In the 1870s, the Government of Canada negotiated various treaties with Indigenous peoples of the Prairies. One of the crucial elements promised in these treaties was land that would be reserved for the Indians. And yet, less than a dozen years into the new century, almost a quarter of those valuable reserves that were considered essential to enable Indians to make the transition to an agricultural economy had been surrendered back to the government. Many of the land surrenders that occurred on the Prairies raise arguments regarding the validity of the surrender. Indigenous communities often allege non-compliance with the Indian Act surrender procedures, being pressured to surrender under duress, undue influence on behalf of Indian agents and government officials, unconscionability, lack of informed consent, and breach of fiduciary obligations in the taking of the surrender itself and in the management and administration of the land and the proceeds after the surrender. Over 100 surrenders were obtained on the Prairies between 1896 and 1911, making way for western expansion and an influx of immigrants. Although government officials often argued that Indians had more land than they could use, many of these bands had experienced population loss due to epidemics - a population loss that was in part a product of the government's refusal to provide promised farming implements or food rations. The government played an active part in creating the conditions leading to population loss on reserves, and subsequently took advantage of the situation to gain reserve land from Indian bands. In addition, many of the nations that surrendered their land were in difficult financial situations, and were often indebted to the government. The sale of land was seen as a means to pay back their debts or to purchase much needed food, clothing and farming implements.
Evidence collected through various Indian Claims Commission inquiries suggest the land was often bought from the bands at a cost much lower than what it was resold at. For example, the government would offer the band $1.50/acre, and would then sell it to farmers or land developers for $3.00/acre. The government took advantage of the fact that the bands were in dire need of money and knowingly offered them less than what the land was worth. Most bands had little experience with real estate, land development and speculation, while government officials were well aware of the factors affecting land value and were well connected to the business community. In addition, the notions of private property and land division differed greatly from Indigenous philosophies of communal land use, ownership and responsibility. As with the signing of the numbered Treaties, historians and Indigenous community members have argued that cultural differences and power imbalances allowed for confusion and abuse in the processes of land surrender. As the buffalo populations were dwindling, many Indigenous nations were facing starvation, and entering into treaties was deemed by some leaders to be the best solution to avoid the complete loss of their bands. In this situation, government officials were in a position of power to negotiate treaty terms that were favourable to the Canadian state, although many Indigenous leaders did press the officials for better terms for their bands, and requested additional farming tools, schools and medicine chests. However, the government's failure to abide by the terms of the legally binding treaties was not uncommon; many bands never received promised farming implements / livestock, and food rations. Denied the opportunity and the proper tools to succeed in developing agricultural economies, many bands faced hardship and starvation as they once again negotiated the terms to land surrenders with government officials. As settler interest in western lands increased, the federal government responded with a series of Orders in Council and amendments to the Indian Act which increased the government’s control over reserve affairs and facilitated the surrender of treaty reserves. One such measure occurred in 1911 when an amendment to the Indian Act allowed the government to take reserve land without consent when the reserve was in or near a town of more than 8000 people, or where the land was needed for public purposes (please see database entry entitled: Laurier Government Gives Itself Power to Claim Reserve Land for further information on this subject). Although more research is required regarding this subject, some evidence suggests personal interest of Department officials played a part in generating demand for the surrender of Indian lands. The 1915 Ferguson Commission was appointed by the federal government to investigate Indian Affairs officials who were suspected of conflicts of interest in their dealings with reserve land surrenders. Please see database entry entitled: Ferguson Royal Commission for further information on this subject.
Finally, as aforementioned, Indigenous leaders and historians have pointed to issues pertaining to consent in the context of reserve land surrenders. The Indian Act of 1876 specified that consent for reserve land surrender had to be obtained from the "majority of the male members of the band at the full age of twenty-one years, at a meeting or council thereof summoned for that purpose according to their rules." Although it was clear from the Indian Act that a majority vote was required, there was much debate within government circles as to whether the “majority” referred to in the Act was a majority of only the qualified members attending the surrender meeting or an absolute majority of all eligible members of the band. Consequently, many land surrenders were premised on loosely interpreted consent rules. Evidence gathered through various Indian Claims Commissions suggests government officials employed coercive measures when negotiating reserve land surrenders. On occasion, cash was offered to band members to bribe them into accepting proposed land surrenders. In addition, as some deliberations lasted several days, and votes were taken multiple times, instances occurred where a majority of band members were absent or had left the negotiations, allowing the government to secure a vote in favour of land surrender.
The loss of reserve land had many detrimental consequences for Indigenous communities, who were already faced with traditional land base dispossession as European settlement increased rapidly on the Prairies. Despite the professed goals of the federal government to assist Indigenous people in their transition to agricultural economies, many bands were left with little to no farmable land, as the best fertile land was often part of the surrender. Evidence collected throughout various Indian Claims Commission inquiries also found that several bands failed to receive the payment amounts promised by the government, if any payment at all. The loss of large parcels of land also meant a reduced access to resources and traditional hunting grounds, loss of identity and cultural disconnection. It also signified a loss of self-sufficiency and autonomy. As fertile lands were surrendered, many bands struggled to provide sufficient food for their populations, increasing their dependency on the federal government. Federal economic policies such as an 1881 amendment to the Indian Act prohibiting the sale of agricultural products by Indian bands without the consent of the Indian Agent greatly contributed to the hardship many bands faced. Please see database entry entitled Indian Act Amendment: Regulations of sale of agricultural products for further information on this subject. To conclude, in the past 30 to 40 years, many Indigenous communities on the Prairies have undertaken negotiations with the federal government to obtain compensation, either land, financial or both, as a means to redress government wrongdoings in the cases of reserve land surrenders. The Indian Specific Claims Commission, which has investigated many reserve land surrenders in Canada, was established as a temporary independent advisory body authorized to review specific claims rejected by the government and to issue non-binding decisions.