; four for a family of ten and up); chiefs were promised one bull each for the use of their band. It was possible to receive one less cow in exchange for farming implements, if that was the band’s wish.
Modern Interpretations and Implications
It is generally agreed that none of Indigenous nations involved in the treaty realized they were surrendering their land, and that none would have agreed to it had they understood the implications. For the most part, the treaty did not have the effect the First Nations desired: Cree and Métis hunters continued to trespass, the buffalo disappeared and settlers continued to arrive. The promised support for transition to an agricultural lifestyle did not materialize, and in most cases the land was unsuitable. Only two years after signing the treaty, a local Catholic priest who had encouraged the nations to sign a treaty described in a letter to David Laird their extreme poverty: “I have never seen them so depressed as they are now; I have never seen them before in want of food… They have suffered fearfully from hunger.” He went on to argue that, as to the question of whether the Treaty 7 nations understood “the real nature of the treaty” — land surrender — “my answer to this question is unhesitatingly negative.” There was, and remains, widespread feeling that the government has not lived up to its promises or dealt fairly with them.
The difference between written and oral cultures — including the settlers’ favouring of written documentation over oral tradition in terms of legality — has led many elders to claim that there were promises made during the negotiations that never made it into the text of Treaty 7. It is probable that this is the case, given the obvious translation difficulties, differing cultural understandings of what constitutes a binding agreement and the haste with which the government wanted to conclude the negotiations. All the nations involved in Treaty 7 — now represented by the Treaty 7 Management Corporation — have since been involved in a variety of claims negotiations with the federal government relating to land surrenders, improperly performed surveys and fraudulent deals, many of which are still ongoing.