Minerals and Treaties

Indigenous History Month


The British and Canadian Crown has many reasons for entering into treaties with the Indigenous peoples, none of them for the benefit of the local inhabitants. Whether it was “freeing” land for European settlement, or clearing the way for railways, hydro lines, or access to lakes and rivers, these treaties usually resulted in Indigenous communities being denied access to traditional sources of food, clothing, or other necessities. The official government policy was that lands not being used for farming or other settlement by Europeans was ‘waste land’, and this is what all of Canada was called until acquired for settlement: “the waste lands of the Crown”. One example of this was the alienation of mineral-rich lands north of Lakes Huron and Superior. The Robinson Treaties of 1850 were seen by Indigenous leaders beforehand as agreements for joint economic development of mineral assets. After the treaties were signed, the Indigenous peoples were informed they were now under British/Canadian law, and were subject to whatever laws and regulations decided upon by government. This included the right to licences to mine, fish, or cut timber commercially.

In the mid-1840’s, large mineral deposits, particularly of copper, were discovered on the American side of the Lakes Huron and Superior. This naturally provoked interest on the Canadian side of the border, and a number of mining interests began to seek licences to explore for minerals in the area.

The Crown began issuing Licences for mineral exploration to white mining interests from about 1846. This exploration was seen as trespass by the Indians, and was resisted both in written protests to the Crown, and in physical confrontations with the mining interests. Some of the mining locations were found to be on village sites, and the incursion of uninvited miners, particularly at Mica Bay, resulted in Chiefs Shingwaukonse and Nebenaigooching leading a party of armed men to the site and having the miners, their families and equipment removed from the mining location. At first, the authorities were prepared to view this event as a local issue to be dealt with locally. But the mining company involved at Mica Bay insisted that the Government act against the “conspiracy and insurrection”of the Chiefs. This resulted in both men being arrested and brought to Montreal for trial. However, both Chiefs were well known and respected and, with both aboriginal and European backgrounds, they were deeply experienced and able in the ways of both cultures. Public opinion, as expressed in the press, gradually came to sympathise with them and the charges were quietly dropped. The Government looked for ways of dealing with the fall-out from the mining licences controversy. It was finally decided by the Crown to solve the problem by taking a surrender of the coastline of Lakes Superior and Huron by way of Treaty.

The treaties negotiated by W. B. Robinson in 1850 covered a much wider area than originally expected, and had far-reaching consequences for the First Nations north of the Lakes. The money used to pay the treaty annuities were taken from revenues the Crown had made from the mining licences, paying the Indians with their own money. Shingwaukonse and Nebenaigooching had argued for broader aboriginal rights in the months leading up to the Mica Bay incident, but the Robinson Treaties effectively enshrined a much more limited Government view of native title and aboriginal status.

The main beneficiaries of the treaties were neither white settlers nor the Crown itself. These lands were not bought to provide land for settlement. Instead, the treaties were made to clear the way for commercial operators to exploit the mineral and timber assets of the area. The rights of the original inhabitants of the land were brushed aside in a very obvious manner. There was an underlying assumption that, unless land was being exploited by farming, or commercial operations like mining, then it was being neglected and underused. In other words, traditional Indian land use patterns were not recognised as valid. Worse, they were a reason in and of themselves to justify taking the land away and making it “useful”. And so, as in almost every other “treaty”, the original inhabitants of the land were officially excluded from exploiting their own natural resources which were handed over the private commercial operators, often with close ties to the bureaucrats issuing the licences. In some cases, communities had to ask permission of the bureaucrats to cut wood to sell in order to feed their children, wood which was on their own lands, their reserves, but was covered by a lease to a settler business. This too is Indigenous History.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here