The Robinson Treaties and Douglas Treaties (1850-1854)

Prior to the 1850s, the majority of treaty making in what is now known as Ontario focused exclusively on the Southern Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River. The need to develop treaties in the Upper Great Lakes was driven by the need for new lands for agricultural settlement and the growing interest from mining companies to explore the lands of the Upper Great Lakes for possible mineral deposits.

Beginning in the 1840s, mining companies sought and acquired licenses from the colonial government to mine in the region even though there were no treaties surrendering the lands. The Anishinaabek of the Upper Great Lakes firmly believed the colony had no rights to the lands. In 1847, to remedy the situation, they petitioned the Governor General for compensation for the lands lost to mining. In 1848, after an investigation into their complaints, the colonial government recommended that treaty negotiations for the lands of the Lakes Superior and Huron watershed take place. In 1849, a violent clash erupted between the First Nations warriors and miners at Batchawana Bay, forcing the colonial officials to move quickly to address the claim and a treaty meeting was scheduled for late summer 1850. The result of this meeting was the signing of the Robinson-Huron Treaty. This treaty covers a large area from the shores of Batchawana Bay on Lake Superior to the shores of Lake Huron, an area that ranges from Sault Ste. Marie eastward and south to Penetanguishene, inclusive of the Sudbury/Manitoulin region of Ontario.

The Robinson Treaty was named after William Benjamin Robinson, a former fur trader from the Muskokas who was tasked with buying up as much land as possible in the upper lakes watershed including the north shore of Lake Huron and the eastern shore of Lake Superior. In the fall of 1850, after an exploratory trip through the proposed surrender lands around Lakes Huron and Superior, Robinson began treaty negotiations with Indigenous communities in the Sault Ste. Marie area. Robinson was prepared to offer a one time payment of £4,000 and a £1,000 per annum thereafter for the territory around the lakes. This offer was refused by the Indigenous leaders of Indigenous nations living around Lake Huron. who had requested a £10 per person annuity and also a large reserve tract. Since Robinson could not persuade the Lake Huron nations to change their position, he negotiated a separate treaty with the Lake Superior nations and then used the Lake Superior treaty as leverage to open negotiations with the Lake Huron nations, indicating that those nations that did not sign would not receive anything.

The differences between the Robinson treaties and preceding ones that were negotiated in Upper Canada is that instead of negotiating for small parcels of land, the Robinson treaties involved the surrender of huge tracts of land with different and disparate groups. In addition, the annuity payments negotiated with the Robinson Treaties changed from yearly lump sum payments to yearly payments in cash going to individual band members. Other terms negotiated were the setting aside of reserve lands for each individual signing group, as well as hunting and fishing rights throughout the treaty territory so long as there was no mining and resource development or settlement. The Robinson treaties were the first treaties to bundle all these elements together effectively, becoming the model upon which subsequent treaties were negotiated.

According to Darrell Boissoneau (ONgov, 2017), president of Shingwauk Kinoomaage Gamig and member of the Bawating (Garden River) community, pre-confederation treaties are treaties that were made before Canada existed. Bawating is the community where the Robinson-Huron Treaty was signed. The pre-confederation treaties are living documents because they were signed in sacred ceremonies. Boissoneau recalls a different version of the development of the Robinson-Huron Treaty making process which is slightly different from the version told from the government perspective. Chief Shingwauk, from Bawating, instigated the treaty. There was some mining development in Mica Bay, in the northern region of Lake Superior, that was happening without the consent of the Anishinaabe people. Chief Shingwauk had petitioned the government to negotiate a treaty but the treaty wasn’t forthcoming quickly enough so he canoed up to Mica Bay with some warriors and scared the miners with a few shots from a cannon.  This action pressured the government to enter into treaty negotiations.

Learning Activities

  1. Indigenous and non-Indigenous people have their versions of the story around the development of the Robinson-Huron Treaty. Take time to reflect on the treaty making process with respect to the differences in perspectives of Indigenous/non-Indigenous peoples. Is there anything that surprised you about the stories? Has this changed your understanding of the history of colonization as it related to the development of the treaties?
  2. How does the idea of treaty making differ between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people?

Expanding Your Knowledge

  1. This following link leads you to the Indigenous and Northern Affairs website and more specifically to information about the Robinson Treaties and Douglas Treaties (1850-1854). This site provides one side of the story related to the development of this treaty:
    The Robinson-Superior and Robinson-Huron Treaties (1850)
  2. The following link takes you to a video in which Darrel Boissoneau from Bawating (Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario) speaks about the significance of the sacred ceremonies that took place at the signing of the Robinson Treaty in 1850:
    Indigenous Voices on Treaties – Darrell Boissoneau
  3. To find out more about the treaties and agreements, visit the Indigenous and Northern Affairs website:
    Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada: Treaties and Agreements  
    This site contains information about:
    -Laws and Regulations
    -Land Claims
    -Comprehensive Claims
    -Treaty Making in Canada
    -Self-government Agreements
    -Aboriginal and Treaty Rights Information System
    -Summaries of the Pre-1975 Treaties
    -Treaty Texts
    -Treaty Research Projects
    -Maps of Treaty Making in Canada
    -Success Stories
  4. Use the following infographic to learn more about the treaties:
    Historic Treaties and Treaty First Nations in Canada Infographic
  5. Explore the role that women played in the treaty making process. Although women weren’t signatories to the treaties, they were there to witness the signing of the treaty. Cora-Lee McGuire-Cyrette talks about the role that her great-great-great-grandmother played at the signing of the treaty of 1850. She recalls that her great-great-great-grandmother witnessed that the chieftains had asked for certain items be added to the already prepared legal documents. Because the items weren’t written into the agreements, they were never included. Indigenous people recognize the importance of oral history but for non-Indigenous people, oral history is not held in high regard. So, the items that the chieftains wanted included in the treaty never materialized.
    Cora-Lee McGuire-Cyrette on oral history and women’s role in treaty signing


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