What are Treaties? 

Indigenous Rights in One Minute
By Bruce McIvor

What are Treaties? 


Treaties are an exchange of sacred, solemn promises between the Crown and Indigenous People. 

Treaties in Canada have taken diverse forms ranging from one paragraph statements to multi-chapter documents filled with legal jargon. They date from the early 17th century to the modern-day. 

Early treaties, e.g. the Peace and Friendship Treaties of the 18th century, were about establishing peaceful tradings relations. In the mid-19th century, colonizers began to envision treaties as a tool for gaining control of Indigenous land whereas Indigenous people continued to understand them as sacred agreements establishing peaceful, mutually beneficial relationships. Treaty First Nations reject and condemn the argument that their treaties are ‘surrender’ documents. 

Canadian courts have emphasized that treaties are not simple one-time transactions--they are living documents. The Crown is obligated to diligently fulfill treaty promises. In doing so it must act with integrity and avoid sharp dealing.  

Many modern treaties claim to modify or extinguish the inherent and pre-existing rights of Indigenous people in exchange for land, money and limited law-making authority. Indigenous people have increasingly rejected this approach to treaty making. Instead of transactional settlements, they seek agreements that recognize and preserve their inherent rights. 


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Bruce McIvor, lawyer and historian, is partner at First Peoples Law LLP. He is also an Adjunct Professor at the University of British Columbia’s Allard School of Law where he teaches the constitutional law of Aboriginal and Treaty rights. A member of the bar in British Columbia and Ontario, Bruce is recognized nationally and internationally as a leading practitioner of Aboriginal law in Canada. Bruce's ancestors took Métis scrip at Red River in Manitoba. He holds a law degree, a Ph.D. in Aboriginal and environmental history, is a Fulbright Scholar and author of Standoff: Why Reconciliation Fails Indigenous People and How to Fix It. He is a member of the Manitoba Métis Federation.

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First Peoples Law is a law firm dedicated to defending and advancing the rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada. We work closely with First Nations to defend their Aboriginal title, rights and Treaty rights, uphold their Indigenous laws and governance and ensure economic prosperity for their members. 

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