How much did Canada 'pay' First Nations for the prairies?

In a series of seven treaties between 1871 and 1877, the Dominion of Canada persuaded Aboriginal people to cede their rights over the land of Manitoba and the North-West. First Nations communities were promised various forms of annual payments, but no actual purchase price changed hands. Is it possible to calculate an assumed, if notional, capital value on the basis of these continuing outlays, the price that Canada would have paid had the treaties constituted a normal property transaction?

The transfers were worded in comprehensive and sweeping terms: for instance, in Treaty 3, concluded in 1873, First Nations representatives agreed to "cede, release, surrender, and yield up to the Dominion of Canada, for Her Majesty the Queen and her successors forever, all the rights, titles and privileges whatsoever" in the lands covered by the agreement.[1] As will be discussed, the absolute nature of the transaction was undermined at the time by the Dominion's inconsistent belief that Queen Victoria (and hence Ottawa) already owned the land, while the Treaties would be subsequently downgraded by a judicial decision which pronounced that indigenous "rights, titles and privileges" had never amounted to much in the first place. Nonetheless, at the time, the "Numbered Treaties" (as they are sometimes called) were perceived to be important steps towards the opening of the prairies for settlement: whatever the precise nature of Aboriginal rights, their extinguishment was a necessary precondition for white settlement. Thus, in normal commercial terms, the vendors should have been in a position to command a good price.

In return for the concession of their heritage, First Nations were to receive – in perpetuity – annuities of $5 paid to every man, woman and child.[2] Ottawa also undertook other obligations, although it was not clear whether these were intended to be permanent or merely transitional, even if over long periods. In Treaty 6, for instance, the government agreed to supply a "medicine chest", but it is difficult to know whether this implied a guarantee of broad and permanent health care.[3] Other investment, such as assistance to indigenous communities to convert to settled agriculture, was explicitly designed as a bridging programme.

It was not until the nineteen-sixties that the Treaties were even mentioned in Canadian history textbooks,[4] and even then Canada's historians overlooked the fact that Ottawa made no capital payments to secure control of the region. J.L. Finlay and D.N. Sprague were unusual when they observed in 1979 that "most of the Indian lands between Manitoba and the Rocky Mountains south of latitude 60 degrees north were transferred by treaty from the native people at almost no cost to the government of Canada."[5] This note asks how much did Canada 'pay' for what Treaty negotiator Alexander Morris called "the great region from Lake Superior to the foot of the Rocky Mountains"?[6] (The quotation marks denote the fact that Canada actually handed over no purchase price, making it necessary to adopt more speculative methods to estimate a capital valuation.)

Alexander Morris defined the Aboriginal cession in Treaties 1 to 7 as their "relinquishment ... of all their right and title to the lands covered by the treaties, saving certain reservations for their own use". These reservations included permission to hunt, except on land converted to farming, and to fish, and the right to allocation of land for reserves. In other words, First Nations received 'rights' which they already enjoyed, plus annual payments and the assurance of help to make the transition to farming.[7] Historians have debated the extent to which Aboriginal peoples understood the terms that were largely dictated to them.[8] It is true that concepts such as individual ownership of property – in contrast to indigenous communal values – and mining rights were not fully explained, but there can be little doubt that Native people were aware of the enormity of the surrender that confronted them. In the negotiations for Treaty 3, in the North-West Angle, First Nations representatives asserted that "it was the Indian's country, not the white man's. ... We think where we are is our property."[9] To identify the roots of subsequent misunderstandings, right down to the present, it is more useful to explore ambiguities in the Canadian interpretation of the term "Indian title". In 1888, in the landmark case of the St Catharines Milling and Lumber Company, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (then Canada's ultimate court of appeal) would rule that the Crown had always owned the land.[10] While that view was implicit in much of the negotiations with First Nations in the previous decade, there was a thread of ambiguity in the Treaties which left undefined precisely what was being traded.

Did Canada already "own" the prairies? Essentially, the problem was that Canada assumed it already owned the prairie lands – as the 1888 judicial decision would confirm. Indeed, it owned them twice over, first through the sovereignty of Queen Victoria and then thanks to the Dominion's purchase of the rights of the Hudson's Bay Company. Crown sovereignty depended upon the breathtaking bravado of Charles II in laying claim to the vast region of Rupertsland in 1670. Lieutenant-Governor David Laird even improved upon the monstrosity of the claim by throwing in the appropriately seventeenth-century concept of divine right. "It is by the Great Spirit that the Queen rules over this great country and other great country," he informed the Blackfoot (Niitsitapi) in 1876.[11] Even more remarkably, the political concept of sovereignty was taken to include outright ownership of all the land within it, an extension of royal prerogative unknown in English law since the Norman Conquest: "the British, simply by setting foot in North America, had acquired title to Indian lands."[12] This real-estate bonanza had been transferred by successive charters to the Hudson's Bay Company. In 1869, the Dominion had bought the Company's rights for £300,000 ($1.46 million)[13], plus one-twentieth of the land in the Fertile Belt, an asset that would offer a useful valuation tool a few years later.[14] (The Company remained active in the region, operating as a trading organisation.) "Under the charter of the Hudson's Bay Company all the lands whatever that might be contained in the country covered by that charter were vested in fee simple in the Company," Macdonald explained to parliament in 1870. ("Fee simple" is a lawyer's synonym for "freehold".) "Under the arrangements by which the country was transferred to the Dominion, those lands and all the rights of the Hudson's Bay Company in those lands would become part of the Dominion of Canada." The prime minister made only passing allusion to provisions for "extinguishing the Indian title", adding: "There were very few full-blooded Indians now remaining, and there would not be any pecuniary difficulty in meeting their claims." The context implied that both the nature and the status of those claims would be deemed to fall well short of untrammelled ownership.[15] Five years later, from the opposition benches, Macdonald repeated the point more succinctly: "The Dominion had purchased the whole of the North-West, and it belonged to Canada".[16]

Macdonald's calm assumption of outright Canadian possession of the whole region was not shared by Aboriginal people, who were alarmed by the implications of the 1869 Hudson's Bay Company deal. "We heard our lands were sold and we did not like it," protested the Cree chief Wikaskokiseyin (Sweet Grass) in 1871, adding "we don't want to sell our lands; it [sic] is our property, and no one has the right to sell them."[17] During negotiations for Treaty 4, another Cree leader, Paskwāw (Pisqua), referred to the £300,000 sale price and bluntly told a Company official: "We want that money."[18] There was particular discontent at the location of the Hudson's Bay Company's Qu'Appelle trading post on land First Nations claimed as their own. In rejecting the complaint, Alexander Morris asserted Crown ownership in absolute terms. "The Company have a right to have certain lands granted them by the Queen.... If the Queen gives them land to hold under her she has a perfect right to do it, just as she will have a perfect right to lay off lands for you if you agree to settle on them. ... She has taken all the lands in the country to manage; they were hers; they were her [fore]fathers[']". One outspoken chief, Otakaonan (The Gambler) continued to object not merely to the disputed trading post, but to the entire theory of sovereignty that lay behind it. "The Company have no right to this earth. ... I hear now, it was the Queen who gave the land. The Indians thought it was they who gave it to the Company, who are now all over the country. The Indians did not know when the land was given."[19] Aboriginal people might have been forgiven for wondering why they had been summoned to a discussion of their future at all.

What was 'Indian title'?   "The Indian title is vital – not mythical", insisted Victoria-based Senator W.J. Macdonald in 1886. "If mythical, why do governments go to the trouble and expense of quieting it[?]", answering his own question: "simply because it is vital to the peace and settlement of countries, and just to the first possessors of the soil."[20] Senator Macdonald was arguing a case that was generally rejected by British Columbia's settler community. James Douglas, the first governor of Vancouver Island, had taken some small steps towards recognition of Indian title around Victoria. "As the native Indian population of Vancouver Island have distinct ideas of property in land," he advised the Colonial Office in 1861, "... they would not fail to regard the occupation of such portions of the Colony by white settlers, unless with the full consent of the proprietary tribes, as national wrongs". For the British government, the Duke of Newcastle replied recognising "the great importance of purchasing ... the native title to the soil of Vancouver Island".[21] However, the imperial authorities had no intention of providing any cash, and the merger of the island colony with the vast mainland region of British Columbia in 1866 created a daunting challenge in relation to Indian rights which – as the united colony moved towards local autonomy – settler politicians solved by outright denial. As early as 1870, the chief commissioner of lands, J.W. Trutch, blatantly rewrote recent history. Indian title had "never been acknowledged by Government" and was indeed "distinctly denied". Douglas had merely handed out a few presents "for the purpose of securing friendly relations ... and certainly not in acknowledgement of any general title of the Indians to the lands they occupy." British Columbians regarded this position as entirely reasonable. When the colony entered Confederation the following year, the terms of union – at Trutch's insistence – remarkably required Ottawa to adopt a policy towards First Nations "as liberal as that hitherto pursued by the British Columbia Government."[22] It was left to the governor-general, Lord Dufferin, to reprove the province for its harsh attitude. In a landmark speech delivered on a visit to the provincial capital in 1876, Dufferin drew a firm distinction between the exclusive claim of Crown ownership and the recognition of Aboriginal rights, assuming a much stronger antithesis than was in fact reflected in the ongoing Treaty negotiations. He regretted that "the Provincial Government has always assumed that the fee simple, as well as the sovereignty over the land, resided in the Queen." Across the rest of Canada, "the Indian title" had been respected: "no Government, whether Provincial or central, has failed to recognise that the original title to the land existed in the Indian tribes and communities that hunted and wandered over them. Before we touch an acre we make a treaty with the chiefs of the bands we are dealing with, and having agreed upon and paid the stipulated price, oftentimes arrived at after a great deal of haggling and difficulty, we enter into possession, but not until then do we consider that we are entitled to deal with an acre."[23]

However, British Columbia politicians felt equally entitled to lecture the rest of Canada on how to handle the land that Aboriginal people had occupied for generations. One of their more colourful representatives regretted that their firm line had not been applied on the prairies. "The proper way – the just way – ought to have been to ignore the so-called Indian title," Amor de Cosmos informed the House of Commons in 1880. "The Indian should have been told that the white man had as good a right to share with them in the possession of the lands as they had." The rights of "the Indian" to retain the lands he occupied should be respected, "but his so-called title to land that he had not made and never could use would be disregarded. Had such a policy obtained there would have been no deception and no heavy expenditure for Indian annuities. Such had been the policy of British Columbia and it had worked well." When opposition leader Alexander Mackenzie called the theory "inhuman", De Cosmos replied: "We knew them better than you do."[24] One modern historian of the province has written: "So unquestioned became the white myth of an empty land and so entrenched became the doctrine of unencumbered crown ownership that the question of Indian title virtually disappeared from white public debate."[25] Indeed, another veteran of pioneer times, J.S. Helmcken, was outraged that Aboriginal people should dare lay claim to "that misleading and legally meaningless term 'Indian title'. Let the Indians be taught and convinced that the land belongs to the crown [sic] (Her Majesty) and that they must give up the one thing which prevents their claims being adjusted, viz., their illegal and pernicious notion of the land belonging to them, or having any legal title thereto. This being done, their requisitions and desires would probably receive every attention and probably be easily met and adjusted", he announced in 1885, enigmatically ending his diatribe with the words: "Honesty is the best policy."[26]

While the concept of Indian title was generally recognised from Lake Superior to the Rocky Mountains, this did not mean that it was precisely or even implicitly defined. In April 1868, the engineer S.J. Dawson submitted a detailed report on the possibilities of an overland route from the Lakehead to the Red River, which would come to bear his name. The Salteaux (Ojibwa) – around 3,000 of them in the Rainy River / Lake of the Woods area – were "independent; sometimes, even a little saucy". However, in the older provinces, "Canada has been fortunate in dealing with the Indian element; and ... I see no reason for anticipating greater difficulty than has arisen in the past." Dawson recommended that "some sort of a treaty should be arrived at with the Indians", who had "manifested displeasure ... at parties being sent through their country, to explore and examine it, without their consent being first asked and obtained." Hence Dawson argued that "the first treaty should be confined ... simply to right of way. By combining it with the land question, surveys of townships for settlement, reserves for the Indians, and so forth, complications might arise which would prove embarassing [sic]."[27] In the event, Treaty 3, concluded in 1873 – Dawson was part of the Dominion negotiating team – imposed a version of the standard comprehensive settlement. But it is worth considering the implications of his proposal. To have sought an agreement with First Nations simply to secure rights of safe passage would have implicitly accepted not just their title to ownership but would also have recognised that they exercised a degree of administrative control over the region amounting to de facto exercise of sovereignty.

At the other extreme, there were Canadians who found it difficult to endorse the claim made by Lord Dufferin, that "the original title to the land existed in the Indian tribes and communities that hunted and wandered over them." A Winnipeg newspaper in 1873 objected to the hyperbole of one elaboration of the concept of Indian title. "In no sense can the Indian tribes be said to be 'lords of the soil'. It is contrary to law and common sense to say that a wandering, thinly scattered people, living by fishing and hunting and not cultivating the earth, can be the proprietors of a country capable of sustaining a population of ten or twenty millions of people. ... it is only filling their heads with false notions to style the Indians as 'lords of the soil' of a country of the dimensions of the North-West."[28] Indeed, Alexander Morris indicated that there were limitations to his concept of Aboriginal rights during the argument over the Hudson's Bay Company post at Qu'Appelle. When Otakaonan sweepingly accused the traders of stealing "the earth, the grass, the stones and the wood", Morris retorted that all these had been created by the Great Spirit. "He made them for all his children to use, and it is not stealing to use the gift of the Great Spirit. The lands are the Queen's under the Great Spirit."[29] A similar issue had surfaced the previous year during the deliberations for Treaty 3. The Dawson route was a combination of stretches of navigable waterway linked by portages. Aboriginal people objected to the cutting of timber on the river banks to fuel wood-burning steamers. "Wood and water were the gift of the Great Spirit," Morris loftily replied, "and were made alike for the good of the white man and the red man." Dawson was more direct. "Wood on which the Indians had bestowed labor was always paid for; but wood on which we had spent our own labor was ours."[30]

There was some irony in the fact that it should be the issue of control over the right to cut timber that led, in 1888, to the judicial decision that Native people had never possessed full rights of ownership of the land between Lake Superior and the Rocky Mountains.[31] Between 1885 and 1887, in the St Catharines Milling and Lumber Company case, Canadian courts dismissed the idea that Aboriginal people had owned freehold title over their lands, a decision upheld by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in December 1888. Conspiracy theorists might suspect that the timing – the case first came to court at the time of the suppression of the 1885 rebellion – indicated that white Canadians no longer had any need to indulge a hypocritical myth of Aboriginal ownership. But this would be to overlook the fact that indigenous people presumably benefited – if not by very much – from the ambiguity of the definition of Indian title during the preceding Treaty decade: the assumption that they had something worth selling certainly placed them in a stronger position than the post-1888 ruling that they were, in essence, wards of the state dependent upon white charity. In fact, the roots of the St Catharines Milling and Lumber case went back several years. The specific case arose out of a boundary dispute between Ontario and Manitoba, in which the Dominion government sought to curb the territorial limits of its most powerful province. This in turn formed part of a campaign by the government of Ontario to roll back the political frontiers of Dominion authority.

The case centred on a company permitted by Ottawa to cut timber around Wabigoon Lake in far western Ontario. Oliver Mowat's provincial government claimed control over the licensing process, since Section 92 of the British North America Act (now the Constitution Act) gave the provinces exclusive control over their public lands "and of the Timber and Wood thereon". The Dominion case was that Section 91 gave the central government sole authority over "Indians, and Lands reserved for Indians". Since the Indians had ceded control over the Wabigoon Lake area through Treaty 3 concluded in 1873, Ottawa was now the successor to their title, and hence could block any provincial attempt at intervention. Ontario's response was to argue that "Lands reserved for Indians" referred solely to reserves allocated to Aboriginal people, and that First Nations had never owned the region in the first place. Thus Indian title became a collateral casualty in federal-provincial crossfire.

Battle lines were set out as early as 1882, in a combative address by the prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, to a party rally in Toronto. "The land belonged, so far back as the grant of Charles II could give it, to the Hudson's Bay Company, but it was subject to the Indian title. They and their ancestors had owned the lands for centuries until the Dominion Government purchased them."[32] Macdonald's claim sat uneasily with his earlier statements in parliament that Canada owned the North-West in fee simple – that is to say, outright. The Toronto Globe provided an instant rebuttal of "[t]he absurdity of bringing in the Indian title, extinguished by various treaties with the aborigines.... All that the Government has ever admitted is a moral obligation to provide for the Indians as wards of the nation – not that they have an actual legal title to lands other than those in their actual occupation." While few Canadians would "deny either the expediency or the justice of making some compensation to the Indians who, by the advanced of civilization, are deprived of their means of subsistence", it was "a piece of transparent special pleading" to claim that "the few thousands or tens of thousands of dollars" paid annually to First Nations had secured Dominion ownership to the exclusion of Ontario's claims.[33]

These contrasting positions were maintained before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council six years later. "We contend that these lands were lands of which the whole title was in the Indians [i.e. Aboriginal people owned the land outright] subject to the dominion of the Crown," contended the distinguished English lawyer, Sir Richard Webster, on behalf of Ottawa. His Canadian colleague D'Alton McCarthy pressed the same argument. "Under the Treaty of 1873 the Dominion had an absolute title to these lands on the theory that the Indians were the beneficial owners and had for a valid consideration conveyed it to the Dominion."[34] This was robustly denied by Oliver Mowat, who appeared himself for the Ontario government in the early stages of the litigation. "We say there is no Indian title in law or in equity. The claim of the Indians is simply moral and no more."[35] Addressing the Judicial Committee, the distinguished Canadian Liberal politician and lawyer Edward Blake toned down the assault, but still left no doubt that he regarded Indian title as falling well short of outright ownership. "At most I submit it was a right or easement to hunt or fish over the tract, not transferable, extinguishable only in favour of the lord of the soil and always subordinate to and carved out of the Crown title."[36] ("Easement" is a legal term for the right to use somebody else's land, an entitlement that falls short of ownership. It will be discussed later in reference to a parallel example from Newfoundland history.)

Throughout the progress of the case, judges clearly leaned to the Ontario interpretation, which carried the day at every level. The Supreme Court of Canada dismissed the possibility that indigenous communities possessed the necessary political structures to permit the concept of ownership: "nothing is more clear than that they have no government and no organization, and cannot be regarded as a nation capable of holding lands". Hence it followed that Treaty 3 was negotiated "simply to relieve the legal ownership of the land belonging to the Province from the burden, incumbrance, or however it may be designated, of the Indian title."[37] (This was a doubtful statement by the judges: the western boundaries of Ontario were still undefined when Treaty 3 was concluded. The legal terms "burden" and "incumbrance" simply denoted an obligation, and were not intended in any pejorative sense.) When McCarthy insisted that indigenous people had transferred beneficial ownership to the Crown, one of the British judges sceptically interjected: ""But all that the Indians conveyed to the Crown were their rights, titles and privileges, whatever they may be?"[38] In its decision, the Judicial Committee aligned itself with Macdonald in parliament against Macdonald on the platform. "The Crown has all along had a present proprietary estate in the land, upon which the Indian title is a mere burden." Native people, it generously concluded, had been entitled to occupy the land included in Treaty 3 (and, by extension, other such agreements), but only by "a personal and usufructuary right" which depended on the goodwill of the ultimate owner, the sovereign of Great Britain.[39] Their lordships had in fact gone further than Edward Blake had requested. An easement is a permanent and enforceable right of access to somebody else's property. A right that is usufructuary (harnessing the fruits of usage) is temporary and revocable. The St Catharines Milling and Lumber Company case was a triumph for the province of Ontario. It was also a disaster for the Aboriginal people of Canada.

The attempt to clarify the meaning of the phrase "Indian title" indicates a considerable divergence in interpretation between the nineteenth and the twenty-first centuries. Today, the adjective will generally be assumed as simply identifying the people who possessed the rights. Yet it seems likely that for most Canadians in Victorian times, it was a qualifying term, denoting a category of entitlement that fell far short of freehold ownership.[40] To them, Indian title was akin to modern tenancy or occupancy rights. In this interpretation, the Dominion did not set out to secure outright transfer of ownership over prairie land, since that was something it claimed to possess already. Rather, Native people were offered a form of compensation for disturbance, just as might be awarded today to people renting apartments in a block that was to be demolished for the construction of a freeway. In the twenty-first century, Canadians have no honourable alternative but to interpret "Indian title" as denoting outright ownership. The complication is that the starting point for rectifying past injustices is a set of treaties dictated by a much more grudging attitude to Aboriginal claims. Yet it is worth stressing that the formal definition of Indian title as a secondary level of interest in the soil was only pronounced by the courts in 1885-8, some years after the conclusion of Treaties 1 to 7. In the eighteen-seventies, both moral and practical considerations had made the appeasement of indigenous communities a higher priority than the Treaty process would appear in retrospect, when Aboriginal communities were broken by disease and cultural deprivation.

Two products of the "compensation for disturbance" mentality may be specified. The first was that Canada's negotiators opted to offer guaranteed annual payments: they had no intention of handing over any capital sum. Had they been so minded, a paternalist mechanism already existed that could have been adapted to ensure that Aboriginal communities were not suddenly drenched with cash that they could not responsibly handle. Ottawa's Department of Indian Affairs spent almost no money in Ontario or Quebec, because financial support for First Nations communities in the central provinces came from the Indian Fund, a mechanism inherited from pre-Confederation times. Morris explained how it operated during the negotiations at Fort Carlton for Treaty 6 in 1876. In Ontario, Aboriginal people sometimes "found they had too much land" and "asked the Queen to sell it for them; they kept as much as they could want, and the price for which the remainder was sold was put away to increase for them, and many bands now have a yearly income from the land."[41] As an account of the process by which land in central Canada had been transferred to settler control, this was charmingly ludicrous. But Morris was right to identify the Indian Fund as a well-endowed financial agency. In 1882, its funds stood at $3.147 million, and it made payments of $0.257.[42] However, it is noteworthy that Morris floated the possibility of a similar arrangement on the prairies in connection with the suggestion that First Nations might subsequently wish to sell the reserves offered to them as part of the treaty process, and not as an alternative to annuities and transitional support payments in return for the cession of Indian title in general. Hence a fundamental difficulty in any retrospective attempt to calculate the valuation which Canada placed on the prairies lies in the problem that nobody at the time thought in terms of capital transfers.

The second implication of the tacit downgrading of the concept of Indian title was that negotiators were not minded to offer First Nations anything like the actual, still less the potential, value of the lands they occupied. This enquiry now moves to that more nebulous question, the calculation of a notional purchase price for the prairies.

Capitalising the Treaty process. In his 1876 Victoria address, Lord Dufferin had insisted that Canada never took possession of Aboriginal land until it had "paid the stipulated price". If the governor-general was unwittingly implying that the treaties took the form of standard property purchases, he would of course have seriously misled his British Columbia audience. Some down payments were made at the close of each treaty negotiation, usually including a "gratuity" for each man, woman and child at a slightly higher rate than the continuing annuity. Thus at the conclusion of the Treaty 7 talks, David Laird conceded a one-off $12 initial payment, disbursing $53,000 to 4,400 people.[43] Such sums made little impact on any overall valuation: essentially, Canada discharged its obligations through long-term commitments to annual payments. How then is it possible to establish a capital valuation on a property for which no formally designated purchase price changed hands?

There is an actuarial clue in a speech by Richard Cartwright, who had served as finance minister in Alexander Mackenzie's Liberal government from 1873 to 1878. Addressing parliament in 1880, he remarked that "we have incurred annual obligations forever for the extinction of the Indian title, of at least $600,000, which sum capitalized will give $15,000,000."[44] Cartwright's methodology deserves more respect than his motives. Two years later, he cited the same calculation when he complained about the rising cost of the Indian Affairs budget, which he now attributed to slack administration: his enemy, Sir John A. Macdonald, had irresponsibly added an additional $600,000 since 1878, which "when capitalized at 4 percent is the equivalent to an addition of $15,000,000 to the national debt".[45] Cartwright's complaint might seem beside the point, since the Indian Affairs budget was funded from current revenue, but no doubt he would have maintained that expenditure was a seamless web, and that additional taxpayer cash paid to First Nations would force the government to borrow for other purposes. The key point is the multiplier of the figure for interest: Cartwright's yardstick encourages us to consider Canada's payments to Native people as a four percent return on a notional capital valuation.[46] Hence the calculation should be relatively simple: work out how much was spent on Aboriginal people each year, multiply it by 25, and the result should indicate how much Canada would have been prepared to pay for the prairies – had the Dominion government been minded to hand over actual cash.

Not surprisingly, the exercise is not so simple as it might first seem, since it is necessary to decide which outlays represented continuing annual substitutions for a notional capital sum. The exercise here is based on the budget for 1882, the first year in which Indian Affairs expenditure passed $1 million, almost all of it in Manitoba and the North-West Territories.[47] The expenditure, distilled from Departmental reports, has been analysed in the useful doctoral thesis of Dr Carl Beal. Amounts above $100,000 are reported (and sometimes rounded) here to three decimal points of a million.[48]

Dr Beal calculated the total Indian Affairs expenditure for 1882 in Manitoba and the North-West at $1.105 million.[49] If all of this were to be regarded as a continuing commitment, and subjected to Cartwright's four-percent formula, the acquisition of the prairies had cost the Dominion something around $27.5 million. But around half the 1882 outlay, $0.563 million, represented the cost of emergency provisions designed to keep Native people alive during a time of famine. "It was an absolute necessity to any Government to take care that these people should not be allowed to starve", Macdonald told parliament in February 1882, but he made clear that the crisis commitment was not intended to be indefinite: "one of the obligations thrown upon us all, as civilized people, is to take care that these poor aborigines ... are furnished with necessaries of life for a certain period. [emphasis added]."[50]

Cartwright's assertion that Canada had "incurred annual obligations forever" amounting to $600,000 was tendentious. Non-emergency spending by Indian Affairs for 1882 was $0.542 million, but this could be divided between long-term commitments and payments that were avowedly transitional. Canada's undoubted enduring commitment took the form of promises to pay annuities: as Morris put it at Qu'Appelle in 1874, "five dollars to every man, woman, and child, as long as the sun shines and the water flows."[51] In 1882, the Department of Indian Affairs believed it was dealing with 37,044 indigenous people across Manitoba and the North-West: annuities at $5 a head for 37,000 Aboriginal people should have cost $0.185 million. The total would have been slightly inflated, since higher payments – up to $25 – were made to a small number of chiefs and councillors, but these would not greatly affect the overall amounts.[52]

In fact, annuity payments for 1882 amounted to $0.227 million. This additional outlay was a by-product of the crisis caused by the collapse of buffalo stocks, especially in Treaty 7 country, what would later become southern Alberta. As Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs Lawrence Vankoughnet reported to the Auditor General, the unexpected return of around five thousand Blackfoot (Niitsitapi), who had been "absent for some time hunting south of the border", prompted payment of a "large sum" in overdue annuities, which this frugal and habitually precise bureaucrat could only report at "about $35,000".[53] Payments fell in subsequent years, hovering around $170,000 in 1884 and 1885, no doubt a measure of the terrible mortality in First Nations communities.[54] Government officials were also expected to feed Aboriginal people during the annual payment ceremonies, and in 1882 (the first year in which this expenditure heading was specifically noted) $44,000 was spent on provisions. This would total $0.271 million for the year, the equivalent of a capital value of $6.8 million for the entire real estate. However, given that special circumstances boosted the payments for 1882, it might be more reasonable to regard the underlying cost as around $0.220 million. This would reflect a notional capital sum of $5.5 million.

The $0.271 of guaranteed permanent payments, in annuities and hospitality, represented precisely half the $0.542 million of non-emergency spending in Manitoba and the North-West. How much of the remaining $0.271 million would represent long-term expenditure, and how much was merely temporary and transitional? Provision of schools on the reserves was one continuing obligation under the Treaties, but the cost for 1882 was the tiny sum of $5,592.[55] Even this commitment may have been transitional: if Aboriginal people were eventually assimilated into the farming population, they would presumably be expected to raise their own school taxes. Once the Territories were erected into provinces – as happened in 1905 – education would cease to be Ottawa's responsibility. At most, the 1882 outlay on schools would have raised the notional capital valuation to $5.65 million. However, there are indications that First Nations themselves pressed to have schools established on the reserves.[56] Since no time limit for educational expenditure was specified in the Treaties, it is included in this estimate.

However, it was much harder to forward-project the sum of $0.138 million spent in 1882 to assist indigenous people to take up farming and thus ease them into a settled way of life.[57] Officially, this was a transitional measure: in 1880, the Department of Indian Affairs was confident that "the majority of bands will, in the course of a few years, be self-supporting."[58] Submitting the Indian Affairs budget to parliament in 1883, the finance minister, Sir Leonard Tilley, insisted that farm expenditure was an investment. "We hope by-and-bye ... with the instructions that are being given to our Indians in agricultural pursuits, they may be induced to settle down and cultivate the lands, and cease to be, to a great extent, a charge upon the Dominion of Canada."[59] But how long was "a few years" and what proportion was the "great extent" that might be saved? One clue was the offer by Morris, during negotiations for Treaty 4, of gifts of ammunition and twine, for hunting and fishing nets, for a period of twenty years, "by the end of which time I hope you have your little farms."[60] Initial optimism about Aboriginal adaptation to settled farming soon gave way to a pessimistic acceptance that it might be difficult to foresee when the obligation to provide support would cease to be necessary.[61] Macdonald in 1885 called assimilation "a slow process. ... You must treat them, and our children, and our grand-children, and our great-grand-children, must treat them in the same way, until, in the course of ages, they are absorbed in the general population."[62] If the entire cost of farm assistance, $0.138, was capitalised according to the Cartwright formula, $3.45 million would be added to the notional purchase price, increasing the figure already estimated for annuities, hospitality and schools to a total of $9.1 million. However, the general consensus in the eighteen-eighties seems to have been that the commitment would gradually reduce, even if over a very long period. Hence it might be more appropriate to adopt a compromise position, assigning half the 1882 expenditure on agricultural assistance to the notional capital valuation. This would produce a reduced figure of $7.375 million.[63]

As already argued, two estimates may be ruled out. The $27.5 million produced by capitalising all Indian Affairs expenditure in Manitoba and the North-West is inflated by the cost in 1882 of providing emergency supplies. Cartwright's own figure of $15 million in 1880 seems to have been plucked out of the air as a conveniently round number, as shown by his decision to repeat it in a different context two years later. We are thus left with four estimates, which are at least within a relatively narrow range. Capitalising a reasonable estimate for the cost of annuities and accompanying hospitality gives a figure of $5.5 million. Adding an allowance for the basic cost of schools increases this to $5.65. Regarding the entire agricultural assistance budget as a permanent commitment would boost the capital value to $9.1 million. However, it seems more realistic to see farm support as something that could be expected to taper off over a lengthy adjustment period, in which case regarding half the 1882 expenditure as the equivalent of a return on capital reduces the total to $7.375 million. On balance, the last of these figures – $7.375 million for annuities, hospitality, schools and half the spending on agricultural assistance – seems the most reasonable. It works out at around $6 per square kilometre.

An addition of $7.375 million to Canada's debt would no doubt have been unwelcome, but it would have been feasible. In 1882, the Dominion's debt stood at $205.365 million: it had increased by around $10 million in the previous two years. In 1893, it would hit $300 million.[64] Raising a loan for the cash sum needed to buy out the claims of First Nations once and for all, would have been perfectly possible. If white paternalism distrusted Aboriginal stewardship of such large sums of money, the proceeds could have been paid into an enlarged Indian Fund.

Should other government expenditure be capitalised as part of payment to First Nations? Indian Affairs was not the only government agency operating on the prairies. The establishment of the North-West Mounted Police in 1873-4 was contemporary with the Treaty process, but not formally part of it. The force was not something offered to Aboriginal people as an inducement to cede their rights. Nonetheless, the presence of the Mounted Police helped protect First Nations communities. In the discussions preceding Treaty 7 in 1877, Aboriginal leaders spoke positively of them, hardly an element in a tough negotiating stance. Even Crowfoot was quoted as saying that the Mounted Police had protected indigenous people "as the feathers of the bird protect it from the frosts of winter." When another speaker demanded compensation for timber used by the constabulary, Lieutenant-Governor Laird raised a laugh by retorting that "if there should be any pay in the matter it should come from the Indians to the Queen for sending them the Police."[65] Later, police doctors were employed to carry out vaccination programmes against smallpox.[66] "What are they for but to look after the Indians?" asked a British Columbia MP in 1884.[67] Should the money that Ottawa spent on the Mounted Police – $0.368 million in 1882 – also be regarded as part of the sale value of First Nations land, and capitalised, adding an additional $9.2 million to the notional price? Macdonald's analysis of their role in 1885 would argue against this. "When this force was first formed the country was comparatively unsettled, and the duties of the policemen were principally confined to watching the movement of the Indian tribes, and keeping the peace in the vicinity of the reserves," he told the House of Commons in the aftermath of the 1885 uprising. "They performed that duty very efficiently, but still the duty was an easy one in comparison with what is required of them now, as there is a large mixed population and a long frontier for them to guard."[68] While the presence of the Mounted Police had incidentally been of benefit to Aboriginal people, the primary purpose of the force had been to control them, and its functions had become more complex as settlers had arrived. Even if there had been no indigenous population in the region, the Dominion would have needed to assert its authority, especially against incursions from south of the United States border. The cost of the North-West Mounted Police should be regarded as one of the many expenses inherent in administering the Territories, and not as part of their capital cost.[69]

Comparisons Consideration of two other well-known deals in the same general period can suggest indicative comparisons of this notional $7.375 million valuation of the prairie region.

a] Alaska In 1867, the United States had paid $7.2 million for Alaska, with a land area of about 1.72 square kilometres.[70] Since Treaties 1 to 7 covered roughly 1.2 million square kilometres,[71] it would seem that the price 'paid' by Canada for the prairies was similar to the amount received by the Tsar for "Seward's icebox". However, it seems unlikely that Russia sought to drive a hard bargain. The Russian motive for selling was similar to the reasons why Native people acquiesced in the Treaty process: fear that the Americans could not be prevented from eventually occupying Alaska anyway.[72] In other respects, the cases are of course not identical: Canada did not purchase sovereignty, but some form of property rights over potentially useable territory, whereas only 0.025 percent of Alaska is farmland. However, given the nature of the two territories, it is impossible not to conclude that Canada secured control of the prairies at a bargain price – and all the more so since no purchase money in fact changed hands.

b] The Canadian Pacific Railway subsidy One other major transaction from that era was the $25 million subsidy agreed for the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1880 – plus 25 million acres of land. The subsidy was paid in instalments, but it took the form of real cash, not notional estimates of value. When a further massive government loan was required to save the company in 1884, the political price for pushing it through parliament included an outright $2.4 million subsidy to Quebec's long-projected North Shore railway. By the time the entire Pacific railway project teetered on the brink of collapse in 1885, the sums of money floating around were astronomical.[73] But even if we merely take our stance on the initial $25 million outlay guaranteed in 1880, it seems clear that the Dominion government was prepared to contribute to the transcontinental railway project, in real cash, more than three times the value that it had notionally placed upon Aboriginal rights in Manitoba and the North-West.

Three contemporary valuations. Three other near-contemporary estimates of the values of land and associated rights throw comparative light on the fairness of the terms that were – in effect – dictated to Aboriginal people.[74] The first dated from 1875-6, before the large-scale development of the prairies. The second, in 1882, was made on the assumption that the region would soon be opened up by the transcontinental railway, enabling farmers to market their crops and thus adding to the value of the land. Neither example involved any kind of dealing with Aboriginal people. The third is a more tentative example, arising from a dispute between Britain and France over fishing rights along the coast of Newfoundland.

a] The Fertile Belt, 1875-6 The land grant of one-twentieth of the Fertile Belt awarded as part of the 1869 handover was a mixed blessing for the Hudson's Bay Company. There were disputes over the quality of the allocated land, some of which the Company denounced as useless swamps. A more serious problem was caused by the Dominion Lands Act of 1872, which copied the United States homesteading policy, making available free grants of 160-acre blocks. Except around Fort Garry on the Red River, where the new city of Winnipeg was chartered in 1873, there was little prospect of land sales for a very long time.[75] For their part, the Liberals had disliked Macdonald's 1869 deal: as prime minister, Alexander Mackenzie decided to attempt to buy the land, thereby giving the Canadian government outright control over the whole region. Of course, dealing with the Hudson's Bay Company was a wholly different proposition to the dictating of terms to Aboriginal groups who knew little of the wider world. The Company's shareholders were well represented in London, the world's leading financial centre. Two of its Governors (CEOs), Stafford Northcote – who negotiated the 1869 settlement – and G.J. Goschen, would go to serve in the high political office of chancellor of the exchequer, Britain's finance minister.

Although Mackenzie and Goschen reached an outline agreement in 1875-6, the deal eventually fell through. Neither party was enthusiastic about the agreed price and, as Canada slid into depression, the cabinet was reluctant to endorse so large an item of expenditure. One by-product of this inconclusive outcome was that precise area of land at stake was not defined. It was agreed in principle that the Company could retain its potential Winnipeg real estate, as well as extensive holdings around its trading posts, such as the block at Qu'Appelle that had aroused the resentment of Cree leaders in 1874, but it seems that detailed surveys were not concluded.[76] However, it is enough to note that discussions focused on upwards of 6.6 million acres of land, an area of around 27,000 square kilometres – about two percent of the territory covered by the Treaties, which were under negotiation through that same decade.

Mackenzie offered either a cash payment of £500,000 ($2.43 million), or £550,000 ($2.68 million) in bonds. After demanding £600,000 ($2.92 million), Goschen reluctantly agreed to the £550,000 bonds offer, and was not much disappointed when the government had second thoughts about the deal. In effect, the bonds arrangement meant that the Canadian government would buy the Hudson's Bay Company's one-twentieth share of the Fertile Belt, but immediately borrow the purchase price from the vendor. In exchange for this one-hundred-percent mortgage, the Company would draw interest on the bonds, at the often-quoted rate of four percent. On £550,000, this would produce an annual return of £22,000 ($0.107 million).[77] Thus for 27,000 square kilometres, the Company would receive about half the total annuity payments (and associated hospitality costs) given to indigenous people in exchange for the extinguishment of their rights, however defined, across 1.2 million square kilometres. Furthermore, unlike the First Nations, the Hudson's Bay Company would eventually reap the capital sum in cash, whenever the bonds were liquidated.

As already noted, many white Canadians argued that Aboriginal interaction with the vast territories of the North-West was neither intense nor efficient, and therefore fell short of the full European concept of freehold. But, however tenuous indigenous occupation of the Treaty lands may have seemed to Europeans, First Nations did at least make use of them. By contrast, the Hudson's Bay Company hunted no buffalo on its one-twentieth paper assignment of western land, nor did it attempt to trap moose, shoot wildfowl or catch fish. Aside from the trading posts, which it was not going to sell, the Company made no attempt at occupancy at all. Property assigned just six years earlier could hardly be regarded as ancestral patrimony. As a commercial organisation, the Hudson's Bay Company had no accounting procedure that could value or even lay claim to spiritual affinity with the land. It is possible to view Treaty terms as essentially payments to First Nations in compensation for disturbance. But the proposed land deal did the Company the considerable favour of relieving it of an administrative problem through the liquidation of an unrealisable asset. The contrast between the two groups of recipients of Dominion bounty was remarkable: clearly, coming to terms with Goschen was a tougher proposition than buying off Crowfoot.

If 27,000 square kilometres represented one-twentieth of the Fertile Belt, then the potential land bank could be assumed to amount to 540,000 square kilometres, almost half the area covered by the Treaties. No doubt the Hudson's Bay Company were offered a sweetheart deal to neutralise their potential nuisance value, but if the $2.68 million of the proposed bond deal were applied to the whole Fertile Belt, it would produce a valuation of $53.6 million. As discussed earlier, the hypothetical calculations of this paper suggest a capital sum underlying the Treaty deals with First Nations of $7.375 million. The valuation of the Fertile Belt implied by the Mackenzie government's offer to the Hudson's Bay Company was roughly seven times larger than the capitalised resources allocated to Aboriginal people for the entire region of twice the area.

b] Tilley's 1882 budget speech The 1882 valuation of Canada's western windfall was offered by the finance minister, Sir Leonard Tilley, who certainly thought the Dominion had made a good bargain. Delivering his budget speech to parliament, he had every reason to be upbeat. The Dominion was heavily committed to the Pacific railway project, which was still some way short of completion. Hence Tilley's estimate that Canada had acquired 175 million acres of potential agricultural land – over 700,000 square kilometres – was considerably larger than the assumed area in 1875-6.[78] Tilley reminded MPs that 25 million acres formed part of the subsidy to the Canadian Pacific Railway, while 75 million was in the process of being granted free to settlers under the Dominion Lands Act homesteading policy. The remaining 75 million acres (just over 300,000 square kilometres) would sell at $1 an acre.[79] Of course, 75 million acres of land surveyed and serviced by railways would be more valuable than 75 million acres of barely accessible wilderness, but a return of more than ten times the $7.375 million notionally allocated to First Nations can only be regarded as a very sharp deal – the more so as it took no account of the remaining half million square kilometres that had also been acquired, with its potential for cattle raising and possibility of mineral resources. Tilley was out to prove that the transcontinental railway would pay for itself. It might have been more accurate to recognise that the cost was going to fall upon the Aboriginal people who had been forced to cede their claims to the principal capital asset.

c] Newfoundland's French Shore It may be objected that both the above estimates related to the value of freehold land, whereas indigenous people living on the prairies were treated as sitting tenants who had to be bribed to move out – and whose "Indian title" was eventually downgraded by the courts anyway. However, in Newfoundland's "French Shore", British North America had one parallel situation where inconvenient rights of occupancy constituted "easements" or a "burden" upon title to outright sovereignty and land ownership. In the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, the French ceded Newfoundland and adjacent islands "wholly to Great Britain", promising that they would never "at any time hereafter lay claim to any right to the said islands, or to any part of it, or them." In return, French fishermen were allowed to land on the west and north coasts during the fishing season, and to erect timber stages and huts for the processing of their catch. These rights were confirmed in the 1763 Treaty of Paris, which also gave France a tiny consolation for the loss of Canada, the cession "in full right" of the islands of St Pierre and Miquelon, "to serve as a shelter to the French fishermen". The cession of these islands, off the south coast of Newfoundland, thus involved a transfer of full sovereignty of a kind superior to the seasonal landing rights along the French Shore: they remain French territories to this day. Arrangements were completed by the 1783 Treaty of Versailles, which was accompanied by a British declaration which recognised the entitlement of French fishermen to cut "the wood necessary for the repair of their scaffolds, huts, and fishing vessels."[80]

In the context of the eighteenth century, the French Shore arrangement was a safe and sensible concession, since the English fishery was largely confined to the east and south-east of the island.[81] Unfortunately, friction developed in the nineteenth century, as a settled population took control of an expanded fishing industry, and Newfoundland became, after 1855, a self-governing colony, and gradually began to assert administrative control over the distant west coast.

In the eighteen-seventies, a new and lucrative export trade developed in lobsters.[82] It was doubtful whether crustaceans were fish within the meaning of the treaties. More controversial was the problem that they needed to be canned on the spot for marketing. When French merchants erected canneries, Newfoundlanders protested that "no reasonable man could for a moment argue that temporary stages made of boards and scaffolds, or flakes for drying fish, would include a substantial building roofed with corrugated iron, containing a solidly-built boiler with a brick foundation."[83] French diplomats responded by making "claims tantamount to sovereignty", including the assertion that rights of France on the Newfoundland coast were "a part of her ancient sovereignty over the island, which she retained when ceding the soil to England, but which she has never diminished or alienated." "Buncombe" was the private comment of the British Foreign Office, but the French Shore had become entangled with territorial disputes in the south Pacific, with the predictable result of worldwide deadlock.[84]

Unsympathetic to geopolitical constraints, Newfoundland politicians were attracted to a simple and imaginative solution. In 1898, the colonial ministry suggested that French claims should be bought out, floating the sum of £2 million ($9.73 million) as a reasonable price.[85] As a practical proposition, this was wholly fantastical. The British government, the only possible source of so much money, had no intention of writing such a cheque. Indeed, Britain came close to war with France over a territorial clash in Africa that year. Still smarting from the loss of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany in 1871, the French would in any case have been sensitive about selling part of their national inheritance anyway. There was no parallel between the Newfoundland situation and the crisis on the prairies caused by the disappearance of the buffalo two decades earlier. A naval squadron energetically upheld the French position; no threat of a collapse in fish stocks required fundamental adjustments of life styles (although, paradoxically, the French offshore cod and herring fishery had shrunk to minimal proportions). Yet the legal position was broadly similar. True, in 1887 judges had made the astonishing decision that Indian title was merely "usufructuary", capable of being revoked at will by the heirs and successors of Charles II. But in the Treaty decade, it had been generally, if diffusely, assumed that Aboriginal people had possessed rights of some form that could only be extinguished by some form of consent – the position of France on the Newfoundland coast. Hence the respective valuations placed upon the two must be of some significance.

The French Shore was not precisely defined in the international treaties, but was generally assumed to stretch half a mile (800 metres) inland: permission to cut timber and erect huts obviously implied something deeper than a mere fringe of occupation along the high-water mark.[86] It extended for about 1,000 kilometres. Coasts rarely follow straight lines but, even if the actual littoral was twice as long, the French zone of influence could only have covered about 1,600 square kilometres, roughly one-eighth of one percent of the land included in Treaties 1 to 7. The summer season of 1898 saw just 291 French fishermen on Newfoundland's north and west coasts.[87] The colony's politicians hoped that $9.73 million would put an end to the anomalous situation. The 37,000 Aboriginal people of Manitoba and the North-West had received a settlement capitalised in this analysis at $7.375 million. Cod caught by the French fishing boats that year was valued at £7,850 ($38,280).[88] Four percent interest on £2 million would have returned £80,000 ($0.39 million) a year – ten times the French offshore catch. (In the event, the French ceded most of their rights in the 1904 global settlement of disputes with Great Britain that founded the Entente Cordiale.)[89]

Conclusion The validity of the exercise attempted in this paper depends upon acceptance of its argument that it is possible to calculate a notional value recognised by the Dominion of Canada for the rights transferred by First Nations in Manitoba and the North-West. The analysis has used the Cartwright formula as outlined in parliament in 1880. His arithmetic was partisan and tendentious, but his methodology is claimed to offer a useful tool. It treats commitments to permanent expenditure in exchange for the cession of Aboriginal rights as the equivalent of a four percent interest payment on additionally acquired debt. It is therefore necessary to identify which expenditure was long-term, a sum that may then be multiplied by 25 to produce an estimate of capital value. The calculation offered here treats the annuity payments (to be paid "annually afterwards, forever" as the text of Treaty 4 described them)[90] plus the accompanying cost of provisions for hospitality along with the relatively small amounts for education as the core and enduring promises. These represent a capital sum of $5.65 million. To this has been added the capitalisation of the half the 1882 costs of agricultural assistance to Aboriginal communities, on the assumption that this ostensibly transitional area of expenditure was likely to continue for many decades, before eventually tapering away to zero. The resulting figure, the notional price for the extinguishment of indigenous rights from Lake Superior to the Rocky Mountains, is $7.375 million.

It cannot be too strongly underlined that anyone who might wish to draw upon this paper whether for a student presentation or for a public policy statement must accept the responsibility of independently endorsing both the methodology proposed and the calculations presented. The Cartwright formula for converting continuing annual payments to a notional capital sum seems plausible, but I know of no other example of its use in any academic exercise. The classification of the payments to be regarded as substitutes for a lump-sum purchase price is obviously a subject that could also provoke extensive debate. Cartwright himself estimated the total cost of the North-West to Canada at over $80 million, and that was in 1880, relatively early in the development of the region.[91] It is to be regretted that so little of that cash was received by the people who had actually occupied the region and whom modern-day opinion would regard as its rightful owners. Nonetheless, there is bound to be room for disagreement over the precise of apportionment of Canada's expenditure between compensation and investment.

In his early years, the volubly insensitive racist Amor de Cosmos had in fact wished that the colony of Vancouver Island could forge ahead by buying out "the Indian title". Unfortunately, neither the government in Victoria nor the imperial authorities in London would provide the necessary cash. "Granting this to be the case," de Cosmos argued in 1861, with the air of a rational person who has reviewed and dismissed all the possible alternatives, "shall we allow a few red vagrants to prevent forever industrious settlers from settling on the unoccupied lands?"[92] It might be said that many Canadian historians of the mid-twentieth century silently adopted much the same position. Among the pioneer generations of textbook writers, I can think of no scholar who explicitly said that because the Dominion could not have afforded to acquire the West in a genuine real estate deal, Canada had no choice but to impose a solution in which its indigenous inhabitants lost out. But that was in part because the formative colony-to-nation histories barely took account of First Nations at all. From the nineteen-sixties, historians began to weave allusions to the Treaties into wider narratives of Canada's past. But the story of the absorption of the West into the nation was dominated by the experience of the Metis, the community of mixed European and Aboriginal origin, while the complex personality of their leader, Louis Riel, posthumously assumed the combined burden of regional and Francophone discontents. The specific question – precisely what did Canada purchase in the Treaties? – became the stuff of court cases and political negotiations, but somehow it failed to project backwards into the narrative of the nation's past. In particular, nobody seemed to be struck by the oddity that Canada 'bought' something – whether freehold title or rights of mere usage – without in fact handing over any purchase price. By necessary extension, nobody asked how much the Dominion would have paid, had the Treaties constituted a normal property transaction. The figure proposed here, the notional sum of $7.375 million, is open to debate and to adjustment. However, it may surely be taken as at least a general indicator of the price Canada paid to gain control of the prairies. By comparison, between 1894 and 1930, the Hudson's Bay Company made around $60 million in land sales across the region.[93] In the context of the eighteen-seventies, when the Dominion gave priority to shunting aside indigenous people to open the way for settlement, it hardly mattered whether their rights comprised outright ownership or tolerated occupancy: First Nations possessed something that Canada wanted and needed. Capitalising the compensation imposed during the Treaty process can only confirm that Aboriginal people received a very poor deal in return for the rights they signed away.

ENDNOTES My thanks to Andrew Jones and Richard Tompkins for help with the presentation of this text. 

[1] Alexander Morris, The Treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba and the North-West Territories ..., Toronto: Prospero Canadian edition, 2000 (cf. first ed., 1880), 322. I use the term "prairies" loosely as convenient shorthand for the North-West. Of course the region comprises many different landscapes.

[2] For a summary of Treaties 1 to 7, G. Friesen, The Canadian Prairies: a History, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984, 135-49. Chiefs and counsellors were granted higher payments. Treaty terms are tabulated in J. St Germain, Indian Treaty-Making Policy in the United States and Canada, 1867-1877, Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2001, Appendix 3. In 1936, George Stanley provided one of the earliest modern academic summaries of the Treaties, a sympathetic review but now coloured by his use of terms like "Indian problem" and "savages". G.F.G. Stanley, The Birth of Western Canada: a History of the Riel Rebellions, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1960 ed. (cf. first ed. 1936), 194-215.

[3] David Mills, one of Canada's less likeable politicians, disliked the terms of Treaty 6, although he was the (Liberal) minister ultimately responsible for it. Some provisions were "exceedingly objectionable and such as ought not to have been made with any race of savages". He was particularly critical of the generalised promise to save Native people in time of famine, which he claimed would "predispose the Indians to idleness". St Germain, Indian Treaty-Making Policy in the United States and Canada, 1867-1877, 144.

[4] A note, "Treaties and Textbooks", will shortly be published on martinalia (

[5] J.L. Finlay and D.N. Sprague, The Structure of Canadian History, Scarborough, Ont.: Prentice-Hall of Canada, Ltd., 1979, 190.

[6] Morris, The Treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba and the North-West Territories, 285.

[7] Morris, The Treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba and the North-West Territories, 285-9. When the treaties were negotiated in the 1870s, it was still not clear how many settlers would arrive, and how quickly. Several statements by government representatives indicate that a lengthy transition was foreseen, in which traditional life styles could continue, e.g., for Treaty 4 in 1874: "it may be a long time before there are many white men settled upon this land, and you will have the right of hunting and fishing just as you do now until the land is actually taken up." Ibid., 96.

[7] Morris, The Treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba and the North-West Territories, 96, and cf. 29, 204, 257.

[8] Friesen, The Canadian Prairies: A History, 147-9. S.J. Dawson, who was responsible for explaining the terms of Treaty to the Ojibwa, was confident that he had discharged his task. "Before signing it they comprehended perfectly the nature of the obligations into which they were about to enter, that the surrender of their territorial rights would be irrevocable, and that they were to stand forever afterwards in new relations to the white man." (emphasis added) Morris, The Treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba and the North-West, 327. For the use of interpreters, St Germain, Indian Treaty-Making Policy in the United States and Canada, 1867-1877, 63-6.

[9] Morris, The Treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba and the North-West, 57, 59. No doubt recalling the circumstances of the 1850 Robinson Treaties, Ojibwa tried to raise the issue of mineral rights during discussions leading to Treaty 3. Ibid., 70.

[10] O.P. Dickason, Canada's First Nations: A History of the Founding Peoples from Earliest Times, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1992, 342.

[11] Morris, The Treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba and the North-West, 267.

[12] Dickason, Canada's First Nations: A History of the Founding Peoples from Earliest Times, 342.

[13] The exchange rate from sterling to dollars was £1 = $4.8666. W.T. Easterbrook and H.G.J. Aitken, Canadian Economic History, Toronto: The Macmillan of Canada Company, 1956, 459, 464. Amounts have been rounded to two decimal points.

[14] J.S. Galbraith, The Hudson's Bay Company as an Imperial Factor, 1821-1869, New York: Octagon Books, 1977, 419-26. Liberals later argued that the £300,000 paid to the Company was "so ridiculously out of proportion to the immense value of the country as to show conclusively that it was merely paid to dispose of a vague, indefinite claim – not to purchase an indefeasible title." Toronto Globe, 1 June 1882. But this was to overlook the inclusion of the one-twentieth land grant.

[15] Debates of the House of Commons, 4 May 1870, 1359 (abbreviation given in full):

[16] Debates of the House of Commons, 12 March 1875, 656: Dickason identifies this element of ambivalence as early as the 1850 Robinson treaties: "since the Crown already claimed underlying title, what was it accepting from the Amerindians?"  Dickason, Canada's First Nations: A History of the Founding Peoples from Earliest Times, 255. The historian Thomas Flanagan also believes that the 1888 Privy Council decision downgrading Aboriginal rights to those of mere customary usage was "implicit in the practice of the recent decades" although the view was "unarticulated". T. Flanagan, Riel and the Rebellion: 1885 Reconsidered, Saskatoon: Western Producer Books, 1983, 77.

[17] A.J. Ray, Indians in the Fur Trade..., Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974, 228; A.R. Turner, "Wikaskokiseyin, Abraham", in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed November 12, 2019,

[18] Morris, The Treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba and the North-West, 106; K.J. Tyler, "Paskwāw", in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed November 12, 2019,

[19] Morris, The Treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba and the North-West, 99-104.

[20] Victoria Daily Colonist, 5 November 1886.

[21] P. Tennant, Aboriginal Peoples and Politics: The Indian Land Question in British Columbia, 1849-1989, Vancouver: UBC Press, 1990, 21-2.

[22] Tennant, Aboriginal Peoples and Politics: The Indian Land Question in British Columbia, 1849-1989, 39-40; R. Fisher, "Trutch, Sir Joseph William", in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed November 18, 2019,

[23] W. Leggo, The History of the Administration of the Right Honourable Frederick Temple, Earl of Dufferin ..., Montreal: Lovell Printing and Publishing Company, 1878, 471-2.

[24] Debates of the House of Commons, 21 April 1880, 1635-6: Born William A. Smith, De Cosmos was openly racist. His belief that ignoring Native title "had worked well" for British Columbia stored up problems for the province in the later twentieth century. Robert A. J. McDonald and H. Keith Ralston, "De Cosmos, Amor," in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 9, 2019,

[25] Tennant, Aboriginal Peoples and Politics: The Indian Land Question in British Columbia, 1849-1989, 41.

[26] Victoria Daily Colonist, 30 November 1885. Helmcken also denounced claims of "a worthless 'Indian title' to (to them) worthless land", 5 November 1886.

[27] Report by S.J. Dawson, 20 April 1868, Sessional Papers 1867-8, no. 81, 27-8:

[28] The Manitoban, 10 May 1873.

[29] Morris, The Treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba and the North-West, 102; R.J. Talbot, Negotiating the Numbered Treaties: an Intellectual and Political Biography of Alexander Morris, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2019, 82-3. The DCB does not discuss his views on Aboriginal issues: D.P. Marshall, "Helmcken, John Sebastian", in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed November 18, 2019,

[30] Morris, The Treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba and the North-West, 57.

[31] For useful summaries of the St Catharines Milling and Lumber case, Dickason, Canada's First Nations: A History of the Founding Peoples from Earliest Times, 339-43 and the note by Tansi Nîtôtemtik, 8 October 2018, The 1887 judgement of the Supreme Court of Canada is given at For the Privy Council hearing, Curiously, for such an important case, there is no consensus regarding the spelling of the company's name, or whether it should contain an apostrophe. The Supreme Court of Canada used "Catharines"; the Privy Council "Catherine's". Dickason favours "Catharine's". I have opted to conform with the name of the Ontario city. 

[32] C.R.W. Biggar, Sir Oliver Mowat ...: a Biographical Sketch, 2 vols, Toronto: Warwick Bro[ther]s & Rutter, Limited, 1905, ii, 460-1.

[33] Toronto Globe, 1 June 1882.

[34] Toronto Globe, 23, 25 July 1888.

[35] Dickason, Canada's First Nations: A History of the Founding Peoples from Earliest Time, 340-1.

[36] Toronto Globe, 26 January 1889.

[37] St. Catharines Milling and Lumber Co. v. R.:

[38] Toronto Globe, 25 July 1888.

[39] Dickason, Canada's First Nations: A History of the Founding Peoples from Earliest Time, 342.

[40] While it is always dangerous for historians to assert a negative ("never" can be undermined by a single example), the excellent search facility for online parliamentary debates ( demonstrates that the term "freehold" only appears on the same page as "Indian" and "title" on the rare occasions where it describes the status of land after extinguishment of Aboriginal rights and transfer to settler occupation.  

[41] Morris, The Treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba and the North-West, 205.

[42] Sessional Papers of the Dominion of Canada: volume 4, first session of the fifth Parliament, session 1883, 5-xli:

[43] Morris, The Treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba and the North-West, 260-1. Head chiefs were paid $25, minor chiefs $15, with a total outlay of $52,954 to 4,392 people.

[44] Debates of the House of Commons, 17 December 1880, 149:; C. Morgan and R.C. Brown, "Cartwright, Sir Richard John",” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed November 12, 2019,

[45] Debates of the House of Commons, 24 February 1882, 104: Modern accountancy uses the capitalisation of interest to remove the cost of servicing loans from current expenditure. But Cartwright's approach was different: he treated continuing annual expenditure as if it were interest on a debt, and multiplied by 25 to postulate a capital sum. In effect, he inverted the modern accountancy practice by warning against the notional addition to Canada's debt.
Interest rates on 10-year Canadian bonds hovered around 4 percent from the 1870s to 1914:

[46] Britain's 1885 Ashbourne Act, the first major legislation facilitating peasant land purchase in Ireland, was also based on a four percent interest rate, although its provisions were more complex. M.J. Winstanley, Ireland and the Land Question 1800-1922, London: Methuen, 1984, 40.

[47] The 1882 budget is discussed in "The Department of Indian Affairs in the Dominion of Canada budget, 1882",

[48] Carl Beal, "Money, markets and economic development in Saskatchewan Indian reserve communities, 1870 to 1930s", PhD thesis, University of Manitoba, 1994, esp. 140.

[49] The same expenditure was returned at $1,099,706 ($1.1 million) in the main text of the report: Sessional Papers of the Dominion of Canada: volume 4, first session of the fifth Parliament, session 1883, 6-332-6-340: It was a crisis year and some inconsistency in reporting may be forgiven.

[50] Debates of the House of Commons, 10 February 1882, 15:

[51] Morris, The Treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba and the North-West, 92-3.

[52] In a few instances, annuities for Native women were commuted, with the $5 annual payment bought out for $50.

[53] Sessional Papers of the Dominion of Canada: volume 4, first session of the fifth Parliament, session 1883, 6-332-6-340:

[54] Beal, "Money, markets and economic development in Saskatchewan Indian reserve communities, 1870 to 1930s", 140.

[55] The Department had in fact secured a larger grant for education, $23,668, intended to develop industrial schools, the residential institutions designed to separate Native children from their indigenous heritage and train them to (in white eyes) useful occupations. In the event, the dislocation of 1882 made it impossible to proceed with the programme that year. J.S. Milloy, A National Crime: the Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879 to 1986, Winnipeg: The University of Manitoba Press, 1999; Sessional Papers of the Dominion of Canada: volume 4, first session of the fifth Parliament, session 1883. 6-339-6-340:

[56] St Germain, Indian Treaty-Making Policy in the United States and Canada, 1867-1877, 108-11.

[57] The total included $37,288 for "farm maintenance", with no further details provided. Specific expenditure included $16,529 for farm instructors (assumed to be largely non-Native personnel), plus $30,894 in wages to labourers, who presumably were mainly Aboriginal people. Provision of seed (for grain crops) cost $22,958 and of cattle $19,033, while tools and implements were valued at $11,255. Sessional Papers of the Dominion of Canada: volume 4, first session of the fifth Parliament, session 1883, 6-332-6-340:

[58] M. Zaslow, The Opening of the Canadian North, 1870-1914, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1971, 19.

[59] Debates of the House of Commons, 30 March 1883, 334-5:

[60] Morris, The Treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba and the North-West, 93. The 20-year limit did not appear in the final agreement, ibid., 332. It was a small item, costing $7,230 in 1882.

[61] Dominion policy did not help: S.Carter, "Two Acres and a Cow: 'Peasant' Farming for the Indians of the Northwest, 1889-1897," Canadian Historical Review, lxx (1989), 27-52.

[62] Debates of the House of Commons, 10 June 1885, 2427:  

[63] The Department also reported $93,214 for general and miscellaneous expenses, much of which presumably covered continuing activities. Its size and lack of detail may explain why Deputy Minister Vankoughnet toured the region himself in 1883 and imposed what modern bureaucrats so unhelpfully call efficiency savings. J. Daschuk, Clearing the Plains, Regina, University of Regina Press, 2013, 134-8, 143. It is difficult to know whether some other small items would recur in future years. $20,624 was spent on surveys, $2,741 was allocated to non-Treaty Sioux, and $2,567 on clothing – a small enough outlay given the obvious need to replace the lost supply of buffalo robes.

[64] Canada Year Book 1905, 186.

[65] Morris, The Treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba and the North-West Territories, 272, 258.

[66] Daschuk, Clearing the Plains, 105.

[67] E.C. Baker, Debates of the House of Commons, 1 April 1884, 1269:

[68] Debates of the House of Commons, 9 June 1885, 2943: 

[69] The same may be argued of the cost of the industrial schools programme, which began to soar from 1883. Something that was done not for but to Aboriginal people can hardly be regarded as a substitute for a purchase price, but rather as a subsequent and government-inspired attempt at social engineering. Industrial schools were proposed in the 1879 Davin report, which followed the Treaty-making process.

[70] The area transferred in 1867 was closer to 1.52 million square kilometres. The United States gained further territory through the settlement of the boundary dispute with Canada in 1903. The value of the Canadian dollar was officially set at parity with the United States dollar, although it sometimes traded at slightly different rates. J. Powell, A History of the Canadian Dollar, Bank of Canada, 2005, 33-4:

[71] Curiously, Canada's historians seem to have ignored the basic question of the area covered by Treaties 1 to 7: even Alexander Morris was vague on the subject. It is possible to make an estimate, since Treaties 1 to7 included the whole of the district of Assiniboia, most of the districts of Alberta, and Saskatchewan (i.e. the southern half of the modern provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan), plus the whole of the province of Manitoba, in its much smaller 1881 boundaries. Whitaker's Almanack, 1900, 488, gives their combined area as 419,000 square miles. In addition, about 32,000 square miles covered by Treaty 3 was transferred to Ontario (the whole equal to 1.17 million square kilometres). Part of the territory covered by Treaty 5 related to land within the district of Keewatin, north of Lake Winnipeg, which was incorporated into Manitoba in 1912. Estimates are complicated by the lakes of southern Manitoba: the 3 largest cover 35,000 square kilometres. Overall, an estimate of 1.2 million square kilometres seems reasonable – and is offered as a contribution to a historical discussion that has not focused closely on the subject of area.
Mercator's projection exaggerates the size of Alaska on a flat map when compared with regions further south.

[72] H. Miller, "Russian Opinion on the Cession of Alaska", American Historical Review, xlviii (1943), 521–531.

[73] P.B. Waite, Canada 1874-1896: Arduous Destiny, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1971, 108, 131-6.

[74] Dominion representatives not only adopted a take-it-or-leave-it attitude in presenting their terms for each Treaty (it is difficult to identify any substantial concession during any of the deliberations) but were accompanied by soldiers or police, e.g. a detachment of troops at Treaty 3 who "exercised a moral influence which contributed most materially to the success of the negotiations." Morris, The Treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba and the North-West, 52. Cf. St Germain, Indian Treaty-Making Policy in the United States and Canada, 1867-1877, 73-4. St Germain, 281, identifies the small number of instances where historians have argued that Aboriginal people secured modification of Treaty terms. Historian Robert J. Talbot stresses the long Aboriginal tradition of negotiating alliances among First Nations, and notes instances of their successful insistence upon specific terms. However, it is also clear that Treaty negotations were conducted within a financial envelope determined in advance by Ottawa. It is possible that Morris's concessions were tactical retreats designed to allow Native representatives to claim reassuring victories. Talbot, Negotiating the Numbered Treaties: an Intellectual and Political Biography of Alexander Morris, 58-63, 72.

[75] J.S. Galbraith, "A Note on the Mackenzie Negotiations with the Hudson's Bay Company, 1875-1878", Canadian Historical Review, xxxiv (153), 39-45.

[76] Galbraith, "A Note on the Mackenzie Negotiations with the Hudson's Bay Company", 45n gives the final allocation as 6.630 million acres (26,830.7 square kilometres); Zaslow, The Opening of the Canadian North, 1870-1914, 54, puts it at 6.689 million acres (27,069.5 square kilometres). By the end of 1873, the Company had recouped less than $6,000 in land sales. By 1882, sale of Winnipeg real estate had reached $2.049 million. Galbraith, 45; Zaslow, 54, 288.

[77] Actual figure $105,600. 

[78] Tilley's estimate of actual settlement was perhaps exaggerated: R.L. Gentilcore, ed, and G. Matthews, cartographer, Historical Atlas of Canada: ii, The Land Transformed, 1880-1891, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993, Plate 42 (J.M. Richtik, D. Measner). However, Canada's surveyor-general, J.S. Dennis, had estimated in 1872 that the North-West contained 375 million acres of land suitable for cultivation of wheat, double the area Tilley cited in 1882. Zaslow, The Opening of the Canadian North, 1870-1914, 24.

[79] Debates of the House of Commons, 24 February 1882, 82-3: 1884, Louis Riel demanded annuities for First Nations and Metis apparently calculated on an assumption that the West was worth around $400 million. However, it is difficult to understand his assumptions. T. Flanagan, Riel and the Rebellion: 1885 Reconsidered, Saskatoon: Western Producer Books, 1983, 91-2.

[80] F.F. Thompson, The French Shore Problem in Newfoundland: an Imperial Study, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1961, 191-2. The French Shore was reduced in length along Newfoundland's north-east coast in 1763. Although St Pierre and Miquelon were ceded in full sovereignty, the French promised not to fortify the islands. In 2019, they have special status but also enjoy representation in the French parliament. A.M. Fraser, "The French Shore" in R.A. Mackay, ed., Newfoundland: Economic, Diplomatic and Strategic Studies, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1946, 275-332.

[81] P. Neary, "The French and American Shore Questions as Factors in Newfoundland History" in J. Hiller and P. Neary, eds, Newfoundland in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: Essays in Interpretation, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980, 95-122.

[82] Fraser, "The French Shore" in Mackay, ed., Newfoundland: Economic, Diplomatic and Strategic Studies, 305-28.

[83] D.W. Prowse, A History of Newfoundland from the English, Colonial and Foreign Records, London: Macmillan and Co., 1895, 540.

[84] Thompson, The French Shore Problem in Newfoundland: an Imperial Study, 93, 98, 48-73.

[85] Thompson, The French Shore Problem in Newfoundland: an Imperial Study, 165. It should be pointed out that the island's politicians did not have a stellar record in estimating costs: 1898 was the year of the monumentally disastrous Newfoundland railway contract.

[86] The Colonial Office instructed the governor in 1869 that land grants might be made half a mile from the high water mark, but not in areas occupied by French fishermen. Neary, "The French and American Shore Questions as Factors in Newfoundland History",109.

[87] Neary, "The French and American Shore Questions as Factors in Newfoundland History" in Hiller and Neary, eds, Newfoundland in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: Essays in Interpretation, 113.

[88] Thompson, The French Shore Problem in Newfoundland: an Imperial Study, 163.

[89] In the event, the French ceded most of their rights in the 1904 global settlement of disputes with Great Britain that founded the Entente Cordiale. A year later, following arbitration, the British government paid £55,000 ($264,000) in compensation to the private claims of French fishermen. Individual claims would of course be cheaper to erase than national rights. Fraser, "The French Shore" in Mackay, ed., Newfoundland: Economic, Diplomatic and Strategic Studies, 331.

[90] Morris, The Treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba and the North-West Territories, 332.

[91] Cartwright's calculation was between $84.683 and $87.683 million. Debates of the House of Commons, 17 December 1880, 149:

[92] Tennant, Aboriginal Peoples and Politics: The Indian Land Question in British Columbia, 1849-1989, 23-4.

[93] Zaslow, The Opening of the Canadian North, 1870-1914, 54. Inflation reduces the real value of the $60 million, but not by much. One price index gives an overall increase of 1.72% between 1900 and 1935-9. Waite, Canada 1874-1896: Arduous Destiny, 292.