What is a Treaty?

You are probably familiar with the traditional description of the Numbered Treaties based on the Treaty document and other historical records. This description of the Treaties is most likely the story that you learned in school. It goes something like this: Treaties are agreements in which First Nations agreed to cede, surrender, or give up, their land in exchange for some promises made by the Crown’s representatives and an annual gift. The problem with this account is that it only tells one side of the Treaty story.

For the longest time, the story based on the Treaty document was the only account of the Treaties that Canadians knew. First Nations people, however, have a different understanding of the Treaties maintained through oral history. Elders across all the Numbered Treaties share similar accounts of the Treaties, and they share teachings about their true spirit and intent.  According to Elders, there was no discussion of concepts such as cede or surrender during Treaty negotiations. Conversations about these terms would have been difficult during talks as there is no equivalent concept in First Nation languages. Elders have consistently affirmed that the Treaties were, in fact, an agreement to share the land.

One way for us to better understand the First Nation perspective of the Treaties is by looking at words used for Treaty in First Nation languages. For example, the Anishinaabe say, “Agowiidiwinan,” which means “bringing things together.” Likewise, the Ininiwak and Nehethowuk say “Kitchi-astomatowin,” which means “sacred promises to one another.” These words reveal a spiritual understanding of Treaties based on relationships. Moreover, the First Nation understanding of Treaty is a sacred agreement, witnessed by the Creator, intended to create an everlasting kinship relationship between those making the Treaty.

As you can see, there is a lot to learn about Treaties. Still, we hope that this brief explanation provides you with at least some understanding of the different perspectives underlying the Treaty Relationship. We invite and encourage you to learn more. After all, the Treaties are an integral part of Canada’s historical and contemporary landscape and link all of us who live here together. And that’s why we are all Treaty People.