Fact Sheet: Treaties with Aboriginal people in Canada

The Government of Canada and the courts understand treaties between the Crown and Aboriginal people to be solemn agreements that set out promises, obligations and benefits for both parties.

Starting in 1701, in what was to eventually become Canada, the British Crown entered into solemn treaties to encourage peaceful relations between First Nations and non-Aboriginal people. Over the next several centuries, treaties were signed to define, among other things, the respective rights of Aboriginal people and governments to use and enjoy lands that Aboriginal people traditionally occupied.

Treaties include historic treaties made between 1701 and 1923 and modern-day treaties known as comprehensive land claim settlements.

Treaty rights already in existence in 1982 (the year the Constitution Act was passed), and those that came afterwards, are recognized and affirmed by Canada's Constitution.

The Royal Proclamation of 1763 and the Pre-Confederation treaties

In the 18th century, the French and British were competing for control of lands in North America. The two colonial powers formed strategic alliances with First Nations to help them advance their respective colonial interests in the continent.

However, by the early 1760s, the British had established themselves as the dominant colonial power in North America. The British Royal Proclamation of 1763 prohibited the purchase of First Nation lands by any party other than the Crown. The Crown could purchase land from a First Nation group that had agreed to the sale at a public meeting.

Several treaties were signed after the Royal Proclamation and before Confederation in 1867. These include the Upper Canada Treaties (1764 to 1862) and the Vancouver Island Treaties (1850 to 1854). Under these treaties, the First Nations surrendered interests in lands in areas located in what's known today as the provinces of Ontario and British Columbia. They surrendered their interest in lands in exchange for certain other benefits that could include reserves, annual payments or other types of payment and certain rights to hunt and fish.

Historic treaties after Confederation

Between 1871 and 1921, the Crown entered into treaties with various First Nations that enabled the Canadian government to actively pursue agriculture, settlement and resource development of the Canadian West and the North. Because they are numbered 1 to 11, the treaties are often referred to as the "Numbered Treaties." The Numbered Treaties cover Northern Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and parts of the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and British Columbia.

Under these treaties, the First Nations who occupied these territories gave up large areas of land to the Crown. In exchange, the treaties provided for such things as reserve lands and other benefits like farm equipment and animals, annual payments, ammunition, clothing and certain rights to hunt and fish. The Crown also made some promises such as maintaining schools on reserves or providing teachers or educational help to the First Nation named in the treaties. Treaty No. 6 included the promise of a medicine chest.

Modern treaties – comprehensive claims

Comprehensive land claim settlements deal with areas of Canada where Aboriginal people's claims to Aboriginal rights have not been addressed by treaties, or other legal means. The first of these modern-day treaties was the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, signed in 1975. To date, the federal government has settled 24 self-government and comprehensive land claim areas (two are stand-alone self-government) with Aboriginal people in Canada.

Specific Claims

Specific claims deal with the past grievances of First Nations. These grievances relate to Canada's obligations under historic treaties or the way it managed First Nation funds or assets. The Government of Canada prefers to resolve these claims by negotiating settlements with First Nations.  Negotiations lead to “win-win” solutions that bring closure, benefits and certainty for all Canadians. 

The Government of Canada is taking action to speed up the resolution of specific claims to provide justice to First Nation claimants and certainty for all Canadians.  Learn more about Canada's Specific Claims Action Plan.

Self-Government

Self-government agreements are one means of building sound governance and institutional capacity that allow Aboriginal communities to contribute to, and participate in, the decisions that affect their lives and carry out effective relationships with other governments. They also provide greater certainty over rights to natural resources, contributing to a more positive investment climate and creating greater potential for economic development, jobs and growth.

Terminology

*Listed below are some general terms and their related definitions:

Aboriginal peoples are the descendents of the original inhabitants of North America. The Canadian Constitution recognizes three groups of Aboriginal people – Indians, Métis and Inuit. These are three separate peoples with unique heritages, languages, cultural practices and spiritual beliefs.

First Nation is a term that came into common usage in the 1970s to replace the word ‘Indian,' which some people found offensive. Although the term First Nation is widely used, no legal definition of it exists. The term ‘First Nations peoples' can refers to both Status and non-Status Indian peoples in Canada. Some Indian peoples have also adopted the term ‘First nation' to replace the word ‘band' in the name of their community.

Aboriginal rights are rights that some Aboriginal peoples of Canada hold as a result of their ancestors' longstanding use and occupancy of the land. The rights of certain Aboriginal people to hunt, trap and fish on ancestral lands are examples of Aboriginal rights. Aboriginal rights vary from group to group depending on the customs, practices and traditions that have formed part of their distinctive cultures.

Reserve is an area of land, the legal title to which is held by the Crown, set apart for the use and benefit of an Indian Band.

Treaty First Nation is a First Nation that signed a treaty with the Crown.

*Listed below are some terms specifically related to land claim and self-government negotiations:

Land Claims is a general term used to describe claims involving land. In 1973, the federal government recognized two broad classes of claims – comprehensive and specific. Comprehensive claims are based on the recognition that there are continuing Aboriginal rights to lands and natural resources. These kinds of claims come up in those parts of Canada where Aboriginal title has not been previously dealt with by treaty and other legal means. These claims are called ‘comprehensive' because of their wide scope. They include such things and land title, fishing and trapping rights, and financial compensation.

Specific Claims deal with the past grievances of First Nations. These grievances relate to Canada's obligations under historic treaties or the way it managed First Nation funds or assets. For example, a specific claim could involve the failure to provide enough reserve land as promised in a historic treaty or the improper handling of First Nation money by the Crown.

Modern treaties – comprehensive claims
Comprehensive land claim settlements deal with areas of Canada where Aboriginal people's claims to Aboriginal rights have not been addressed by treaties, or other legal means. The first of these modern-day treaties was the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, signed in 1975. To date, the federal government has settled 24 self-government and comprehensive land claim areas (two are stand-alone self-government) with Aboriginal people in Canada.

Self-Government
Self-government agreements are one means of building sound governance and institutional capacity that allow Aboriginal communities to contribute to, and participate in, the decisions that affect their lives and carry out effective relationships with other governments. It is generally a form of government designed, established and administered by Aboriginal peoples under the Canadian Constitution through a process of negotiations and, where applicable, the provincial or territorial government. They also provide greater certainty over rights to natural resources, contributing to a more positive investment climate and creating greater potential for economic development, jobs and growth.

Learn more about Historic Treaties in Canada!


Updated: February 2010