2.6 Canada and the First Nations of the West

Change swept across the Prairies in the 15 years after the Manitoba Act. Commitments made to the Métis of Red River in the Confederation negotiations were, in effect, dismissed if not broken. The possibility of cultural dualism was crushed in the Manitoba Schools Act. The numbered treaties were signed and reserves established, but famine and dislocation could be found everywhere. Aboriginal populations were increasingly concentrated and managed by newcomers as the bison herds collapsed across the continent. Immigrants were coming swiftly to the southern plains along the CPR route, and the railway itself was changing the shape of the local economy. In less than a generation, Winnipeg had emerged as a respectably-sized city of 27,000 while, by 1881, there were approximately 118,000 people on the Canadian Prairies. This was a comprehensive wave of change that took place quickly and relentlessly. For many, it was experienced as nothing less than a crisis of the first order.

The Canadian Northwest

The Canadian administration of the Northwest gradually took form in the 1870s. The District of Keewatin was carved out around Hudson’s Bay in 1876. From 1882 the name Assiniboia, formerly associated with the Red River Settlement, applied to the borderlands stretching west from Manitoba to the Cypress Hills. This was the territory most heavily populated by the Cree. In the same year, the District of Alberta was created next door and north along the spine of the Rockies, covering almost all of the Canadian Niitsitapi (Blackfoot) territory. Saskatchewan was the heartland of the Métis, encompassing much of the river drainage, and it was also home to large numbers of Cree. The District of Athabasca, also created in 1882, ran north from Alberta; the District of Franklin extended north of Saskatchewan into what is now the Northwest Territories. There were thus seven administrative units on the Plains, including Manitoba, of which six were governed either directly or indirectly from Ottawa.

The key administration in the context of the 1885 rising was Assiniboia. Its capital was Regina which, but for the southern route of the railway, would have been of very little consequence. The site was chosen by Lieutenant-Governor Edgar Dewdney, the surveyor and politician from British Columbia whose career was, according to his biographer, a continuous quest for a sinecure. “The selection of the site of the new territorial capital adjacent to his personal landholdings in 1882 was the most egregious example of self-serving opportunism.”[1] Dewdney’s execution of his responsibilities have drawn much criticism from historians. In one well-documented case, we find him turning away cut-rate cattle sales from local ranchers whose stock might have addressed Aboriginal famine, in all likelihood because he had a financial interest in another source of beef. Venal and lacking empathy, Dewdney is outstanding for his singular dedication to Canadian expansion into the region regardless of its impact on the native population.

Canadian trepidation about Aboriginal and Métis affairs in the West crossed party lines. The Métis resistance of 1869-70 had, after all, won provincehood for Manitoba something that Ontario’s leadership deeply resented. George Brown and the Clear Grits had been drawn into the Great Coalition and the Confederation plan largely on the strength of their desire to see Ontario settle the Plains. No one could or would say for sure that the Métis might not have further plans or the ability to upset Canadian ambitions again. As for the Cree, Niitsitapi, and Anishinaabe (Ojibwa) of the southwestern Prairies, the Canadians could be only less certain. Wars between the much better armed US Cavalry and the Indigenous peoples of the lands south of the 49th parallel were in full swing. The Sioux and the Niitsitapi moved freely back and forth across the Medicine Line and thus posed a threat to both Euro-North American nation states. On 24 October 1870, the Cree and Niitsitapi engaged in a bloody confrontation: the Battle of Belly River, near Fort Whoop-Up in present-day Lethbridge. At the time, there was no way of knowing that this was to be the last major Aboriginal war on the Plains. The Niitsitapi’s upset victory over the Cree (who lost as many as 300 warriors) would only serve to reinforce a growing sense in the popular mindset of Canadians that the native people of the Plains were warlike and an obstacle to national progress. Somehow that threat would have to be diminished.

The first step to doing so was the numbered treaties. Of the first seven signed, three were drawn up under Macdonald’s Conservative regime and four under the Liberal government of Alexander Mackenzie (1822-92). These met, in the barest sense, Ottawa’s obligation to get treaties in place, but their principal goal was to pacify the West and make it attractive to non-Aboriginal settlers. A large part of that, of course, involved getting individual Aboriginal leaders to “take treaty” by selecting and accepting reserve lands. Everything else could be opened to settlement. As for the Métis, Ottawa’s approach was once burned, twice shy. There was no love lost between the Métis and the Canadians, and the federal government believed that it had met all its obligations to the former residents of Red River. When the Métis protests began, the Canadians were inclined to dismiss them as evidence of insatiable greed on the part of a population too feckless to get on with successful farming.

Map of Canada with the numbered treaties
Figure 2.8 The numbered treaties.

Not all Canadians shared the priorities of Ottawa. Settlers in the Northwest, for example, were witness to the desperate plight of the Aboriginal peoples. While some were less sympathetic than others, former HBC employees who had a longer-term perspective on Cree, Assiniboine, and Niitsitapi societies decried the state of affairs facing First Nations. Canadian settlers, too, shared in some of the grievances registered by the Saskatchewan Métis. The original course of the CPR was to come north through the Saskatchewan River valleys, where the best farmland was to be found. Canadian migrants had rushed into the area as a consequence, and the CPR’s decision to use the southern route instead left them hundreds of kilometres from a rail link. Among these farmers was William Henry Jackson (aka: Honore Joseph Jaxon, 1861-1952), a Torontonian whose family relocated to Prince Albert. Offended by Ottawa’s apparent arbitrary behaviour and the duplicity of the CPR, Jackson headed to Batoche to join the growing Métis protest. University-educated, Jackson filled the position of secretary to Riel and was the draughtsman of the 1884 grievances. (It is an interesting contrast, one that French-Canadians did not miss, that Jackson was arrested at the end of the uprising and tried for treason, like Riel, but found not guilty by means of insanity. He was thus spared the noose and committed to an asylum at Fort Garry, Manitoba.)[2] Canadian settlers in Assiniboia and Saskatchewan, too, complained that they were being administered like a branch of an Ottawa bureaucracy and they demanded provincial status.

The Aboriginal West

One of the conditions of Canada’s acquisition of Rupert’s Land was that the new Dominion would enter into treaty-making with the Indigenous peoples. This was a necessary prerequisite to confirming Canadian power in the region. Stabilizing the area for settlement was certainly another motivation for doing so. Either way, speed was thought to be of the essence. For these reasons the process of negotiating and signing the numbered treaties was a rushed business. Historians remain uncertain as to what it was the Aboriginal signatories thought they were agreeing to. In Treaties 4, 5, 6, and 7 there were promises of land, medicine chests, farming training, agricultural equipment, and even livestock. From the Canadian perspective this was a package aimed at transitioning Aboriginal peoples into Canadian farmers. From an Aboriginal perspective it was consistent with the gift-giving diplomacy of past generations, it offered up emergency relief in the face of hardship from famine or disease, and it purchased peace. Some Aboriginal leaders refused to sign, mostly because they recognized that the treaties didn’t really promise land; instead, the treaties proposed to take all of the land away, except for a small amount that would be marked on maps as reserves. Extinguishing Aboriginal claims to the land was not something likely to succeed quickly. Circumstances, however, would soon work against the Aboriginal hold-outs.

Until the 1980s, historians writing on the topic of the Riel Rebellions typically emphasized the role of the Métis leader and tended to subsume the Aboriginal agenda. In fact, this was a three-cornered confrontation and the Aboriginal situation was very distinct from that of the Métis not to mention the Canadians.

The crisis that brought the Indigenous peoples of the Plains to the treaty table in the 1870s was rapidly worsening. What was left of the bison herds was now under assault by better-armed hunters (native and non-native). The repeating rifle was only one of several technological innovations that would severely compromise the remaining herds. Pressures from the American side of the 49th parallel which includes increased access to bison grounds by rail and the rise of the sports hunter resulted in herds pressing into the southwest corner of Alberta. The process began in the 1860s, and by the late 1870s even the Niitsitapi (Blackfoot) Confederacy could no longer count on this resource. What had only decades earlier been a continental population of hundreds of thousands of plains bison was reckoned to have plummeted to a few hundred in the early 1880s.

For the Cree in the 1870s, the inevitable crisis was delayed, thanks to shared access to what was left of the bison herds in Niitsitapi territory. The peace the Cree had negotiated with Canada in Treaties 1 through 6 (1871-76), however, meant that even a much reduced version of the older Plains lifestyle could continue for less than a decade. Although reserves had been mapped out, they were not immediately enforceable. There was nothing to stop the Cree in particular from heading out to the last vestiges of promising hunting territory: the Cypress Hills. Indeed, the terms of treaties encouraged the Indigenous signatories to stake out their territories, something on which Canada would later renege. By 1879, even the Cypress Hills resource was largely played out.[3] It wasn’t so much the case that the clock was ticking; for the Cree and their neighbours, alarm bells were ringing.

Additional pressure was applied on the foodstocks of the Plains by the arrival of refugees in the 1870s and 1880s. This is an often overlooked aspect of the period. We have become accustomed, in the 21st century, to seeing images of people fleeing war-torn homelands and setting up rag-tag camps in which disease and starvation stalk the population. In the Victorian era, there was no United Nations to intervene with aid or food, no Médicins sans Frontières to stay the progress of epidemics, no international corps of journalists to bring attention to suffering. What occurred on the Great Plains in these years thus went largely unobserved by the rest of the world. The crisis begins in 1877, when the Sioux and their allies combined for one final push against the genocidal attacks of the US Cavalry and, at Little Bighorn, they inflicted the most severe defeat that United States forces would suffer until Pearl Harbor. Theirs was a pyrrhic victory, however, and Ta-tanka I-yotank (aka: Sitting Bull, 1836-1890) and his people were forced to flee to sanctuary across the Medicine Line. Their refugee camps were swollen with newcomers in the years that followed, and by 1880 their plight was desperate.

Beginning in 1879, famine swept across the Prairies. Provisions meant to be delivered under treaty were not supplied. What cattle that did arrive on the Plains to be used as draught-animals were, instead, eaten. The Cree, Assiniboine, and Saulteaux who conformed to Ottawa’s expectations and remained on reserve were, as a consequence of their choice, vulnerable to starvation when Canada failed to meet its obligations. Those who rejected treaty and the reserves including Cree under the leadership of Piapot (1816-1908), Mistahimaskwa (aka: Big Bear, 1825-1888), and Minahikosis (aka: Little Pine, 1830-1885) faced hardship just the same. What’s more, Ottawa exploited these conditions to try to reorient the recalcitrant factions onto reserves and into a European-style regime of agriculture. To be clear, Canadian authorities knew that famine was on the march. They had resources warehoused nearby, and yet withheld supplies in order to achieve a political goal: the submission of the Cree and their neighbours to Canadian authority.

The situation was no better for the Niitsitapi. Reports of twenty-five starvation deaths in the last days of 1879 signalled that the last refuge of the bison was also in peril. Successive hard winters compounded conditions for everyone in the southwest Prairies and along the foothills. Despite fears of American attacks, many of the Niitsitapi relocated to the United States in pursuit of food or, perhaps, rations.

By 1881-83, most of the groups that had resisted taking treaty were on reserves. Minahikosis buckled in 1879 and signed Treaty 6, but he worked for the remaining six years of his life to expand and draw together the reserve lands into a contiguous pattern so as to create a Plains Cree homeland. Ottawa, however, feared Aboriginal efforts to create contiguous reserves that would constitute an “Indian Territory” and enable the growth of stronger political and military resolve. As a result, the Cree reserves were dissolved into smaller and more distinct parcels. This approach, of course, made the administration of aid still more difficult. What’s more, these concentrated populations also created promising conditions for epidemics to emerge. As if disease was not enough, food poisoning appeared. Tainted meat was, in desperation, consumed on many reserves and in many towns, with predictable results.

Still the Canadian government adhered to an austerity-first policy and the notion of the “vanishing Indian” gained ground. Some late 19th century Canadian critics of rationing and relief argued that supporting native peoples was throwing good money after bad: if the Aboriginal population was doomed to disappear, what would be the point? In this respect, both the Liberals and the Conservatives in Ottawa were on the same page. Prime Minister John A. Macdonald took the view that relief to anyone who was not actually starving would create dependence rather than self-reliance. And yet even in famine the Plains peoples were not being supported. One of the last big pushes to get bands onto reserves came in the spring of 1882 to clear all the lands south of the CPR route in Assiniboia (now southern Saskatchewan). As one historian frames this, every move made by Ottawa had cynicism at its heart: “Within a year, 5,000 people were expelled from the Cypress Hills. In doing so the Canadian government accomplished the ethnic cleansing of southwestern Saskatchewan of its indigenous population.”[4]

One strategy for minimizing Aboriginal dependency was agricultural education, something which was promised in the treaty-making process. The Cree, in particular, were prepared to transition into a farming economy ideally on their own terms and provision was made for farm instructors to be sent out from Ontario. Needless to say some instructors were better than others, and many were used as de facto administrators and Canadian diplomats. Progress on this front, as with rations, was too slow for the Cree and the Niitsitapi. In 1883, several Cree leaders petitioned Ottawa, clearly stating that they felt betrayed by Canada’s lacklustre commitment to the terms of the treaties:

Nothing but our dire poverty, our utter destitution during this severe winter, when ourselves, our wives and our children are smarting under the pangs of cold and hunger, with little or no help, and apparently less sympathy from those placed to watch over us, could have induced us to make this final attempt to have redress directly from headquarters. We say final because, if no attention is paid to our case we shall conclude that the treaty made with us six years ago was a meaningless matter of form and that the white man has indirectly doomed us to annihilation little by little…. Shall we still be refused, and be compelled to adhere to the conclusion spoken of in the beginning of this letter, that the treaty is a farce enacted to kill us quietly, and if so, let us die at once?[5]

By 1884 the Cree were prepared to respond as a single body under the leadership of Mistahimaskwa. In response, the Canadians led by Dewdney and embodied in the newly-formed North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) began detaining native leaders as they attempted to travel to meetings, breaking up gatherings where legal resistance and court challenges were being discussed, and once again using rations to squeeze the Plains peoples into submission. The government also turned to the banning of Indigenous cultural practices. In 1884-85, Aboriginal movement was restricted as a “pass system” emerged (see Section 11.6) and arrests were made of native diplomats visiting reserves other than their own. Disagreements between the Niitsitapi under Isapo-muxika (aka: Crowfoot), the Sioux, led by Ta-tank I-yotank, the Cree, and the Métis further weakened the possibility of a united front emerging across the Plains.[6]

As 1885 approached, relations between Aboriginals and Canadians in the West were at a low ebb. The worst of famine had passed in some quarters but the trauma and the death toll were hardly going to be expunged overnight. Cree leaders like Piapot and Mistahimaskwa had watched for more than a decade as the Canadians neglected their treaty obligations and communities were purposely shattered and brought to heel.

Ironically, it was the Dakota Sioux who fared the best in these years; they brought their farming skills (honed for more than 50 years) to their existing settlement hubs in Canada. They were not covered by numbered treaties and, as a result, fell between the administrative cracks. They were thus able to get on with adjusting to the new paradigm without willful mismanagement by the Canadians. How serious was this distinction? Very. Of the Plains people in the 1880s, only the Sioux escaped the tuberculosis epidemics and they did so likely because they were better fed, more self-sufficient, and not economically destabilized.

Key Points

  • The period between 1870-85 in the West saw dramatic and catastrophic changes take place among the Aboriginal communities.
  • Ottawa’s administrative presence in the West was reflected in the creation of new territories, new political offices, and the creation of the NWMP.
  • The crisis among First Nations was precipitated by an accelerating decline in bison populations, leading to a final armed conflict over the remaining herds at Belly River, 1870.
  • Facing food shortages and the arrival of migrants from Canada, the First Nations of the region agreed to the numbered treaties, which they understood to be an ongoing relationship and not a once-and-for-all submission to Canadian authority.
  • Non-Aboriginal settlers in the West were often critical of Ottawa’s approach to the region.
  • Famine years began in 1879 and continued through 1885. These conditions were exploited by Ottawa to win further treaties, resettle signatory nations on reserves, and secure the submission of First Nations to Canadian rule.
  • Aboriginal support for protest and resistance was growing by 1884, creating conditions that would contribute the the Northwest Rebellion of 1885.


Figure 2.8
Map of Numbered Treaties of Canada by Themightyquill is used under a CC BY SA 2.5 license.

  1. Brian Titley, The Frontier World of Edgar Dewdney (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1999), 143.
  2. Donald B. Smith, "William Henry Jackson,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, August 2014, accessed 15 May 2015, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/william-henry-jackson/.
  3. John Milloy, The Plains Cree: Trade, Diplomacy and War, 1790 to 1870 (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1988), 120.
  4. James Daschuk, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life (Regina: University of Regina Press, 2013), 123.
  5. Bobtail, Ermine Skin, Samson, et al. to John A. Macdonald, 7 January 1883, quoted in Jennifer Reid, Louis Riel and the Creation of Modern Canada: Mythic Discourse and the Postcolonial State (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008), 15.
  6. J.R. Miller, Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens: A History of Indian-White Relations in Canada, revised edition (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991), 170-5.


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Canadian History: Post-Confederation Copyright © 2016 by John Douglas Belshaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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