Treaty 6: Fiduciary Obligation for Provisions


The near-extinction of the bison by 1879 due largely to settler over-hunting led to widespread famine in the subsequent years amongst Indigenous populations in the West. Treaty 6 included a clause stating the Canadian government would aid Indigenous signatories in times of famine - this clause was unique from the numbered treaties before, and was requested by Poundmaker. However, the Liberals and Conservatives in the government reneged on their legal obligation due to the cost of that aid. The Conservatives in power in the early 1880s provided rations to starving Indigenous communities, but this was strongly opposed by the Liberals in the House of Commons because they thought this relief would make the receiving population lazy and complacent.



This illustrates the federal government's approach to the treaty agreement as they were attempting to limit the costs associated with their legal obligations to Indigenous signatories. In this case, relief was provided to the First Nations population of Treaty Six, but was justified as a humanitarian act rather than a legal treaty obligation. Dishonouring the treaty agreement and construing ration distribution as a humanitarian act rather than a stipulation upon which a legal agreement had been reached obscured the nature of this agreement.  It also represented an attempt by the government to change the terms of the agreement post-treaty.  Because the obligation to provide assistance was now a legally ambiguous issue, this changing of the terms of obligation contained in Treaty 6 would make it possible to justify non-action in the future.



House of Common, Debates, May 1879-May 1882