Treaty Five — commissioners met with native leaders in communities along Lake Winnipeg

by Bruce Cherney

An open space enclosed by a wall of brush was cleared in preparation for a day of feasting and celebration. In the centre of the enclosure, a huge fire burned and over the flames hung a kettle.

Inside the enclosure, men, women and children assembled to sing, dance and listen to the many storytellers who welcomed an eager audience to listen to their hunting exploits and romantic conquests.

Apart from the revelers, the chiefs from Dog Head, Jack Fish, Big Island (Hecla), Blood Vein and Sandy Bar “sat smoking their long pipes” and “appeared to regard the whole proceedings with indifference.

“Now and then an orator would rise to his feet and deliver some stirring speech apparently warming with his work in proportion as the grunts of his audience became more frequent — showing their approval of his remarks.”

Although the chiefs showed stoic “indifference,” the pow wow was being held to mark a special occasion in the history of the the five bands living along the shores of Lake Winnipeg. 

Indian commissioners Thomas Howard and J. Lestock Reid had arrived at Dog Head Point to pay the first annuities to the signers of Treaty Five. The numbered treaty had been negotiated a year earlier in September 1875 by Manitoba Lieutenant-governor Alexander Morris and James McKay of Deer Lodge, the multilingual Member of the Legislative Assembly. McKay, who had been present during the history-making Treaty One signing at the Stone Fort (Lower Fort Garry) in 1871, was essential to the negotiations as he was trusted and well-regarded by the First Nations people of Western Canada.

The treaty payments were of such importance that the proceedings were extensively reported in the Manitoba Free Press in a special feature called A Trip to Norway House and Back that first appeared on September 30, 1876 and ran for several issues.

The payments also were reported in Morris’ book The Treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba and the North-West Territories published in 1880. In his book, Morris included letters between himself and David Laird, the federal minister of the interior, as well as reports sent to him by Reid and Howard.

Reid and Howard had been directed by Morris on July 14, 1876, to travel by York boat from Selkirk to locations along Lake Winnipeg to ensure compliance to the 1875 treaty, make the annual treaty payments and undertake treaty negotiations with other bands that had not signed in 1875.

On July 24, federal commissioner Howard reached Rock Edge where a Hudson’s Bay Company post had been established. Howard intended to take on supplies at the post and then proceed to Dog Head Point (today on the mainland across from Matheson Island). At the HBC post, the party encountered a Jack Fish River band (Jackhead Harbour) of about 25 families under the leadership of Chief Thickfoot. Thickfoot had expected the treaty payments to be made at the post, but Howard insisted that arrangements had already been made to hold the rendez-vous with all five bands at Dog Head Point.

Reid was the first to arrive at the Dog Head rendez-vous and was greeted by aboriginals from the host community,  Blood Vein River (directly across the lake along the east shore), Big Island and Sandy Bar (near present-day Riverton where the Icelandic River flows into the lake), who fired volleys from their guns as a greeting. 

Soon after, Howard and Thickfoot’s party arrived at Dog Head and a conference was scheduled for the next day (July 25).

The commissioners soon found that the Dog Head area, while providing many small bays and inlets to shelter from storms, is “nothing but rock” and tents had to be secured “by means of large stones as there is no place in which to drive pegs ...”

Once the commissioner’s camp was 

established, Howard and Reid visited the native encampment to choose the spot for the conference. It was the gift of provisions by the commissioners which started the 

celebrations on the night of July 24.

The next morning, the commissioners ate a hearty breakfast of sturgeon steaks which had been provided by the traders who had joined their party at Black Island. The presence of the traders is easily explained — the Cree and Ojibway from the five bands would soon have plenty of money which the traders intended to 

extract from the natives.

The later conference didn’t get off to an auspicious start. Thickfoot, who was prepared to sign Treaty Five on behalf of his people, had earlier told the other bands he would serve as the overall chief in compliance with the treaty requirement — news that wasn’t enthusiastically greeted by the other bands. Actually, Thickfoot’s offer only served to delay the conference.

“During this delay the traders were not idle and soon the vicinity of our camp presented a scene of bustle and activity,” the Free Press reported. “A row of booths was erected in which were spread, for the inspection of the Indians, such wares as would be sure to attract the eyes of the natives. There were shawls, blankets, cotton, flour, tea, sugar, and tobacco in profusion, but, thanks to the wise law preventing the sale of intoxicating liquor in the North-West, there was no firewater to be seen.

“The booth of the traders being placed in a row, side by side,” attracted curious women and children.

“The Indians looked on the goods exposed to view with longing eyes, but the payment had not yet taken place — there was no money in circulation and trade was dull,” reported the Free Press.

In fact, the HBC had already cornered much of the expected trade. An HBC man had been in the community days earlier “and he had given considerable debt in anticipation of the treaty, and as security he had taken the guns, blankets, and other articles of the Indians in pawn.”

Today such practices may be considered unscrupulous, but it was actually mutually beneficial — what good was hard cash to native people living in isolated communities if it could not be spent. It was convenient for aboriginals to exchange their treaty money for goods that weren’t otherwise available to them during the summer and fall. Furs from animals were only trapped and traded in the winter months when pelts were the most luxurious.

That afternoon a census was taken of the aboriginals present: 100 from Big 

Island, 90 from Blood Vein, 61 from Jack Fish, 57 from Dog Head and 40 from Sandy Bar  for a total of 348 people.

This was an important step for the commissioners since it would dictate how much of the $5,000 issued by Ottawa would be handed out.

Under the terms of the treaty, the annuities to be paid were $5 per person, $15 per headman and $25 per chief. 

This was a departure from Treaty Three (Lake of the Woods region) and Treaty Four, which stipulated a payment of $12 per person, although it was the same payment made to those under Treaty One (southern Manitoba) and Treaty Two (the area west of Lake Manitoba).

Laird had written to Morris that the amounts should be low because of the “comparatively small area of the territory” involved — both shores of the Lake Winnipeg region from Winnipeg Beach to Norway House and the area northward to The Pas — to be ceded to Canada “and of the fact that it is not required by the Dominion Government for immediate use either for railroad or other public purposes.”

Treaty Four had dealt with prime agricultural land on the Prairies outside of the then borders of Manitoba in the North-West Territories and included present-day Southern Saskatchewan. Treaties six and seven, which took in the rest of the agricultural land on the Prairies to the Rockie Mountain foothills, were signed in 1876 and 1877 respectively.

Actually, the territory ceded in Treaty Five was not “small.” It stretched from what is today the Ontario-Manitoba border to the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border. But Laird felt the territory had little immediate economic value.

What Laird really wanted was the extinguishing of native title “so that settlers and traders might have undisturbed access to its waters, shores, islands, inlets and tributary streams. The mouth of the Saskatchewan River especially seems to be of importance as presenting an eligible site for a future town (Grand Rapids).”

It should also be pointed out that the federal government had already agreed with immigrants from Iceland to create a reserve for them along the west shore of Lake Winnipeg. The settlers began arriving in the fall of 1875 after many native bands had signed Treaty Five, landing at Willow Point and then establishing Gimli a couple kilometres to the north. From this new community, they expected to spread out to occupy all of “New Iceland” which included Hecla Island (called Mikley in Icelandic; Big Island in English).  

Other terms of Treaty Five included 160 acres (64 hectares) for each family of five, the retention of fishing, trapping and hunting rights as well as farm stock, tools, equipment, flags and medals for chiefs. 

It should be noted that in July this year, the Black River First Nation, which occupies a tiny reserve 125 kilometres north of Winnipeg on the lake’s west shore, is now suing the federal government to reopen Treaty Five, because it claims other First nations received better land deals under the other numbered treaties. Black River wants more land from Ottawa.

One difference with the other numbered treaties then in effect was that $500 was to be given each year for ammunition for hunting and twine to make nets for fishing — a logical provision since the people covered by Treaty Five primarily lived along the shores of Lake Winnipeg.

The first day’s proceedings had accomplished little. The second day was not better as the bands failed to elect a chief and the grand conference was rescheduled for the third day.

While the commissioners went shooting and swimming, the members of the five bands retired to their lodges in an attempt to resolve their differences. 

“The Indian camp consisted of large and small lodges made of branches with bark laid over them,” reported the Free Press. “Some contained as many as three or four families, while others, more exclusive, occupied a smaller lodge and kept apart from the rest.”

In keeping with the attitude of the era, what happened in the native camp was filled with stereotypical words meant to imply aboriginals were “uncivilized.”

“Dirty squalling children, screeching squaws, and howling dogs, with an occasional tune on the tom-tom, made such a delightful mixture of noises that one was glad to get out of the camp to escape them,” said the Free Press reporter.

“Dirt predominated everywhere, and the dogs appeared to have the same right to occupy the lodges as their Indian masters.”

To ease the process of electing an overall chief, Rev. Henry Cockrane, a Cree and Anglican minister, was approached. Rev. Cockrane explained in a council the election process required to fulfill the treaty requirement. 

Rev. Cockrane was praised by the commissioners for his skills as an interpreter at Dog Head, Berens River, Grand Rapids and The Pas. They said he was “at all times ready to give his advice and assisance.”

After several ballots, the chief of the Blood Vein Band, Sa-ha-cha-way-ass was elected as the overall chief and councillors were selected from each band. 

It took a lot of explaining to bring about a vote by ballot, since it resulted in an alien form of leadership selection. 

Essentially, it was a challenge to the traditional leadership structure, though of great benefit to the federal government which was able through an election process to impose its will upon the bands. 

In fact, the commissioners often forced bands to join together and accept the leadership of distant chiefs. For example, Reid and Howard convinced the Grand Rapids band to accept the leadership of the Berens River chief. By limiting the number of chiefs they had to deal with, Reid and Howard were also limiting the amount of money paid out by Ottawa since  chiefs received a bigger annual payment.

Ka-tuk-e-pin-ais, who represented Big Island, wanted to withdraw from the proceedings, and instead meet with Morris to discuss the ceding of Big Island as a reserve. 

As it turns out, many of the Big Island Band had previously been members of the St. Peter’s Reserve (East Selkirk) and had received annuities since 1870.

Reid and Howard told them by receiving the annuity “they had really agreed to the treaty and that we were there to deal with those of the band that had at no time received money from the Queen.

“Ka-tuk-e-pin-ais then said there were very few that had not received money from the Queen, but he never had; that he was quite prepared to sign the treaty now, only some of his people did not want him to do so, unless we agreed to give the Big Island for a reserve.”

Of course, the commissioners could not grant this request since the island had already been given to the Icelanders — an arrangement they would have known about. 

The Sandy Bar band faced a similar situation in that their proposed reserve was set aside for Icelanders. The two commissioners did not allude to the prior agreement with the Icelandic settlers, but told Morris they should not be given their requested reserve because “the Indians at Sandy Bar were formerly paid with the St. Peter’s band.” The implication was that they were squatters on the land they occupied.

The irony of the situation is that John Ramsay, the leader of the Sandy Bar band, would become a good friend of the Icelanders, helping them survive the rigors of the New World, despite the federal government ceding the land he occupied to the Icelanders in 1875.

Withholding of money was a persuasive argument. The two commissioners refused the Big Island reserve request, telling them “that unless he and all his band agreed to the terms we offered them without further delay, they might return to their homes.”

Since they had little choice, the Big Island band agreed to proceed and 

Ka-tuk-e-pin-ais took his place among the councillors.

The piecemeal nature of the treaty signing was a departure from earlier treaties. Terms were not open to discussion and the bands that had not signed in 1876 were expected to accept the terms offered in 1876 without exception. The commissioners were effective in using threats and persuasion to get bands to sign in 1876.

The commissioners agreed to other requests such as boats instead of wagons given to the councillors and chiefs who signed other treaties. Like the twine for nets, boats were more practical for 

natives living along a lake.

Once the treaty payment of $5 for each band member was handed out, the commissioners moved their camp to an island just off the point and remained there until July 29.

“The Indians were now at the mercy of the traders,” reported the Free Press, “and it may be safely said that ere two days had elapsed after the payment hardly a dollar of money could be found amongst the Indians.”

After their stay at Dog Head Point, the two commissioners proceeded to Berens River to pay annuities. At Berens River, the commissioners also met with members of the Grand Rapids band who had come to hear about the terms of the treaty.

Traveling without Howard, Reid reached Norway House on August 12  where he was surprised to learn that many wanted to resettle at Fisher River because of the changes to the local economy. Steamboats on the Red River had rendered using York boats to transport goods destined for southern Manitoba from York Factory virtually obsolete. Many of the Norway House residents had served on HBC York boats.

The HBC was also changing its transportation system on Lake Winnipeg and the Saskatchewan River, opting for steamers to replace the labour-intensive York boat brigades. Steamboats allowed the HBC to transport larger volumes of goods and passengers than by York boats.

Because the Norway House band wanted to move south, the local chief was indifferent to the location of a reserve at Norway House.

Dominion land surveyor Duncan Sinclair in 1877 wrote of the frustration of locating the Norway House reserve. 

“Altho(ugh) I had an interview with the Chiefs on Thursday in reference to the location of their reserve they have not come to a decision yet. The friends of the Indians think that there is no use for them to take a reserve here.”

To Sinclair, there seemed to be only “rocks and muskeg around this place.”

While Reid was in Norway House, a delegation from Oxford House approached the commissioner to be included in the treaty as “the country in which they were living was totally unfit for cultivation, and they had the greatest difficulty in procuring a livelihood.”

While some left, Norway House 

today is the largest First Nations reserve in the province.

Howard travelled to Grand Rapids on August 26 and up the Saskatchewan River to The Pas on September 5 to pay annuities and have other bands accept the terms of Treaty Five.

Grand Rapids was an important portage from Lake Winnipeg to the Saskatchewan River and served as a critical steamboat landing. A condition of the 1875 Treaty Five agreement was that the Grand Rapids natives surrender their settlement for a town site for non-natives. It took a $500 bribe by Morris to convince them to finally agree to this condition, although somewhat reluctantly.

“Care must be taken and strict watch kept over this band,” Morris told Laird. “Living as they do on the bank of a navigable river, where people are constantly passing, they can give great trouble and annoyance, and, I am sorry to say, are inclined to do so.”

In The Pas, Howard faced native negotiators who had heard word of Treaty Six signed in Fort Carlton (Edmonton) which offered significantly more generous terms than Treaty Five, such as 640 acres per family and more agricultural tools.

Howard wrote he was finally able to convince The Pas band of “the difference between their position and the Plains Indians, by pointing out that the land they would surrender would be useless to the Queen, while what the Plains Indians would give up would be of value to her for homes for her white children.”

The government’s priorities were clearly laid out — agricultural land was what the government wanted in order to promote the settlement of the West; not northern land which it saw as having little value.

During 1875 and 1876, Morris, McKay, Howard and Reid had successfully brought some 2,500 native people under the terms of Treaty Five, according to a census. The final population number would later be disputed by native leaders who believed many had not been counted. In later years, they claimed the smaller total meant they had been denied land that was rightfully theirs under the terms of the treaty.

Even the reserves allotted were disputed by local residents, some of whom felt other locations would present greater economic opportunities. While farming is often cited as motivation to move, an evolving Lake Winnipeg commercial fishery as well as growing lumbering operations was also having its effect.

In the case of lumbering, some reserve residents petitioned the federal government to prevent encroachment upon their land. Ottawa invariably  took the side of the reserves since the federal government wanted to avoid conflicts between natives and expanding populations of non-natives.

“The rapid failure of the fisheries and hunt in this part of the Treaty is alarming these Indians and compelling them to leave their old hunting grounds,” wrote Indian agent A. McKay in an 1881 report on the Cumberland band. “They assert that unless the Department allows them to go to better farming land, they will be obliged to look to the Government for food in the future, as it is impossible to make a living farming where they are at present.”

The Cumberland band’s request was granted and they were relocated to Fort a la Corne, Saskatchewan, despite the site being well outside the original boundaries of Treaty Five.

It wouldn’t be until 1910 that the territorial boundaries of Treaty Five were finally determined. By then, the First Nations people living on the northern reserves were locked into a permanent relationship with the federal government.

“In the end, Treaty Five was essentially the government’s treaty, drafted to suit federal priorities and offering the bare minimum to native signatories,” according to an Indian and Northern Affairs research paper.

“For their part, the native people accepted the accord, welcoming the gratuities and annuities and counting on the government’s promises of assistance in the changing times.”

The controversial issues centring around Treaty Five in recent years are provincial hydro-electric development and the subsequent flooding of native lands, the location of transmission lines used to bring electrical power from the north to the south and minerals rights. Although these are provincial matters, they still require negotiations under the parameters established by the terms of  Treaty Five.