Treaties in Ontario: what are they and what do they do?

Since 2016, Ontario has held Treaty Recognition Week in the first week of November to honour the importance of treaties and raise awareness about treaty rights and relationships.

What are treaties? 

A treaty is a legally binding agreement between nations.

European countries colonizing North America made treaties with the Indigenous Peoples occupying the land. These agreements often set out rules of governance, land use and the relationship between parties. 

The earliest is the two-row wampum, an agreement between the Dutch and Haudenosaunee in 1613 in what is now New York state. The two-row wampum represents a river and the parallel lines represent the paths of each party’s vessel, and while they may travel forward together they will not intersect or interfere with each other. 

The Two Row wampum belt signifies the Haudenosaunee Confederacy’s relationship to European colonizers and their descendants. It emphasizes a mutual engagement to coexist in peace without interference in the affairs of the other. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

What are treaty rights?

Early treaties included things like hunting, fishing and harvesting rights, the establishment of reserve land and payment of annuities, among others.

Modern-day treaties (those signed after 1975) include things like land use management, resource revenue sharing and financial settlements. 

Treaty rights are enshrined in Section 35 of the 1982 Constitution.

Treaties in Ontario

There are 46 treaties covering the province of Ontario including three numbered treaties, two Robinson treaties, two Williams treaties and 30 Upper Canada treaties.

Upper Canada treaties

Also known as the Upper Canada land surrenders, these 30 treaties were signed through the late 18th and early-to-mid-19th century. 

The Royal Proclamation of 1763 had stipulated that only the Crown could purchase land from Indigenous Peoples in Britain’s colonies in what is now Canada. Through the Upper Canada treaties, the Crown acquired land to accommodate settlers flooding into Upper Canada following the American War of Independence and the War of 1812. 

In many of these treaties, Indigenous Peoples received one-time payments and no land was reserved for them to live on.

There is dispute around the intention of historical treaties and questions around whether land was purposefully surrendered. 

Robinson treaties

The Robinson-Superior and Robinson-Huron Treaties were negotiated between the First Nations people living around Lake Superior and Lake Huron and the Crown in 1850. (Library and Archives Canada)

The Robinson-Superior and Robinson-Huron treaties were negotiated between the First Nations people living around Lake Superior and Lake Huron and the Crown in 1850.

Mining companies had been getting permission from the colonial government to develop mineral resources in the area, despite there being no treaty covering it. First Nations petitioned for compensation for the affected lands.

There is currently a lawsuit over the annuities owed to 21 First Nations that are part of the Robinson-Huron Treaty. Annuities to the First Nations’ members have not changed since 1874, at $4 per member a year. 

In December last year, Sudbury Superior Court Justice Patricia Hennessy ruled that the First Nations should have received annuities increases since the treaty signing in 1850. 

Treaty 3

Treaty 3 was signed between the Saulteaux Anishinaabe and the Crown in 1873 at Lake of the Woods, and covers communities in northwestern Ontario like Kenora and Sioux Lookout. It is also known as the North-West Angle Treaty.  

The treaty granted the government access to the traditional Saulteaux lands while First Nations retained hunting and fishing rights and reserve land. At the time, the expansion of the Canadian Pacific Railway depended on the successful signing of the treaty. 

The Anishinaabe received one-time payments of $15 per family and a yearly annuity of $5 per person. Many signing First Nations maintain that the intent of the treaty was to share the land with the government, not surrender it. 

Treaty 3 laid out a template for terms and rights for the numbered treaties that would follow. 

Treaty 5

Treaty 5 covers a large piece of Manitoba, but also extends into Ontario and Saskatchewan. It was signed in 1875 between the Anishinaabe, Swampy Cree and the Crown.

The settling and treaty negotiations of the Prairies, including Treaty 5 were with the Crown’s intention to develop the land from a fur-trading economy to an agricultural one.

The First Nations retained hunting and fishing rights and reserve land

Treaty 9 

Treaty 9 is the largest treaty in the province covering much of the land directly south of James Bay. (Library and Archives Canada)

Treaty 9 is the largest treaty in the province covering much of the land directly south of James Bay.

In similar circumstances of the Robinson Treaties, Treaty 9 was signed with the intention to open up Northern Ontario for settlement and resource development. 

Signed in 1905, Treaty 9 involved Cree and Anishinaabe people of the territory and laid out provisions for education, hunting, fishing and trapping rights as well as the creation of reserves. 

Williams treaties

The Williams treaties were signed by three Chippewa and four Mississauga Anishinaabe First Nations and the Crown in 1923 after the government appointed the Williams Commission to settle outstanding land claims in southern Ontario. The commission found that not all of the land had been fully ceded and two new treaties were developed.

Unlike the Robinson and numbered treaties, the Williams treaties did not include annuities or hunting and fishing rights. 

In 1985, George Howard of Hiawatha First Nation was charged for fishing out of season. In court he argued that his rights to fish were protected by the Williams Treaty, although the Ontario Court of Appeal found that federal fishing rights did not exist in the treaty. 

The Williams Treaty First Nations then took the government to court for financial compensation for the surrendered land and harvesting rights. 

In 2018, the seven First Nations, the federal and provincial governments signed a $1.1 billion settlement. 

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