Signing of Treaty 8
Treaty 8 was first signed on June 21, 1899 between Queen Victoria and various Aboriginal peoples in the Lesser Slave Lake area in what is today the Province of Alberta. The ancestors of the members of the present-day Doig River First Nation adhered to the Treaty in the summer of 1900 as part of the Fort St. John Beaver Band. The Fort St. John Beaver Band divided into Doig River First Nation and Blueberry River First Nations in 1977.
Promises of Treaty 8
Treaty 8 assures the Aboriginal signatories that they will be able to “pursue their usual vocations of hunting, trapping and fishing” throughout the Treaty territory, subject to government regulation and the taking up “from time to time” of land for settlement and resource development. It provides the Aboriginal signatories with the necessary materials to carry out these land-based harvesting rights (ammunition and twine) but it also includes a commitment to transition them to a new economy that would be brought about by non-Aboriginal settlement. This commitment included the provision of agricultural implements and training, seed, and livestock for ranching aw well as education to assist with the transition post-settlement. Importantly, the Treaty provided land for reserves where farming and ranching could take place and other economic opportunities could be fostered.
Treaty 8 has been the subject of much interpretation by the courts and is perhaps the most litigated Treaty in Canada.
Spirit of Treaty 8
On July 5, 1973, Queen Elizabeth II said to the Aboriginal peoples of Canada: “You may be assured that my Government of Canada recognizes the importance of full compliance with the spirit and terms of your Treaties.” This position was later confirmed in a statement released by Indian Affairs Minister Jean Chretien on August 8, 1973.
Identifying the ‘spirit’ of the Treaty goes far beyond the written document signed by the government and Aboriginal peoples in 1899 and 1900 and adhered to in subsequent years by others. The text itself is written in English and contains legal concepts unfamiliar to the Aboriginal signatories who did not speak English and adhered to an oral culture. Not only were the Aboriginal signatories unfamiliar with western legal concepts, but the translation provided to the Fort St. John Beaver Band went from English to Cree to Beaver, the language of the Dane-zaa. Many of the concepts expressed in the Treaty were not even translatable into the language of the Dane-zaa.
Additionally, the reading and translation of the Treaty document to the Aboriginal signatories was only a very small part of the agreement reached by the parties. The importance of oral tradition in Dane-zaa culture means that to understand the meaning of the Treaty, one must go beyond the text of the Treaty document to the verbal commitments made by the Treaty Commissioners and to the historical context that surrounded the treaty signing.
The Report of the Treaty Commissioners reveals some of the main concerns raised by the Aboriginal signatories during the Treaty negotiations and the commitments made by the Treaty Commissioners to address those concerns. These concerns included the fear of losing rights to hunt, fish, and trap. In response to these fears, the Commissioners gave ‘solemn assurances’ that “only such laws as to hunting and fishing as were in the interest of the Indians and were found necessary in order to protect the fish and fur-bearing animals would be made,” and the Treaty signatories “would be as free to hunt and fish after the treaty as they would be if they never entered into it.”
Oral history from Elders who attended the signing of the Treaty reveal that those in attendance understood the oral promises given by the Commissioners as a guarantee of their traditional way of life, not merely temporary privileges that would give way to settlement or resource development. The Aboriginal signatories were assured by trusted representatives of the various churches with whom they had developed relationships that the Treaty was to their benefit. A number of these trusted advisors, who had been retained by the government to assist with the Treaty negotiations, later witnessed the failure of the government to fulfill these oral promises. Among others, Bishop Gabriel Breynat, an interpreter for the Crown at the Treaty negotiations, swore an affidavit in 1937 that confirmed numerous oral promises made by the Treaty Commissioners because the text of the Treaty “was not explicit enough to give satisfaction to the Indians.” These individuals swore:
- They were promised that nothing would be done or allowed to interfere with their way of living, as they were accustomed to and as their antecedents had done
- The old and destitute would always be taken care of, their future existence would be carefully studied and provided for, and every effort would be made to improve their living conditions
- They were guaranteed that they would be protected, especially in their way of living as hunters and trappers, from white competition, and they would not be prevented from hunting and fishing, as they had always done, so as to enable them to earn their own living and maintain their existence
The witnesses also swore:
It was only after the Royal Commissioner had recognized that the demands of the Indians were legitimate, and had solemnly promised that such demands would be granted by the Crown; and also after the Hudson Bay Company officials, the Free Traders, and the Missionaries, who had the full confidence of the Indians, had given their word that they could fully rely on the promises made in the name of QUEEN VICTORIA, that the Indians accepted and signed the treaty.
Canadian courts, including the Supreme Court of Canada, have acknowledged that Treaty 8, properly interpreted, includes the oral promises of the Treaty Commissioners. These were the terms to which the Dane-zaa agreed when they signed the Treaty in 1900.
A Treaty of Peace and Friendship
The Dane-zaa understand the Treaty to represent a commitment between the parties to live in peace and to share the land. While the government takes the position that the Treaty was a surrender of land, Aboriginal signatories who were witness to the Treaty negotiations have consistently taken a different view.
Treaty 8 Elders, especially those in the Treaty 8 area now within the Northwest Territories, have testified that there was no mention of land surrender or allotment of reserves during Treaty negotiations. Instead, many Elders speak of an understanding of the Treaty as one of peace, which was meant to promote sharing of the land and peaceful relations between First Nations and settlers. This issue was before the Supreme Court of the Northwest Territories in the 1973 decision in Re Paulette. In that case, the Dene Nations of Treaties 8 and 11 had attempted to file a caveat on Crown lands over which they asserted unextinguished Aboriginal title. They argued that the ‘cede, release and surrender’ clauses in Treaties 8 and 11 did not reflect the understanding of the Aboriginal signatories. Justice Morrow found that, “…notwithstanding the language of the two treaties, there [is] a sufficient doubt on the facts that aboriginal title was extinguished…”.
This understanding is supported by the archival record, which shows very little if any effort to explain the implications of the Treaty phrase “the said Indians do hereby cede, release, surrender and yield up… all their rights, title and privileges whatsoever, to the lands.” While from the Commissioners’ perspective, the government already owned and controlled the land, this understanding was not shared by the Aboriginal people.
The Supreme Court of Canada has acknowledged that while the Aboriginal signatories understood that white settlers would enter their land for settlement, farming, and mining, they believed that most of the land would remain unoccupied by settlers and continue to be available to them for hunting, fishing, and trapping.
Treaty 8 Today
As this brief overview indicates, the understandings reached in Treaty 8 go far beyond the written text of the Treaty document itself. The failure of the government to fulfill the oral promises has prevented the reconciliation of the rights and interests of the Treaty 8 people with broader Canadian society. What is important to remember is that to the Dune-zaa, their land was never sold and their rights to the land and its resources were never surrendered.
The impact Treaty 8 has had on DRFN has been significant. The Treaty limited DRFN’s ability to manage its resources including harvesting and trade. The reserve that DRFN members were originally allotted was referred to as the Montney Reserve (IR #172) or Suu Na Chil K’Chige meaning “where happiness dwells”.
Among the Treaty 8 provisions land and materials relating to agriculture were included:
Her Majesty agrees that each Band that elects to take a reserve and cultivate the soil… the aforesaid articles, machines and cattle to be given once for all the encouragement of agriculture and stock raising; and for such Bands as prefer to continue hunting and fishing…(Treaty No. 8 1899)
Much of the land at the Montney Reserve was prime agricultural land and contained valuable mineral resources; however, these lands were surrendered to the Crown in the 1940s as the Department of Veterans Affairs wanted to distribute that land to returning war vets. The reserve land was sold to the Department of Veterans Affairs in 1952, and members were forced to move northward to the Doig River, to the present-day location of DRFN’s reserve land, IR #206.
As the number of settlers increased in the areas where DRFN members exercised their treaty and Aboriginal rights, increased development and urbanization kept members from accessing areas they once frequented. The provincial trapline system that was established in 1926 further limited DRFN members’ ability to trap.
Today DRFN members remain impacted by natural resource development industries including forestry, agriculture, mining, and oil and gas. These industries have limited DRFN access to areas where they traditionally exercised treaty and Aboriginal rights.
Territory and Treaty Rights
To fulfil DRFN’s identified mission to be present throughout DRFN’s Territory, assert DRFN Treaty rights, and to protect the land and manage its natural resources for the greatest benefit of DRFN members, DRFN is committed to the following objectives:
- Be active and visible on the land
- Ensure Treaty rights are understood, respected and upheld
- Ensure effective management of lands and resources throughout DRFN territory
- Ensure proper use and management of DRFN current land holdings
- Undertake strategic land acquisition (DRFN CCP, 2017)
DRFN has developed, and is in the process of implementing, numerous strategies to support each of these objectives which are identified in their strategic plans.