My name is Carlie Kane. I am claimed by my Treaty 3 community of Obishikokaang (Lac Seul First Nation) through the Southwind family. Through my connection to my community, I am Anishinaabe. As per the Indian Act, I am a Status or Treaty Indian.
From the perspective of Indigenous nations, treaties were supposed to establish peace, friendship and respectful sharing of the land. The state had different intentions. It took a colonizing approach to negotiating and interpreting these agreements. This led to oppression, loss and enduring harm. Nonetheless, treaties fundamentally defined the relationship between Indigenous nations and Canada. They remain important to this day.
The treaties negotiated between European Crown representatives and Indigenous nations were agreements about access to and travel across the land. They determined how the two nations would share, care for and trade resources. Treaties also upheld the Indigenous understanding of who was included in the nation and so had treaty rights and responsibilities.
My ancestors were part of the historical treaty negotiations and signing. This is true of many Indigenous people. Treaties are not just history, but part of our family story. These dialogues and agreements forever shaped the Indigenous and Settler relationship. But these negotiations took place in a racist colonial legal and political context. The colonial state denied Indigenous sovereignty, rights and worldviews.
Indigenous relationships with the land
Indigenous nations have sophisticated systems of governance. Colonial settlers failed to recognize this.Endnote 1 The relationships between the land and its animate and inanimate inhabitants were deeply known and the knowledge was passed on inter‐generationally. For example, they used the seasons to determine which animals to hunt and when berries and herbs would be best picked for medicine. This traditional knowledge was, and continues to be, used to guide how resources are handled. The goal is to sustain the land and work with it in a way that benefits both the lands and their peoples.
Land was never thought of as something to be owned, bought or sold. Elder Harold Cardinal says: “The land, waters and all life‐giving forces in North America were, and are, an integral part of a sacred relationship with the Creator. The land and water could never be sold or given away by their Nations. Endnote 2 The land is the pillar of who we are as Indigenous peoples. The land owns us. The land is our life giver. It sustains us.
As Indigenous peoples, we understand that each time we take from the land, we give back to the land. The health of Indigenous culture depends on the health of the land, and vice versa. Because Indigenous nations never viewed the land through the colonial lens of ownership, treaties were never about buying and selling land. Rather, they were about kinship.
Once European settlers arrived on Turtle Island in the 16th and 17th centuries, they made it their mission to begin mass development and build extensive infrastructure. The Crown claimed authority over the land they called “Canada” under the Doctrine of Discovery. This was a Christian legal principle that allowed European explorers to conquer lands of non‐Christians, enslave or kill them, and claim the land as theirs.
The Western legal tradition determines land ownership according to different kinds of “title” or entitlement. (We can see this when dealing with a “title” to a house.) Under this system, the state has ultimate authority over land and ownership. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 asserted that the British Crown can grant or withhold title not only to newly arrived settlers but also Indigenous peoples who have occupied these lands since time immemorial. This authority was imposed as an act of colonial power.
Based on the concept of “discovery,” the Supreme Court of Canada constructed an “Indian” title that means “mere occupancy.” It defined Indigenous peoples as tenants on the land rather than its owners. This concept has often been used to argue that Indigenous land rights are inferior and temporary. This allowed the state to sweep aside the inconvenient fact of Indigenous sovereignty and claim the land for Canada. As Ojibway storyteller and speaker Isaac Murdoch says: “They [Canada] didn’t obtain this land legally. Endnote 3
Negotiating Treaty 3
In the late 1860s, the ever‐expanding Canadian government wanted to develop a road and waterway network through Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario Endnote 4. The Anishinaabe people requested compensation for this use of the land. The government declined the request. Endnote 5 Treaty negotiations were begun to resolve this conflict. Two rounds of negotiations between 1868 and 1872 failed.
Indian Commissioners Wemyss M. Simpson and Robert Pither described the Anishinaabeg as a “politically articulate Indian nation with a strong tradition of land tenure and a well‐organized social order.” Endnote 6 The treaty‐making process was not new to the Anishinaabe peoples. They had made treaties with their neighbours for thousands of years. They often negotiated shared uses and rights to travel across their lands. Elder Robert Greene, whose father was former Grand Chief of Treaty 3, notes the Chiefs saw treaty negotiations as allowing Crown representatives safe passage through their territory, rather than a surrender of lands. Endnote 7
The Anishinaabe peoples and the Canadian government finally signed Treaty 3, also known as the North‐West Angle Treaty, on October 3, 1873.
During the following two years, additions to the Treaty (called “adhesions”) included more communities and regions. Treaty 3 Grand Council notes that the 1875 “Half‐breed adhesion” addressed a mixed‐ancestry community that was accepted as Anishinaabe, rather than the controversial claim they were “eastern Métis.” Endnote 8
The Treaty process involved many days of dialogue and ceremony. These were preserved in minutes taken by engineer and project overseer Simon J. Dawson and in Anishnaabe oral tradition. These records show that the negotiations and promises were rich, broad and nuanced. This differs from the official record recognized by the Canadian government. As Grand Council Treaty #3 explains, “other records of the negotiations show that some points agreed upon by First Nations and Treaty Commissioners were not included. The Agreement known as Treaty #3 [as understood by Anishinaabe] is not identical with Treaty #3 as published by Canada.” Footnote 9
Some of these differences arise from differences in languages and worldviews. Certain concepts in Anishinaabemowin cannot be translated into English and vice versa. For example: the concept of owning land did not exist within Indigenous ideologies. Anishinaabemowin doesn’t have words that express this idea. Legal terms such as “whereas,” “whereto,” “affirmed,” etc., were all terms that were difficult or impossible to translate from English to Anishinaabemowin.
The Anishinaabe language is the language of the land. It is based more on functions, actions and relationships than the static objects seen in English. For example, “carbon dioxide” in Ojibwe is mitigoo‐inanaamowin, meaning “(the air that) the trees breathe.” Endnote 10 Lawyer and professor Aimée Craft notes, “the disparity between Anishinaabe and non‐Indigenous standards made it difficult to communicate spatial knowledge across cultures.” Endnote 11 So, negotiations over nation‐to‐nation and land relationships faced major linguistic barriers.
Above and beyond differences in worldviews and languages, evidence suggests that the government negotiated in bad faith.
Historian Kathryn Gunn observes that Dawson told negotiators, “the focus of the negotiations should be on maintaining a ‘continuance of friendly relations’ between the Anishinaabeg and the government, not obtaining title to their lands.” Endnote 12 Accordingly, the Anishinaabeg were informed that the Crown only wanted permission to pass through the lands. Endnote 13 Elder Greene says that government negotiator Alexander Morris avoided words like “surrender,” ”cede” and ”yield” during the process because he understood they would end all negotiations. Despite this, they are prominent in the final Treaty 3 text.
Interpretation of Treaty 3
Conflict over the intention and meaning of Treaty 3 has played out in how the treaty has been interpreted in law, politics and society ever since.
Elder Greene says, “my father was Chief of my community, and he was also the Grand Chief of the Grand Council Treaty #3. He always said that there are two interpretations of the treaty: the Anishinaabe version and the Canadian government version.” Endnote 14 The Anishinaabeg always thought of this treaty as an agreement to share their lands and allow safe passage for the Queen’s subjects, not give up their rights to them. Endnote 15
Canadian law, however, has for the most part interpreted the treaties as surrendering of land to rather than sharing the land with settlers and the Crown. Endnote 16 The Anishinaabeg also understood they would retain the right to practice their own laws. Endnote 17 Instead, colonial laws have repressed and denied Indigenous sovereignty and law.
When Canada laid claim to the land, the main promise in return was that Canada would respect and protect the Indigenous nations. But rather than protection, Indigenous peoples received dispossession, destruction, and confinement on reserves.
The Crown deceived and took advantage of Indigenous nations. Children were forcibly removed from their communities and homes. In a land rich with resources, Indigenous people were deprived of food and water. They were punished for speaking their language and practicing their cultural traditions.
This was not the promise of the treaties. These treaties that were signed for our protection – who are they protecting? Footnote 18
Southwind v. Canada was a landmark case decided by the Supreme Court in 2021. In it, Lac Seul First Nation laid out how its community was destroyed by a hydroelectric dam built in 1929 to provide power to Winnipeg. The community lost everything from housing and agriculture to graves and important ceremonial locations. My family is from Lac Seul First Nation and I have felt the impacts of this dispossession all the way down to my generation. I never had the opportunity to grow up on the land, practice our traditions, participate in ceremony or learn my ancestors’ language.
Treaties claimed to ensure that all these factors would be protected for future generations. Instead, they were forcibly banned, removed, or destroyed. Now, our generation is reclaiming our rights, our language and our traditions.
Future generations with treaty
In Indigenous culture, history is shared by storytelling. Treaties meant something to Indigenous nations: they meant kinship, relationships and protection for generations to come. Settlers took advantage of this and rewrote the treaty narrative to deceive future generations.
Elder Clayton Cheechoo said, “So, when you do tell a story, and that it’s always believed that way, you give it your life too, like our grandfathers did before us. Because if you don’t speak and give it life, the story stops.” Endnote 19 We must reclaim and retell the treaty story to restore its intentions of respect, friendship and care.
Treaties continue to impact all those living on traditional territories today. As author and activist John Borrows says, “many non‐Indigenous leaders believe that treaties are about concluding old, unfinished business. They do not generally see treaties as creating structures for present and future Indigenous growth and interaction with the nation state.” Footnote 20
Treaties are not just something we think about historically, but something that was created historically for the future. My ancestors signed the treaty to protect people like me, to protect my future and my family’s future.
Treaties were meant to provide a framework for peaceful mutual co‐existence. The world is changing and evolving, and Canada must accept that Indigenous peoples have always been here and are not going anywhere. We are here to stay. Indigenous people and settlers can make our way together if we return to the original goals of meeting nation‐to‐nation in treaty: be kind to one another, walk with one another and love each other and the land we share.
Whose traditional Indigenous territory do you live on?
What old colonial ideas and stereotypes continue to influence us in Canada today?
What, if anything, did you learn about treaties at school?
Carlie Kane (she/her) is an Anishinaabekwe (Anishinaabe woman) with community ties to Obishikokaang (Lac Seul First Nation). She holds a BA in Indigenous Studies and is pursuing a JD at the University of Manitoba.
Leo Waisberg and Tim Holzkamm. “We have one mind and one mouth. It is the decision of all of us”: Traditional Anishinaabe Governance of Treaty #3. Working paper prepared for Grand Council Treaty #3. October 2001. https: //caid.ca/TradGov010408.pdfBack to citation 1↩
Harold Cardinal and Walter Hildebrandt. Treaty Elders of Saskatchewan: Our Dream is That Our Peoples Will One Day Be Clearly Recognized as Nations. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2000, p. 10. Back to citation 2↩
This understanding of Treaty 3 became part of Canadian common law through its role in important cases such as St. Catherines Milling and Lumber Co. v R., which sharply limited the concept of Indigenous land title. This has had sweeping consequences for Indigenous‐state relations and resource development in Canada for over a century. Similarly, in Grassy Narrows First Nation v Ontario, it was concluded that the Anishinaabeg agreed to surrender their lands. However, as Kate Gunn says, “the Anishinaabeg understood that they were agreeing to allow settlers to use and occupy some of the lands, but not that they were surrendering their own jurisdictional authority.” Back to citation 16↩
Colonial states took a patronizing and paternalistic approach to Indigenous peoples. This can be seen in the legal history of both Canada and the United States. In Cherokee Nation v Georgia, for example, the state of Georgia argued that the Cherokee nation was a “domestic dependent nation.” This case affirmed treaty protection for the Cherokee nation but it didn’t negate the concept that the Cherokee nation were wards of the state. This effectively meant that the state could violate its treaty agreements. The United States soon violently displaced the Cherokee from their land in a murderous expulsion now known as the Trail of Tears. See Cherokee Nation v. Georgia [https: //supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/30/1/], 30 U.S. 1 (1831). Back to citation 18↩