History: Aboriginal Peoples, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada and the Treaty Relationship

History of Aboriginal Peoples

The Canadian Constitution recognizes three groups of Aboriginal people: First Nations, Métis and Inuit. These are three distinct peoples with unique histories, languages, cultural practices and spiritual beliefs. More than one million people in Canada identify themselves as an Aboriginal person, according to the 2006 Census.

During the long colonial rivalry between France and Great Britain, different First Nations groups were important allies to both European powers. France and Great Britain each wanted to secure strong alliances with these First Nations to secure their military control in North America.

After the transfer of New France to Great Britain, a Royal Proclamation was issued to establish the new administrative structure of the British North American colonies. For Aboriginal people in Canada, the 1763 Royal Proclamation is the basis for the recognition of their Aboriginal rights to lands and resources.

As the military role of First Nations people waned in the eyes of British administrators after the War of 1812, new ideas and approaches regarding this relationship began to take hold. While treaties were being negotiated in the West, legislation was introduced in 1876 which would have a deep and long lasting impact on First Nations across Canada. The Indian Act of 1876 was a consolidation of regulations that affected First Nations people living throughout the country. The push to "civilize" First Nations became the focus of legislation, and policies and amendments to the Indian Act became increasingly coercive and controlling of the lives of First Nations people.

As a result of the wording of Section 91 (24) of the British North American Act, which stipulates federal responsibility for "Indians" and no other Aboriginal group, Inuit in the then Northwest Territories fell outside the responsibility of the Department of Indian Affairs. After decades of pressure from the province of Quebec, Inuit officially became a responsibility of the federal government in 1939.

In 1982, the Métis population, who can trace their descendants to mixed First Nations and European heritage, were among the three groups included in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which recognized "existing Aboriginal and treaty rights".

Treaty Relationship

European colonial powers and the First Nations of North America both had long traditions of diplomacy and treaty relations developed over centuries prior to contact. The diplomatic protocols and undertakings between Europeans and Aboriginal peoples quickly developed into a new treaty-making dynamic that adopted and adapted aspects of each culture.

The impact of treaty-making in Canada has been wide-ranging and long standing. The treaties the Crown has signed with Aboriginal peoples since the 18th century have permitted the evolution of Canada as we know it. In fact, much of Canada's land mass is covered by treaties. It would be fair to say that without the long history of treaty-making, Canada probably would not have the geographic borders it has today.

This treaty-making process, which has evolved over more than 300 years between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Canada, has its origins in the early diplomatic relationship developed between European settlers and Aboriginal people. Their early agreements were a co-operative and negotiated process, dealing primarily with their protection and well-being. As the two parties made economic and military alliances, Canada began to take form. These diplomatic proceedings were the first steps in a long process that has led to today's comprehensive claims agreements between the Crown and Aboriginal groups.

Currently, there are approximately 70 recognised treaties that form the basis of the relationship between 371 First Nations, representing over 500,000 First Nations people, and the Crown.

History of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada

The Department of Indian Affairs administrative body was established in colonial times to manage the Crown–First Nations relationship. As this relationship has evolved and changed, so has the administrative body. As a response to the growing colonial conflict with the French, British officials created the Indian Department in 1755 to manage the military relationship between colonial officials and their Aboriginal allies. After more than 100 years of British administration, management of Indian affairs was transferred from the Home Office in Britain to each individual colony.

The Indian Department has been transformed over time into the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, managing not only Canada's relationship with First Nations, Inuit and Métis, but also all of Canada's North.

On May 18, 2011, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the Department's name change from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada to Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. The Department's new name better reflects the scope of the Minister's responsibilities with respect to First Nations, Inuit and Métis. It is also in keeping with practices of the department as, in recent years, the its responsibilities have expanded to include and better serve First Nations, Métis and Inuit.