Treaties in Canada

In this guide, educators share how they teach Treaties in the classroom, including advice, online resources, books, and lesson plans.

Posted October 4, 2022

This educational package is inspired by Canada in Focus Episode 3: A Promise to Share.

Advice on why it’s important to bring Treaties into the classroom and suggestions on how to do it

Written by Connie Wyatt Anderson, 2014 recipient of the Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in Teaching

The Anishinaabeg word used to explain Treaty is agowidiwinan, which means “bringing things together.” In Cree, kichi-asotamâtowin, “sacred promises to one another,” also describes the Treaty relationship. Treaty relationships were and remain an integral part of Indigenous peoples’ cultures, ways of life, and being. Treaties among First Nations were foundational, serving as unifying links between nations, cementing trading relationships, allowing for passage between traditional territories, and honouring ties of family and extended kinship. They were enduring oral promises which were renewed annually, solidified with prayer and protocols, ratified with handshakes, and made in the presence of the Creator. Treaty-making asserted Indigenous sovereignty, agency, and foresight. Treaties were entered into in good faith, with the aim of ensuring a sustainable and equitable future for ensuing generations.

When European newcomers first came to what is now Canada, these Treaty relationships continued. First Nations entered into Treaty agreements — sacred promises — with Europeans as they expanded across Turtle Island. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 codified the Treaty relationship, serving as a template for Treaty-making in the forthcoming years. This also set the precedent for centuries of Treaties between the Crown (colonial and Canadian governments) and Indigenous peoples; for example, the Peace and Friendship Treaties (1725-1779), the Douglas Treaties (1850-1854), the Manitoba Act (1870) and the Numbered Treaties (1871-1921). On the east coast Treaty agreements were recorded on wampum belts; further west they became guideposts during the fur trade era and served as Métis and First Nations’ entry into Confederation.

First Nations and the Crown had, and continue to have, differing interpretations of Treaties. In the past, when the Treaties were first signed, the Crown regarded Treaties as land sales or surrenders, where Indigenous peoples viewed them as agreements to share the land with newcomers and to preserve their cultures and livelihoods. From the latter’s view, Treaties were oral agreements that remain both evergreen and sacred. The written aspect of Treaties only captures one perspective: that of the Crown’s.

This is why Treaty-making is so important to Canadian history. It is a foundational part of Canadian history — not just Indigenous history. An exploration of Canada’s past would be wholly lacking and one-sided if Treaties were not included. Understanding Indigenous oral traditions, worldviews, and ways of knowing is a key part of the historical skills associated with exploring Canada’s past. Treaties are not historical relics. Modern-day Treaties are still being negotiated and unmet Treaty entitlements are being fulfilled. Treaties still guide us today, making all Canadians Treaty partners.

How can you engage your students in a study of Treaties and Treaty relationships? Have them explore Indigenous worldviews and perspectives, place Treaty-making into the tapestry of Canadian history, talk about Treaties in the present tense, unpack Indigenous terms and vocabulary associated with Treaty-making, help them find their role as a Treaty partner, and use the spirit and intent of Treaties as a bellwether for reconciliation.

More Advice from Teachers

How would you teach your students about Treaties?

Defining terms and map work can be two ways to approach the topic of Treaties. What is a land claim? What are the types of land claims — specific land claim vs. comprehensive land claim? Maps allow students to understand concepts, patterns, and relationships. Students can explore the concept of land claims by mapping the Treaties in their province and of the country. This can provide a way of starting a conversation about the land acknowledgement and what it means.

          – Emilia Adorante, Thornhill, Ontario

I have a great resource from the Critical Thinking Consortium, “Sources on the Numbered Treaties.” There are 8 pages of primary and secondary documents about the Treaties. I provide students with 2 documents in pairs and groups. They use the documents to answer:

  • Why did Indigenous Peoples sign the Treaties?
  • What did they hope to gain? What did they receive?

These questions are answered in the context of understanding the history of settlement and immigration and the different waves of people coming to Canada.

          – Jennifer Janzen, Winnipeg, Manitoba

It is important to begin a course and in each unit of study to contextualize where and how the Treaties that were negotiated between Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous peoples were created, along with what responsibilities each party has as stewards and caretakers of the land. Students need to understand that when Treaties were signed, there were different understandings as to what was being documented, shared and taken over by settlers. Having students look at the Treaty documents as primary source materials, while also using oral histories from Indigenous Treaty partners will help to ensure that students gain knowledge and understand the impacts of Treaties on land use, animals, and on the livelihoods of Indigenous communities who have cared for the land for generations.

Students also need to understand that as settlers, they have responsibilities as Treaty partners to take care of the land and to acknowledge the Indigenous communities who have cared for and maintained the land that they live, learn, and play on today. Having students work with source materials and listen to oral histories allows them to explore the historical and contemporary relevance of these important documents.

          – Katy Whitfield, Toronto, Ontario

As a part of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and mandates from educational jurisdictions throughout Canada, schools need to find a way to teach the origins and implications of the Indian Act. One way to do this is to have students take one of the 21 restrictions from the Indian Act and present them to the class examining their purpose, how it has been applied, and what the future could hold regarding reforms to it to make a more equitable Canadian society. A key resource to assist students to do this is Bob Joseph’s book 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act. Related to this, another way to understand the impact of the Indian Act is to analyze the 94 Calls to Action that were a result of the TRC. This unpacking the 94 Calls to Action activity has students research each of the “calls,” what has been achieved, what has yet to be accomplished, and what “action” each of us can make regarding all of them.

          – Shannon Leggett, North Vancouver, British Columbia

How do you make Treaty history relevant and engaging for students?

Students can use Native Land to explore the Treaties, territories, and languages of the Indigenous peoples who first settled on and who have cared for the land. Unpacking the purpose and creation of land acknowledgments and their uses as statements by settlers is an important part of the discussion. Students will be familiar with the use of land acknowledgements in their school communities and can be invited to break down the components of the acknowledgement, and identify the lands and peoples, as well as the ways in which the lands are being used. As settlers, they can also work on writing their own land acknowledgements to identify the peoples who first settled and who have continued to care for the land, identifying with gratitude the ways in which they use the lands for their benefit today.

          – Katy Whitfield, Toronto, Ontario  

More Resources from Canada’s History

Resurgence and Reconciliation

Reading List: A selection of new and recent Canadian Indigenous-history books.

We are all Treaty People

Guest editor Cynthia Bird of Peguis First Nation explores Treaties and the historic Treaty relationship between First Nations peoples and the British Crown, now represented by the government of Canada.

Interpreting the Treaties

Historical agreements between the Crown and First Nations are fraught with ambiguity.

The Numbered Treaties

Western Canada’s Treaties were intended to provide frameworks for respectful coexistence.

May 2018 - Treaties and the Treaty Relationship

This special and free issue of Canada’s History magazine is a wonderful opportunity to provide readers with perspectives on Treaties that go beyond what most people have learned in school.

Treaties and the Treaty Relationship Webinar Series

This webinar series shares information and promotes conversation about the historical and contemporary issues that relate to treaties. These presentations explore both the Canadian and First Nations perspectives of treaties.

Talking Back to the Indian Act

Book Review: Talking Back to the Indian Act speaks to all Canadians and begins by imbuing the reader with a sense of action.

21 Things You May Not Know about the Indian Act

Book Review: 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act is a heartfelt guide for reconciliation.

From Treaties to Reserves

Book Review: In From Treaties to Reserves, D.J. Hall focuses on Alberta and details the critical period during which the newly formed Canadian state transformed Indigenous peoples from their own selves into menials confined to reserves for the convenience of white newcomers who were determined to have their land.

Respecting Sacred Relationships

Open Book: In Brittany Luby's multiple-award-winning book Dammed: The Politics of Loss and Survival in Anishinaabe Territory, she writes that the Anishinabeg have “since time immemorial” lived and fished along the waterways of the Winnipeg River drainage basin that includes the lake and that extends into parts of Manitoba and Minnesota.

Lesson Plans and Activities on Treaty History

Treaties of Peace and Friendship

In this lesson students use primary source material to explore the constitutional validity of the Treaties of Peace and Friendship.

Relevance of Treaties Today

In this lesson students explore the enduring relevance and continued significance of the Treaty relationship in Canada and consider the Treaty relationship as a path toward reconciliation.

Treaties and the Treaty Relationship

Everyone benefits when there is a greater understanding and appreciation of Treaties and the Treaty relationship. This special issue is part of a greater conversation to ensure that our collective history is truly inclusive.

Canada’s History Society thanks all the teachers that were involved with this project.

Related to Classroom Resources