Thursday, 16 June 2016

History is where you stand

I've lived in Treaty 8 territory for most of my life, growing up in Dawson Creek, working in Sexsmith and Fort Resolution, and for the past 26 years, in Slave Lake. I never thought much about the treaty until now. I certainly never learned anything about it in school. For the past few months I have been researching the spirit and intent of treaties in Alberta. I started with Treaty 8 because it is where I live. I am unraveling a fascinating story.  What follows is what I have uncovered to date. I am sure there are some errors and some missing pieces. If you spot any errors or have information I could add, please let me know.

Archaeological evidence found in Northshore Day Use area of Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park, Wagner where the creek runs into the lake, Canyon Creek and Grouard all point to human habitation going back 5,000-12,000 years.

In those early days, the Beaver and possibly the Slavey lived in our region.They gathered along the lake in summer and built wooden houses further into the forest in winter. In the 1600s, the Woodland Cree moved west from around Hudson's Bay, driving the Beaver and Slavey away. Equipped with guns from the fur trade, the Cree came close to decimating the Beaver, who were known to be peaceful and honest as well as gallant and fierce fighters. Just as the Cree were about to deliver a final blow to the Beaver in 1780 the Beaver got guns and at the same time, a smallpox epidemic almost wiped out the Cree. Eventually they made peace at a place along the river that they called "Unchagah" or "Peace" River in honour of that agreement. Today, the Woodland Cree live along Lesser Slave Lake and the Beaver live mostly in the Peace River area.

White explorers and fur traders came this way establishing forts and trading posts. By 1802, there were two forts, one on either side of the Lesser Slave River where it flows out of the lake-one owned by the Hudson's Bay Company and one owned by the North West Company. There were similar forts at Buffalo Bay, Shaw's Point and Mirror Landing near modern-day Smith, where the Lesser Slave River flows into the Athabasca. 
Hudson's Bay Fort at Lesser Slave Lake, circa 1905
South Peace Archives
The Cree people in northern Canada established themselves as the preferred tribe for the white explorers and traders.  Apparently they sometimes told the newcomers that other tribes were fierce and uncivilized so they would not trade with them. They were known as a peaceful people who helped the early traders survive the tough winters. In exchange, they obtained rifles and metal knives and axes as well as tobacco and other goods. The women of the Woodland Cree were described by explorer Alexander Mackenzie as being the most beautiful of all the indigenous women in Canada. That's not really to the point, but maybe it is one reason why the French and British men settled permanently around the forts, marrying local women, building houses, planting crops and setting up businesses. 

At first it was a good relationship. As things became more established, the trading companies supplied food and medicine to the trappers and their families when times were tough. Then the BNA Act established the Dominion of Canada. The trading companies lost their exclusive rights to trade. They stopped helping the people in times of trouble. 

The government knew it needed to sign nation to nation agreements with the First Nations people of western Canada as they had done in the east, going back to the Royal Proclamation of 1763. Or at least they should have known. The Cree wrote letters asking for Treaty. The factor of the Hudson's Bay company asked for Treaty. Missionaries asked for Treaty. The government had no interest in signing. They apparently believed no one would ever want to move to the north despite the fact that more and more settlers were moving north. Treaty 6 and 7 were signed in central and southern Alberta in 1876 and 1877. But nothing for the north.
York Boats sail Lesser Slave Lake
Glenbow Archives
There was a severe famine in the north in 1887-88. There was so little food that people resorted to eating their horses out of desperation. Still no help came. 

On January 1 of 1890, the chiefs of the area met. Chief Kinoosayo of Lesser Slave Lake reported that only a very few were against the treaty and a very large majority were in favour of it.

The government sent geological surveys north. The surveyors reported that there was excellent farmland in the north. Oil was discovered. Minerals were found. Then, there was the Klondike Gold Rush. The government pushed for a Canadian route and an overland route was created from Edmonton to Athabasca, then via the Athabasca River to the Lesser Slave River to Lesser Slave Lake, then across the lake under sail, then overland along the old warparty trail to Peace River and then by river north to the Klondike. At least 800 people traversed this trail including many Americans. Some of these people stayed behind to make their fortune off the prospectors.
Cree and Metis trackers pulling a York boat up the Athabasca River.
Peel's Prairie Provinces Postcard Collection.
The Klondike Gold Rush led to hardship for the First Nations along the route. Reports state that the American prospectors in particular were lawless and disrespectful. They over-hunted the area and took the best horses from the First Nations people. Food was in short supply. The indigenous people could see their way of life being destroyed in front of their eyes.  The situation came to a head near Fort St John when the Cree people of the area pushed the prospector's carts over the high river banks into the Peace and later blockaded the road. Finally, faced with unrest and a possible disruption to a growing economy, the government decided to act. They began to plan for Treaty. 

Treaty Eight, a nation to nation legal agreement between her majesty Queen Victoria and representatives of First Nations would cover a vast area of Canada including most of northern Alberta, B.C., Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories. That agreement gave the Dominion of Canada the legal right to sell land to European immigrants and established Treaty rights for the indigenous peoples of our area.

The story of the treaty signing will be the subject of my next post. Followed by some opinions of which I have no shortage.