Treaties and textbooks: how forgotten agreements with First Nations crept back into Canadian history

Between 1871 and 1877, the Dominion of Canada negotiated seven Treaties with Aboriginal people to secure the transfer of their rights to over one million square kilometres of land stretching from Lake Superior to the Rocky Mountains. However, until the late nineteen-sixties, general textbooks about Canada's history barely mentioned these agreements.

Between 1871 and 1877, the Dominion of Canada negotiated seven Treaties with Aboriginal people to secure the transfer of their rights to over one million square kilometres of land extending from Lake Superior to the Rocky Mountains.[1] At the time, these "Numbered Treaties" were perceived to be important preconditions for the opening of the prairies to settlement. "Before we touch an acre we make a treaty with the chiefs of the bands we are dealing with," the governor-general Lord Dufferin said in 1876, adding "having agreed upon and paid the stipulated price, oftentimes arrived at after a great deal of haggling and difficulty, we enter into possession, but not until then do we consider that we are entitled to deal with an acre."[2] The defeat of General Custer in 1876 made the Treaties on the Canadian side of the international boundary, at least briefly, into a serious tool for the avoidance of conflict.[3]

Whatever their importance in the eighteen-seventies, the Treaties quickly receded into the background. Ottawa's representatives had conveyed their terms in a menacingly benign manner: the discussions leading to the seven Treaties may technically be termed negotiations, but it is difficult to identify major provisions that were substantially changed in response to indigenous concerns.[4] In particular, the agreements included no mechanism for the resolution of disputes, a point not often noticed. Alexander Morris, who carried through several of them, merely insisted that their provisions "must be carried out with the utmost good faith and the nicest exactness" in order to preserve the "abiding confidence" of Aboriginal people in the Canadian government.[5] In any case, First Nations soon found themselves utterly powerless. They had acceded to the Treaties because it was widely understood that the buffalo were disappearing, while the influx of settlers was foreseen, although probably not in the waves that appeared in the following decades. By 1880, buffalo stocks had dramatically collapsed. Native communities, already ravaged by a decade of smallpox – eventually but belatedly resisted by vaccination – now faced not only the threat of starvation, but the new scourge of tuberculosis.[6] The Metis rebellion of 1885 further shunted indigenous communities into the background. Between 1885 and 1888, Canadian and British courts effectively ruled that First Nations had never possessed any real rights over the land they occupied anyway.[7] Canada's pioneer history textbook writers would conclude that the Treaties were simply not necessary to explain the eclipse of Aboriginal people across the prairies.

This can be seen in the bald statement in one of the first overviews of the county's history, the multi-author Canada volume of The Cambridge History of the British Empire [CHBE], published in 1930. "During the 'seventies the buffalo hunts abruptly ceased. This was a revolution for the Indians, who were forced to give over their old nomadic habits and to adopt a more sedentary existence." The chapter was the work of Edmund Oliver, principal of St Andrew's College, Saskatoon, a theologian who was elected Moderator of the United Church of Canada in the year the CHBE was published. A historian by training, he had been appointed as the first professor of the subject at the University of Saskatchewan in 1910, before switching to the ministry. He introduced western Canadian history into the curriculum, and has been credited by the historian Donald Wright of aiming to give his students "a usable past" which would relate "to their experience as western Canadians". In the circumstances, it is striking that an individual of such obvious rectitude, who had arrived in Saskatchewan within a generation of the Treaties, should have ignored the process altogether.[8]

Of course, it is reasonable to offer at least a partial defence of omissions in general history on the grounds that textbook writers must depend to a great extent for the building blocks of wider surveys upon the authors of monographs and the researchers of learned articles. It would be a long time before Canada had amassed that depth of detailed scholarship. For Oliver, the argument constitutes only a slight defence, since his interest in western Canadian history makes it overwhelmingly likely that he knew of Alexander Morris's 1880 survey of the treaty decade. But in 1936, a very considerable foundation stone appeared, in the form of George F.G. Stanley's The Birth of Western Canada, a detailed scholarly study from 1869 (and before) to 1885. Stanley included a chapter on the Treaties, although his presentation makes uncomfortable reading today. Relatively short and padded by contextual material, it formed part of a longer consideration of the "Indian problem" and used the term "savages" for First Nations. Stanley did at least use ironic inverted commas when he referred to the concept of 'the white man's burden' but, overall, he subscribed to the paternalist myth of Canadian generosity. "The treaties had been concluded in that spirit which had ensured the friendliness of the Indians of old Canada," was his summary of the arrangements made by 1877.[9] While Stanley's treatment of the Treaties could not be regarded as satisfactory now, he had nonetheless produced a notable book at a time when there not much Canadian history that was both readable and academic. No textbook writer could plead ignorance in the generation that followed.

The quarter-century from the mid nineteen-forties saw the publication of several large single-volume, single-author surveys of Canada's history. Seen through Anglophone perspectives, their theme can be loosely summarised in the title of Arthur Lower's Colony to Nation. The story they told had its crises and its disasters, but it was a predominantly positive account, culminating in the benign Canada of whatever year in the present the author had laid down his pen. (All were men.) This happy-ever-after theme caused some problems when revised editions and supplementary chapters were required. Perhaps this was why the authors had little to say about First Nations, despite having Stanley's work to prod and guide them.

It might have been expected that Donald Creighton's imperial toryism would have been relished the orotund language of the Treaty discussions, with their promises made in the name of the Great Queen Victoria herself. However, Creighton was attracted, even addicted, to pageant, and he possessed a romantic skill in the evocation of symbolic events. His influential Dominion of the North, first published in 1944, saw the opening of the prairies entirely (if briefly) in terms of the arrival of the Mounted Police, their scarlet tunics "deliberately adopted to assure the Indians that the honour of the force was the honour and fair dealing which they had associated with the British red-coats." ("it was not long before the chiefs were properly grateful for their new peace and security.... The old order was gone forever". Maybe that was true, comments Creighton's biographer, but it is noteworthy that he did not waste "an ounce of sympathy" on the fate of Aboriginal people.) With his encyclopaedic knowledge of Canada's history, Creighton surely knew about the Treaties. Indeed, he quoted Crowfoot's praise for the Mounted Police, without noting that it was uttered during negotiations for Treaty 7. But the notion of any form of Aboriginal consent did not fit with a narrative centred upon their appreciative acceptance of white benevolence.[10] Neither in his 1957 revision of Dominion of the North, nor in his much shorter The Story of Canada in 1959 did Creighton remedy the deficiency. In 1970, he made a final attempt at a general survey, in Canada's First Century, 1867-1967. An embittered account of the abandonment – as he saw it – of the ideals of the Fathers of Confederation, it acknowledged the Treaties, but fitted them into a single sentence, part of a narrative emphasising once again that "Canadian westward movement was a planned and directed process. ... During the 1870s, the Canadian government negotiated a series of treaties by which the western Indian tribes surrendered their original title to the land in exchange for reserves."[11] While preferable to his earlier silence, this brief sentence simplified the terms of the Treaties, and failed to clarify two other important points: no deals were struck in mainland British Columbia (a province that rarely appears in Creighton's writings), and the nature of indigenous "Aboriginal title" was strategically undefined.

Creighton did at least briefly touch upon the fate of indigenous people on the prairies, and eventually even mentioned the Treaties. To judge from the extensive text of Arthur Lower's Colony to Nation: a History of Canada, first published in 1946, First Nations vanished from the History of British North America in 1815, when the Treaty of Ghent abandoned any idea of an Indian buffer state, thereby ensuring that "[t]he running sore of Indian question" ceased to trouble relations with the United States. Native people reappeared in a single sentence seventy years later, embedded in an account of the Metis rebellion of 1885. "Some help was received [by the Metis] from the Indians, and at one time it looked as if the whole West might be in flame." This enigmatic statement would seem to prompt many questions. Why were "the Indians" discontented? Why were they either unable or unwilling to organise and support a general uprising?[12] Successive editions of this popular and influential textbook made no mention of the Treaties. Yet from 1929 to 1947, Lower was a professor in Winnipeg. The preface to his first edition was written from "Shining Tree", a summer cottage on the Lake of the Woods, part of the area ceded in Treaty 3. Lower enjoyed good relations with his Ojibwa neighbours. They not only made him an honorary chief, but named him Kikugaygawbigoneden, "The Recorder of His People's Tradition."[13] Unfortunately, he made no attempt to record their own.

The myopia shown by Creighton and Lower makes all the more remarkable the sympathetic treatment bestowed by Edgar McInnis, in his 1947 textbook, Canada: A Political and Social History. A Maritimer who had studied at Oxford and was teaching at the University of Toronto, McInnis had no obvious affinity either with the prairies or with Aboriginal issues. Yet his handling of "Western Policies and Problems, 1870-1885" was a model example of the way that an incisive textbook account can encapsulate a region, a period and the issues associated with them. "Beginning in 1871, a series of treaties was concluded which provided for the surrender of most of the fertile belt, the retention by the various tribes of reserves in their traditional localities, the payment of annuities to the Indians, and government assistance in education and agriculture." McInnis described it as a process that aimed "to prepare the Indians for the transition from a hunting to a farming way of life." If his allusion to the Treaties was brief, it was also comprehensive. It was also set in the context of a couple of pages that touched upon standard points in the story, the arrival of the Mounted Police, the collapse of buffalo stocks, the challenges faced by First Nations in adjusting to new circumstances, the shortcomings in government support and the discontent of the Metis.[14]

Scant allusion to the Treaties in two publications from the following decade may be excused. Chester Martin's 1954 Foundations of Canadian Nationhood was not so much a general textbook as an extended monograph that focused on the specific themes of the growth of self-government and the achievement of Confederation. Canada's transcontinental expansion formed an extended epilogue to the main story. Martin was very well informed about land-grant policy, but did not discuss the source of the land, or how it came to be in Canadian hands.[15] An American university press commissioned J. Bartlet Brebner to produce a textbook of Creighton-Lower-McInnis proportions, but to be targeted mainly at a non-Canadian audience. Born and raised in Canada, Brebner had become an American citizen after moving to Columbia University at the age of thirty. Not surprisingly, he emphasised Canadian-American relations, and in particular Canada's dogged distinctiveness from its larger neighbour. His account of the settlement of the prairies was relatively sparse, and interwoven with the politics of railway construction. As with other textbook creators, Brebner cast the Metis as the tragically self-immolating victims of Canadian expansion. "Their brothers, the Indians were quietly shepherded by treaty into reservations", but the old way of life ended, as always, with the disappearance of the buffalo and the arrival of the Mounted Police.[16] However, Brebner died in 1957, before the completion of the text. The book was completed by D.C. Masters, and appeared three years after Brebner's death. Had he been able to revise his draft, it is possible that he might have expanded his eleven-word allusion to the Treaty process, if only to drive home to American readers that Canada had no "Wild West".

As public interest in the country's history grew in English Canada, so a market was perceived for shorter overviews of the country's past. It was unlikely that studies such as Maurice Careless's 1953 Canada: a Story of Challenge or Ramsay Cook's 1961 Canada: a Modern Study would cover a subject that more extensive volumes had barely mentioned.[17] However, it is surprising that W.L. Morton's 1963 The Kingdom of Canada made little mention of the Treaties. Conceived on a grand scale, it nonetheless managed to imply that the Treaty process was dependent upon the pacification of the region by those now-familiar heroes, the North-West Mounted Police. "[Alexander] Morris could then get on with the prolonged diplomacy involved in making treaties with the Indians from the Lake of the Woods to the Rockies .... all the tribes of the plains, including the great Blackfoot confederacy, were in treaty and moving on to their reserves by 1879." Essentially it was a "brilliantly performed" police action. Precisely what was negotiated in the Treaties was not specified, and readers were left to assume that the occupation of the reserves was an orderly and successful process. Native people briefly surfaced again in 1885, when indeed there was "the possibility of all the plains tribes ... rising to sweep the whites from the west." Why a general Aboriginal uprising was a danger and why it did not happen were questions left unresolved.[18]

The early nineteen-sixties probably constituted the last period in which it was possible for a serious historian to offer such an overview of the opening of the prairies. Canadians became more aware of "Indian" issues (as they were still called), thanks in part to the activism of the National Indian Brotherhood (from 1982, the Assembly of First Nations), which finally intruded an indigenous voice into public discourse. In 1969, the federal government issued a White Paper (strategy document) which criticised "the limited and minimal promises" of the Treaties, and effectively proposed to complete the process of full assimilation distantly envisaged almost a century earlier. Ottawa's failure to consult with First Nations before unveiling its proposals provoked a backlash, in which indigenous communities insisted upon greater autonomy to protect their cultural heritage.[19]

In the same period, Canadian history textbooks proliferated, and their coverage of the country's past became more diverse, less fixated on politics. Kenneth McNaught's 1969 Pelican History of Canada was a landmark in the process of breaking new narrative ground. A socialist intellectual who had written two books on Manitoban themes, McNaught was well qualified to provide a humane overview. He followed the well-established textbook matrix of setting the fate of indigenous communities in the overall context of Canadian control through the grip of the Mounted Police. His first specific sentence was also conventional. "Ottawa negotiated treaties with the plains Indians which secured relatively peaceful opening of most fertile land and the re-location of tribes on substantial 'reserves'." But he followed with a brief but sympathetic commentary. "By no means an ideal permanent solution to the question of Indian-White relations, this policy at least prevented large-scale illegal dispossession of the Indians. Had it been followed through with a more generous and consistent system of administration much trouble could have been avoided. But it was not. Penny-pinching and indifference ... led to mounting Indian discontent."[20] It should be stressed that McNaught's book was a mid-length text, more than a short introduction but much less than the door-stopping volumes of Creighton, Lower, McInnis and Morton. Evidently, once Canada became aware of its Native peoples, it was possible for historians to find some place for them in the narrative of the country's past.

Paternalism and pageant were notably discounted in the incisive account offered a decade later, in J.L. Finlay and D.N. Sprague's impressive 1979 survey, The Structure of Canadian History. They pointed out that the Mounted Police, all 300 of them, "were not present in large numbers". Rather, First Nations were forced to accept Treaty terms by starvation and smallpox. Finlay and Sprague were also unusual in observing that "most of the Indian lands between Manitoba and the Rocky Mountains south of latitude 60 degrees north were transferred by treaty from the native people at almost no cost to the government of Canada. ... the land was won for next to nothing."[21] If they had referred to the Treaties at all, previous historians had concentrated on the concession of Aboriginal rights. Finlay and Sprague broke new ground in commenting on the meagre price paid by the Dominion in return.

We are left with the puzzle that McInnis was the only one of the four major mid-twentieth-century textbook authors of Canadian history who had much to say about the Treaties by which Aboriginal people recognised the eclipse of their control between Lake Superior and the Rocky Mountains. Lower failed to mention the process; Creighton conjured it aside. As late as 1963, Morton was merely allusive. Yet to emphasise these omissions would be to ignore the massive challenge faced by their authors in constructing an integrated narrative of Canada's past capable of supporting any kind of interpretative analysis. Before those first textbooks, Canadian history was mostly legend – in which of course the Mounted Police featured – supplemented by scattered but uncritical biographies. By the nineteen-forties, few research-based monographs had been published – although this makes all the more mysterious the failure to make more positive use of one of the few exceptions, Stanley's The Birth of Western Canada. For the author of a Canadian history textbook, the primary task was not so much one of putting flesh on a skeleton, but rather of tracing the bones that might hold together a spinal narrative.

Westward expansion offered a unifying theme for the two decades after Confederation. It permitted the interweaving of the transcontinental railway project with the challenges to Canadian authority, in 1869-70 and again in 1885. The complex personality of Louis Riel was implicitly contrasted with the benign amorality of John A. Macdonald. The result was the story of transition on the prairies came to be told almost exclusively in terms of Riel's people, the Metis: the textbook requirement for linked narrative virtually predicated a concentration upon this small but intriguing community. Both the disappearance of the buffalo and the allocation of Western land could be told as part of their story and, very largely, of their story alone. "Their brothers, the Indians were quietly shepherded by treaty", Brebner had written. First Nations were simply eclipsed by a much more glamorous tale. Paradoxically, this focus probably inverted the priorities of the politicians who blundered into the crisis of 1885. As a big-spending department, Indian Affairs attracted a good deal of attention, not all of it friendly, while Metis grievances were myopically marginalised as a subset of wider issues surrounding land-granting policy.[22]

Perversely, the proliferation of textbooks from the nineteen-fifties tended to reinforce that same skeleton of narrative. Publishers wished to reach beyond the still-small classroom market to a general readership in English Canada that was assumed – evidently correctly – to hanker after satisfactory explanations of how their country had come into existence. The titles of the path-breaking works reflected an assumed present-focused standpoint. Colony to Nation, Dominion of the North, The Kingdom of Canada were all redolent of the self-governing Commonwealth member that had adapted British traditions to create a North American nation distinct from the United States. Two themes naturally stood out. One was the achievement of self-government, through evolution not revolution, the other the establishment of partnership between its two founding language groups, French and English, still habitually characterised as "races". It was natural that the land of peace, order and good government should have annexed the prairies with humane efficiency. The scarlet tunics of the Mounted Police symbolised a Canadian adaptation of British heritage; Riel's career demonstrated not only the futility of violence but the poisonous folly of creating discord between Quebec and English Canada. Again, there was little place for Aboriginal people in such portrayals. In any case, in post-war Canada, "Indians" were little more than a tourist attraction.

This note concentrates upon the major single-volume English-language histories of Canada published between 1944 and 1969. Not only are there are omissions, but the story should really be rounded off by examining the next major step in the writing of national history, the Canadian Centenary Series, intended to commemorate the hundredth birthday of Confederation in 1967, and projected to comprise seventeen volumes. (It eventually grew to nineteen.) In most respects, the project was a triumph. Built upon the solid bibliographical foundations of increasingly broad academic research, the individual books were generally characterised by maturity and insight. If the series was based upon no revisionist manifesto, it undoubtedly benefited from the originality of the individual contributors. However, it spectacularly failed to coincide with the Confederation Centennial: the first volume was published in 1963, others appeared in the nineteen-eighties. Thus there was never a single historiographical landmark, a point at which a line could be drawn under traditional explanations with the promulgation of some new interpretative framework. However, it should be noted that Morris Zaslow's 1971 contribution, The Opening of the Canadian North 1870-1914, provided a succinct but sympathetic account of the Treaties, and the Native experience of dramatic change on the prairies. It seems appropriate to close this survey by quoting the linking sentence that moved his narrative forward towards the creation of modern western Canada. "Stabilizing the native population was the negative side of the Canadian program for the development of the west."[23] Half a century later, historians would endorse the negativity, but question the stability.


[1] For a summary of Treaties 1 to 7, G. Friesen, The Canadian Prairies: a History, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984, 135-49. For a detailed contemporary account of the process, Alexander Morris, The Treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba and the North-West Territories ..., Toronto: Prospero Canadian edition, 2000 (cf. first ed., 1880).

[2] W. Leggo, The History of the Administration of the Right Honourable Frederick Temple, Earl of Dufferin ..., Montreal: Lovell Printing and Publishing Company, 1878, 471-2. Dufferin was addressing a British Columbia settler audience, which was sceptical of any concept of Indian title.

[3] J. St Germain, Indian Treaty-Making Policy in the United States and Canada, 1867-1877, Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2001, 44-5.

[4] For a few instances of Aboriginal input in the Treaty process noted by historians, St Germain, Indian Treaty-Making Policy in the United States and Canada, 1867-1877, 218.

[5] Morris, The Treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba and the North-West Territories, 284.

[6] J. Daschuk, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, Regina, University of Regina Press, 2013, 80-90, 104, 120-1, 124.

[7] These issues are discussed in Ged Martin, "How much did Canada 'pay' First Nations for the prairies?",

[8] D. Wright, The Professionalization of History in English Canada, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005, 40-1, 48-50; E.H. Oliver, "The Settlement of the Prairies, 1867-1914", in J. Holland Rose et al., The Cambridge History of the British Empire: VI, Canada and Newfoundland, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1930, 523-47, esp. 523.

[9] G.F.G. Stanley, The Birth of Western Canada: a History of the Riel Rebellions, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1960 ed. (cf. first ed. 1936), 194-215, esp. 215.

[10] D. Creighton, Dominion of the North: a History of Canada, Toronto: The Macmillan of Canada Company, 1962 (cf. first ed. 1944), 360; D. Wright, Donald Creighton: a Life in History, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015, 159-60.Wright cogently describes Creighton's view of the "inevitability" of Aboriginal decline "teleological, not historical ... because it happened, it therefore had to happen and no one has to take responsibility for what happened or even attempt to explain it." By the same token, stepping stones towards inevitability, such as the Treaties, can be skipped. Wright also make the point that Harold Adams Innis, a major influence upon the Toronto historians, had emphasised Aboriginal agency in his classic work on the fur trade.

[11] D. Creighton, Canada's First Century, 1867-1967, Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1970, 26.

[12] A.R.M. Lower, Colony to Nation: a History of Canada, Toronto: Longmans Canada Limited, 1964 (cf. first ed. 1946), 170, 179, 387.


[14] E. McInnis, Canada: A Political and Social History, New York and Toronto, Rinehart and Company, Inc., 1947, 333-8, esp. 336. I am grateful to Donald Wright for locating a copy of the now-scarce first edition.

[15] C. Martin, Foundations of Canadian Nationhood, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1955, Part IV.

[16] J.B. Brebner, Canada, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960, 312-13. "Reservations" is the American term for land allocated to First Nations. Canadians prefer "reserves".

[17] I have been unable to consult D.C. Masters, The Story of Canada (1959).

[18] W.L. Morton, The Kingdom of Canada: a General History from Earliest Times, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1968 (cf. first ed. 1963), 351, 368-70.

[19] O.P. Dickason, Canada's First Nations: a History of the Founding Peoples from Earliest Times, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1992, 385-8. The White Paper was withdrawn in 1971.

[20] K. McNaught, The Pelican History of Canada, London: Allen Lane, 1978 (cf. first ed., 1969), 176. In 1988 it was re-issued as The Penguin History of Canada.

[21] J.L. Finlay and D.N. Sprague, The Structure of Canadian History, Scarborough, Ont.: Prentice-Hall of Canada, Ltd., 1979, 190-1. This question is further discussed by Ged Martin, "How much did Canada 'pay' First Nations for the prairies?"

[22] Historians barely noted that Macdonald was minister in charge of Indian Affairs from 1878 to 1887, because the textbook filter had removed Aboriginal people from the story by then. Although Treaty 1 had been concluded in 1871, during his first term as prime minister, he was not in office when Treaties 4 to 7, the main levers for clearing the prairies, were negotiated in 1874-7. Textbook narratives which featured him as a nation-builder thus had no incentive to examine the process.

[23] M. Zaslow, The Opening of the Canadian North, 1870-1914, Toronto, McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1971, 14-20, 23. Although the 1967 celebrations were styled the Centennial, the project retained its title, The Canadian Centenary Series.

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