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(CANADA, 1851 to 1900 – continued)

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Expansion, Indian Treaties and Sitting Bull, 1874-81

Map of plains of Canada and First Nation treaties of 1874-77

Canadian Indian treaty areas. The treaty boundaries are rough estimates.

In 1874 the newly formed North-West Mounted Police ("Mounties") made their "March West" with poor equipment and a lack of provisions. Their purpose was to establish a federal presence on the plains area west of Winnipeg.

In April 1875 the construction of Fort Calgary was begun. The fort was built with pine and spruce logs cut upstream and floated to the site. The Mounties would soon be containing the whiskey trade and policing agreements with indigenous (Indian) peoples – today officially called "First Nation" peoples. Commanding officers of the Mounties were to be sworn in as a justice of the peace, giving them magisterial authority.

In 1876, Canada's conservative government introduced measures to advance the dominion's economy and to protect it from the United States. To help fend off competition from the US protective tariffs were created and rail lines were extended.

By now buffalo were diminishing on Canada's prairies. In 1865 there were an estimated 60 million in the Saskatchewan area (north and south of the Saskatchewan River). By 1876 that number had dropped to 500. Buffalo herds were being slaughtered commercially in US territories and as a deliberate government policy to subdue Indian tribes, and this impacted the Canadian plains. The buffalo herds had been roaming the Dakotas and Montana into the Canadian prairies.

In Canada, people of European origin were putting pressure on the way of life of indigenous people, and a smallpox epidemic had recently swept through the area, killing many.

In 1874 a treaty with the First Nation peoples had been signed by Queen Victoria in what was designated as the Treaty Four region. Treaty Five was signed by Queen Victoria in 1875 for areas around Lake Winnipeg and north a couple hundred miles. And in 1876 came Treaty Six. Treaty Seven was to be signed by Queen Victoria in 1877.

The "First Nation" people saw it in their interest to sign a treaty with the British Crown in order to prevent starvation. Treaty Six gave 4.45 square miles of land to individual families which they could sell back to the Canadian government for compensation. Each person immediately received twelve Canadian dollars and an additional five dollars per year. Those agreeing to live on their lands – First Nation reserves – were to receive agricultural assistance in the form of animals and supplies. A medicine chest was to be kept at the home of the Indian agent for use by the First Nation people, and the people were guaranteed assistance for relief from famine or pestilence.

In the US territory of Montana in June 1876 the Battle of Little Bighorn – Custer's Last Stand – was fought, and following that battle the chief of the Lakota people, Sitting Bull, led about 300 followers into Canada, running from the US Army. A detachment of 25 Mounties met Sitting Bull and his followers, the Mountie leader and Sitting Bull shaking hands. With the help of an interpreter the Mounty commander explained that Canada was not to be used as a departing point for raids on the United States.

Sitting Bull was asked why he and his people had come to Queen Victoria's land. To find peace, he replied, and he showed the Mounty chief a set of medals given to his grandfather by George III for his support in the American Revolutionary War.

Sitting Bull and his followers were allowed to settle in the Wood Mountain area and they were joined by other Indians from Montana. Sitting Bull's first year in Canada has been described as idyllic. Sitting Bull and his followers could hunt, and Sitting Bull could play with his children, but the same food shortages that plagued other Indians on the plains became a problem. Sitting Bull was told that there was a too little food for Canadian Indians let alone for him and his people.

The younger warriors with Sitting Bull were to be described as getting tired of the quiet life, as making trouble with neighboring tribes and as creating displeasure for the Mounties. Canadian and US authorities discussed the problem, and those with Sitting Bull were told by US agents that they would be rich and happy if they moved onto reservations in US territory. Many began trickling back to Montana. By early 1881, Sitting Bull was leading mostly older and sick people. And with 187 of these people, Sitting Bull returned to the United States. He had been promised a pardon. He had his son, Crow Foot, hand his rifle to the commanding officer of Fort Buford in Montana and said that with this he hoped to teach the boy that he had become a friend of the whites. Then the pardon that he had been promised was broken. Sitting Bull was sent to Fort Randall as a prisoner of war.

Copyright © 2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.