Emily Belmonte lives in Ontario and is a sixth-year undergraduate student at York University
pursuing her Specialized Honors Bachelors of Arts in History and her Bachelor of Education
with plans to graduate in June 2022 as an Ontario Certified Teacher. She is passionate about
studying history and Indigenous studies, and was honored to write a paper which brings to
light the stories of the Chippewa, Plains Ojibwa and Cree, signatories of Treaty One in
Manitoba. This paper was written under the supervision of Professor Sean Kheraj and was
awarded the Odessa Prize for the Study of Canada by the Robarts Centre and the Best
Canadian Studies Essay Prize by the Canadian Studies Network.

This thesis titled “Understanding Treaty One: Subsistence and Survival, 1871-1881,”
includes a synthesis of scholarship on the history of Canada’s colonial expansion into the
Northwest with a focus on environmental history to establish the foundation for interpreting
Treaty One and the first decade of its implementation. The thesis relies on primary sources
including records relating to Treaty One, as well as internal records of the Department of
Indian Affairs. The paper claims that the Canadian government negotiated treaties with
Indigenous peoples in Western Canada as a formal tool of land surrender and title
extinguishment in order to expand into the Northwest. Nonetheless, this was not the intent or
spirit of the discussion in the 1870’s, as Indigenous signatories viewed treaties as entering
into a nation-to-nation relationship, as a way to meet their subsistence needs, create a new
livelihood in an unsecure future and share the land and its resources with settlers. The
concept that Indigenous people were required to, “cede, release, surrender, [and] yield up,”
their land to the government was not part of the negotiations, nor could Indigenous people
even conceive of this idea of land surrender, as they were not in the power to do so, they did
not own the land. Therefore, when interpreting Treaty One, and all treaties, it is fundamental
to understand the Indigenous perspective, as they did not have any intention to transfer
control of land, from a western perspective, the original intent was to share in the land and its

The thesis will demonstrate that Indigenous signatories of Treaty One, in Manitoba,
were active participants and skilled negotiators who signed treaties in order to guarantee food
security and government assistance in their transition to a largely agrarian economy. It also
promises to examine the racist ideology that permeated both intentional and unintentional
misunderstanding of the land issues that were involved in the signing of Treaty One,
including the federal government’s failure to live up to the terms of the written treaty and its
complete denial of the terms of the oral treaty that lay at the heart of the negotiations. By the
late nineteenth century, Indigenous peoples in Canada were vulnerable and seeking a
relationship with the colonial government to safeguard their futures. Through an analysis of
Treaty One and its implementation in the 1870’s, this paper will consider the following
themes: (1) the extent to which disease, ecological change, and food scarcity influenced
treaty making; (2) the influence that subsistence had in persuading Indigenous people to
consider agriculture as their new economic base; (3) how the Canadian government used the
reserve system, the extension of private property rights, and the Indian Act to dispossess
Indigenous people; (4) the Social Darwinist attitude of the Canadian government in their
attempts to assimilate, civilize and Christianize Indigenous people.