The Accidental Treaties

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June is Indigenous History Month and the Times has been publishing articles dealing with aspects of Indigenous culture and history. This article deals with just one of the many outrageous examples of colonialism which deprived Indigenous communities of their land, their culture, and their freedom.

Treaties are important documents. They deserve careful consideration. But, in a couple of weeks in 1836, one man, without any formal authorisation, and on the spur of the moment, made four treaties with various First Nations around Lake Huron/Georgian Bay. He only informed the British Government of the agreements after the treaties were signed. One treaty involved Manitoulin Island and 23,000 islands in Georgian Bay. Another consisted of one and a half million acres on the Bruce Peninsula, while the other two covered a total of 72 square miles. Not exactly a minor transaction, and one which completely changed the history of the Georgian Bay area.

The man responsible for these treaties was Sir Francis Bond Head, Governor of the Canadas, later described by the British Prime Minister as “such a damned odd fellow” . He was really quite eccentric. In 1836, he travelled to Manitoulin Island where the annual Presents were to be distributed that year. This was a very symbolic event, as the British Crown renewed their commitment to their indigenous allies; but, by 1836, the ties between the two sides had become strained, and the Crown no longer saw the native peoples as equals. 

Bond Head had decided to visit as many Indian settlements as possible on his journey, and what he saw convinced him that the indigenous population was simply doomed to extinction in the face of European expansion. It was not that he was a racist in the normal manner: he developed a great regard for what he saw as the nobility of the indigenous peoples and their traditional ways of life. It was just that he considered European influence on that lifestyle to be a corrupting one. Indians, he believed, could never survive in the face of the negative effects of white settlement.

So, this aristocratic Englishman came up with a plan, entirely of his own devising, that he believed would be to the benefit of all. As he canoed through the islands of Georgian Bay, he decided that this was the prefect location for aboriginal people to spend their final decades. If they were destined to die out as a race, where better than the islands around Manitoulin for them to carry on their traditional ways until the end came?

On arriving at Manitowaning, he immediately set to work to put his scheme into action. He got the permission of the Oddawa and Ojibwe inhabitants of the Island to allow any indigenous person who wished to, to move and settle on the island. In return, the Crown would recognise aboriginal rights to the Island. This was the so-called 1836 Manitoulin Treaty, dated August 9, 1836. But Bond Head then went further. Thousands of people had gathered for the Presents, and Bond Head entered into an Agreement with the Saugeen to surrender 1.5 million acres of their land and to remove to Manitoulin. Pleased with his work to date, Bond Head made two more treaties on his return journey to York  (Toronto), one with the Huron around Amherstberg, and the other with the Moravians on the Thames. Each group surrendered 36 square miles of territory, and Bond Head urged them, too, to remove permanently to Manitoulin.

The agreement Bond Head made didn’t last long. Just 26 years after, through exploiting divisions on the Island, by misrepresenting what the 1836 Agreement said, and by flagrant use of alcohol, the Crown reversed the Treaty and took over all of Manitoulin, except the Wikwemikong unceded territory and a few reserves. 

Bond Head was very pleased with himself. He had “saved” the indigenous peoples around Lake Huron from the corrupting influence of the Europeans, and he had gained for the Crown a huge tract that could be filled with settlers. When he proudly informed London of his actions, he was amazed to find that he was reprimanded for acting without authority, and that no-one agreed with his scheme for moving the doomed Indians to Manitoulin. The Crown condemned his scheme – but they kept the surrendered land.

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