6 Common Myths about Treaties in Canada
By Taylor MacLean
Myth #1: Treaties are land sale agreements
Historically, treaties were not purchase agreements where Indigenous nations were offered compensation in exchange for the surrender of their lands. Instead, they were nation-to-nation agreements that established the terms for how sovereign entities would coexist peacefully while sharing the land.
But because treaty texts were written from the British perspective – often before negotiations had even begun – the paper terms of the agreement differed from other historical accounts.
For balanced view of what each treaty really means, you have to understand the Indigenous perspective. Wampum belts, oral histories and written records of what was said during treaty negotiations provide invaluable corrections to any misinterpretations.
Myth #2: Treaties are best understood by reading the written texts
Political protocols differ by nation and culture and in order to understand the true consensus arrived at by both parties, it’s important to look at all the ways in which treaties were recorded. Indigenous nations documented political alliances through symbolic representations: beaded wampum belts that grounded the principles of the agreement using the precision and clarity of visual symbols. For many treaties, there are also oral histories and written records of oral negotiations that give further insight into what was being promised.
Myth #3: Prior to European arrival, Indigenous nations did not enter into treaties
Indigenous nations have a long tradition of making treaties that outlined responsibilities to the land and established agreements based on peace and friendship. When Europeans arrived, treaty making was already a long-standing feature of Indigenous diplomacy.
Myth #4: By entering into treaties with the British, Indigenous nations lost their sovereignty
While the written versions of many treaties subtly frame Indigenous peoples as Crown subjects, treaties were negotiated with the understanding that both parties would retain their sovereign status.
Take the Royal Proclamation of 1763, for example. It’s filled with paternalistic language and assumptions that were corrected by Indigenous nations through the negotiation of the Treaty of Niagara in 1764. This foundational treaty solidified a nation-to-nation relationship and clarified the legal jurisdiction of each party.
Myth #5: Treaties have no relevance today
Many Canadians believe that treaties are a thing of the past. They think that all treaties were negotiated before Canada became a country and that they are no longer a part of the way that the Canadian Government engages with Indigenous nations. Not only are treaties still being made today in the form of comprehensive land claims, treaties made in past remain legally-binding agreements between nations that must be adhered to by all settlers residing in this country.
The phrase, “we are all treaty people” is an effective way of expressing the legal obligations that all Canadians have to uphold the terms of the treaties. And in order to ensure that they are not breaking the contract, Canadians must educate themselves about the obligations and responsibilities they have to Indigenous nations and to the land.
Myth #6: Treaties only benefit Indigenous peoples
A common view among Canadians is that treaties only benefit Indigenous people. Many see the Indigenous rights secured through treaty making as privileges unfairly withheld from non-Indigenous Canadians. The truth is, it is because of treaty making that Canadians are able to enjoy the benefits of living on this continent. Without treaties, Canadians would be illegally occupying this land.