The Hidden Truths of the Treaty No. 9 Agreement
Throughout Canada’s history, the relationship between Indigenous Nations and settlers has been marred by a long-standing pattern of broken promises and exploitation — and the signing of Treaty No. 9 is no different. Signed in 1905 and 1929, Treaty No. 9 is an agreement between the Crown and Indigenous Nations in Northern Ontario that, according to many, protects Indigenous sovereignty while sharing the land with settlers. That understanding begs the question: why have successive settler governments run roughshod over that sovereignty, expropriating lands and excluding Indigenous Peoples from decision making over their territories?
At the time, the treaty was presented as a document of mutual understanding and cooperation, but the truth behind its signing reveals a tale of deceit, misinformation, and bad faith.
The Breathing Lands campaign — a powerful coalition of Treaty No. 9 Nations — aims to expose the lies and misrepresentations of settler governments around Treaty No. 9. This landmark court challenge ultimately seeks restitution for a legacy of broken trust and exploitation on behalf of the Federal and Provincial governments.
In the late 1800s, the Canadian government sought to further expand its influence and control over vast territories of Indigenous Peoples. Intent on the extraction of sacred resources thanks to the start of the industrial revolution, resource exploitation ramped up dramatically. The building of the CPR through unsurrendered lands from 1881 to 1885 only heightened the growing tension between Indigenous Nations and settlers. Migrants arrived in large numbers, bringing disease and disruption to ecosystems that had been cared for and stewarded by the Nations for generations.
Hungry for access to valuable resources and to build infrastructure for timber extraction and hydro-electric power, officials representing Ontario and Canada embarked on a campaign to secure access to the territories now known as the James Bay lowlands — the Breathing Lands — through treaty negotiations.
The Deceptive Negotiations
In the years between 1901 to 1905, Canada and Ontario drafted Treaty No. 9 without the presence of Nations whose fates (and land) the treaty would deeply impact.. Both Canada and Ontario appointed Treaty Commissioners, including the infamous Duncan Campbell Scott, the future Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs, who is famously quoted to “want to get rid of the Indian problem” through residential schools. These men, bearing a draft of a Treaty Indigenous Nations had not yet seen, travelled to Hudson’s Bay Company posts across what would become Treaty No. 9 territory.
Since many of the Indigenous leaders did not speak or read English, interpreters were used. Treaty negotiations involved Indigenous Nations demanding that their way of life not be interfered with, and that their fishing and hunting grounds not be encroached upon. Under the continued assurance of the Commissioners, Indigenous leaders believed they were signing onto an agreement which would ensure their existing rights, and that enshrined an understanding of shared use of land and resources between settlers and Indigenous Peoples within the territory.
Indigenous leaders gathered throughout eleven signing ceremonies between 1905 and 1906 and again in 1929 and 1930 to expand the area that the treaty encompassed. The Written Treaty itself was never translated into Anishinaabe or Cree, and no physical copy of the Treaty was left with the Indigenous Nations.
What was actually “written”?
Taking a look back it is clear that there were two different treaties: “The Written Treaty” and “The Oral Treaty”. This discrepancy forms the backbone of the Breathing Lands Nations’ legal argument.
The Written Treaty was agreed upon by Canada and Ontario before Indigenous Nations were ever involved. To give you the short version, it read that Indigenous Nations agreed to “cede, release, surrender and yield up all their rights, titles, and privileges whatsoever” while also allowing the Crown to exploit and extract resources uninhibited. All while promising that Indigenous people had to be “good and loyal subjects of the King.”
In return, Treaty No. 9 Nations were meant to receive a small gratuity ($8 per person on signing and $4 per person per year from then onward), limited reserve land, and few other “perks” such as a right to continue hunting, trapping and fishing throughout the tract surrendered, subject to regulations and extinguishment when lands are “taken up” by the Crown, and school buildings and educational equipment only if advisable to the Crown.
At the stroke of a pen, the sovereignty of dozens of Nations was undermined, without their knowledge or consent.
But, in addition to this Written Treaty, there was an Oral Treaty. Though researchers and Indigenous leaders have already shown this, the Breathing Lands challenge aims to prove in court that the Commissioners representing the Crown willfully omitted whole sections of the Written Treaty when they offered their oral translations to Indigenous Signatories. Little did the Commissioners know that Indigenous Nations keep detailed and strict record through their own oral traditions. This form of record-keeping has been recognized by the Canadian legal system as legitimate evidence in cases proving Indigenous rights and title.
So, the question the Breathing Lands plaintiff Nations are bringing to court is: “Do we have to continue to honour a Written Treaty that was signed under false pretences, using deceptive tactics? Or should Canada be held to the standards and commitments laid out in the Oral Treaty, as well?” It’s the key pieces that were omitted from oral negotiations — no surrender of title to lands, and a desire for co-jurisdiction over territories — that are at stake in this historic challenge.
Treaty No. 9 stands as a stark example of how the Crown deceived Indigenous Nations through misinformation and misrepresentation. The bad-faith negotiation of the Treaty laid the foundation for the legacy of broken promises, ongoing struggles, and the erosion of Indigenous rights we continue to see today.
RAVEN is supporting a coalition of Breathing Land Nations who have joined forces in one shared aim: to prove to the courts that Treaty interpretation must include the whole story.
The Breathing Lands challenge aims to enshrine co-jurisdiction over Treaty No. 9 territory into law. This case also has the potential to change the way we interpret Treaty agreements across Canada. It could be a gamechanger for Indigenous jurisdiction over 2/3rds of Canada, advancing Indigenous rights and providing restitution for historic injustices.