Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Indian (First Nations) reserves on the Canadian Prairies were the outcome of a series of treaties negotiated between the new Dominion of Canada and Indian leaders whose peoples had occupied the Prairies for generations. Canada's top priority, when it acquired Rupert's Land from the Hudson's Bay Company in 1870, was to extinguish Indian title to the land and to stabilize the Indian population in anticipation of white agricultural settlement. The Indians' priority was to preserve their way of life in the face of inevitable changes on the Canadian Prairies. Consequently, government officials and Indian leaders held very different views on the purpose of the treaties and reserves.

Treaties numbered 1 through 7 were negotiated between 1871 and 1877 and covered the Prairies of the present-day provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. Treaties 1 and 2 were similar in that each Indian band would receive an inalienable reserve of land using a ratio of 160 acres per family of five and an annuity of $15 per family. Liquor sales were prohibited, and schools would be built by the government on the reserves. Gifts of livestock, farming equipment, and clothing, as well as hunting and fishing rights, were mentioned verbally during negotiations but were not written into the treaties. Subsequently, these two treaties were amended in 1875 to bring them into line with Treaty 3, which set precedents for later treaties. Its terms were: 640 acres per family of five, annuities of $5 per person, a gratuity of $12, a suit of clothes every three years, salaries for chiefs and band officers, plus gifts of medals and flags. Hunting and fishing rights in unsettled areas were formally acknowledged, and reserves were to be supplied with livestock, farming equipment, and seed. Agricultural instruction would be provided by the government. The only subsequent change was the provision in Treaty 6 of a "medicine chest"–a provision that was then extended to the other treaty areas. Provision was also made for American Sioux (Lakota) refugees from the Battle of the Little Bighorn: they received reserves based on eighty acres per family of five but no annuities, as they had no lands in Canada to cede. The size of all reserves was based on population levels during the 1870s; no provision was made for subsequent population expansion.

Although the government's declared policy was assimilation, in practice it was segregation. The very concept of a reserve is one of segregation. Indians were supposed to select the location of their reserves, but government agents often intervened and clustered the reserves to facilitate bureaucratic administration. In 1882 all the southern reserves except those in southern Alberta were moved north of the Canadian Pacific Railroad to avoid further cross-border raids with American bands. Agents were to terminate the Indians' roaming over the Prairies, to teach them farming, and to settle them on reserves where they would not interfere with white settlement. After the North-West Rebellion of 1885, agents increasingly took control of affairs on the reserves as the power of Indian chiefs was reduced and Indians became wards of the government. In the area of education the government's practice was indeed assimilationist. Schools on the reserves were run by Christian missionaries who sought to "civilize" and Christianize Indian children by stamping out Aboriginal cultural influences. These practices worked against the Indian ideal of preserving as much of their culture as they could on their reserves.

Refusal of the reserve system was scarcely an option for Prairie Province Indians in the 1870s. A smallpox epidemic in the early 1870s, followed by rapid disappearance of the bison, reduced Indian bands to starvation and dependence on government rations for survival. Their plight was desperate by 1880, and despite the pleas of several chiefs such as Big Bear, who argued for Indian unity and renegotiation with the government, many accepted the government's terms. Big Bear even favored clustering of reserves as a step toward creating Indian solidarity and preservation of Indian culture. But even their hunting and fishing rights along the northern margins of the Prairies were ignored, as agents sought to restrict Indian mobility and to seclude them on their reserves. The Indians' distinctive way of life was subjected to the crushing pressures of starvation: sheer survival was possible only on the government's terms. Nevertheless, Indians retained significant elements of their cultures on these small, inalienable reserves of land that had been set aside for them in the early 1880s.

Major changes to the reserve system came after World War II, in which Indians fought bravely in the Canadian armed forces. Veterans refused to accept second-class citizenship, and a revised Indian Act in 1951 gave Indian bands a measure of control for the first time. Although the policy of assimilation continued, Indians were no longer wards of government but were to advance to full rights as citizens. Indians now determined who belonged to Indian bands and who could live on reserves. The Indian Act of 1876 had declared that only "status" Indians could reside permanently on reserves, and the government reserved the right to determine who was a "status Indian." Men who lived off the reserve could lose their status, and the position of women was even more precarious, especially those who married non-Indians. Resolution of these issues now became a matter for Indian bands, although the troublesome problem of women's status was not finally resolved until 1982, when many women were reinstated as band members.

Other changes came more easily. Schools were secularized during the 1960s, and by 1970 Indian bands began to take direct control of education. Bands also took financial control and increasingly policed their reserves–public consumption of alcohol, for example, was permitted in 1970. By the 1980s a pan-Indian movement had been established, which linked Indian reserves on the Prairies with other reserves across Canada, and, as the drive toward Aboriginal self-government was launched, Big Bear's dream of a century earlier became a possibility.

The Canadian government had been determined to treat Indians better than the United States had. Those lofty goals were never achieved, partly through lack of commitment by the government in Ottawa and partly through internal contradictions in policy, but mostly because Indians' wishes were ignored. The result was a marginalization of Canadian Prairie Indians through segregation similar to that of their American cousins for more than a century.

See also EDUCATION: Indian Residential Schools, Canada / POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT: Indian Agents.

D. Aidan McQuillan

University of Toronto

Canada Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. For Seven Generations: An Information Legacy of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Ottawa: Libraxus, 1997.

Dickason, Olive P. Canada's First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 1992.

McQuillan, D. Aidan. "Creation of Indian Reserves on the Canadian Prairies, 1870– 1885." Geographical Review 70 (1980): 379–96.

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