The Treaty Ceremony

Gift Giving, Feasting, Speeches and Tobacco

When the Treaty Commissioners visited each First Nation to make a Treaty, they followed the trade protocol that had been long established by the Hudson’s Bay Company when meeting with First Nations. The protocol involved ceremonies, such as feasting, gift giving and tobacco smoking. These ceremonies were used to forge or maintain alliances and peace. They held significant meaning for the aboriginal people.  The Treaty Commissioners, on the other hand, appeared to have little or no understanding of their meaning.  For Commissioner Scott at least, the events he participated in when “negotiating” the Treaty were referred to as the continuation of forging alliances based on “a childish system of presents, webs of scarlet cloth, silver medals, and armlets.”1  However, Scott was aware that the protocols being followed signified the sacredness of the Treaties. 

D. C. Scott took many photos of the people and places he encountered during his Treaty making trip. When we look at these photos we must keep in mind that he had biases and beliefs that shaped his interpretation of events.  For Scott, the people he met represented a “waning” race.2  He also believed that the people he saw were in a state of transition between being “uncivilized” to “civilized”.  For Scott, the ultimate aim of Indian Affairs policy was to fully “civilize” the Indian.  He writes:

But any forecast of Indian civilization which looks for final results in one generation or two is doomed to disappointment. Final results may be attained say, in four centuries by merging of the Indian race with the whites….”3

We need to be aware of the power dynamic that existed between the First Nations and the Treaty party, and how this could impact what we see in photos. Scott reported that the First Nations feared the white man’s law, noting that the Dominion Police Force, who accompanied the Treaty Commission, wore uniforms that fuelled this fear.  Commissioner Stewart recorded the following in his diary:  

The Indians … appeared to be equally divided between hope and fear. They were anxious to get the money that would be of such service to them, but they as well as the Indians at Fort Hope, Marten’s Falls and other points had heard strange stories about the two soldiers or policemen who were with the party, and they were filled with fear as to what the presence of these men could mean. One of the Indians, an old man, fairly shook all over with fear, and I think one of the happiest moments of his life was when after paying them their money, we sailed away on our voyage down the river. 

We also know that Commissioner Scott was aware that many of the people to be taken into Treaty Nine feared the vaccination because it was thought to be “big medicine.”  During a Treaty Table Discussion meeting with Elders in Timmins, Ontario, in 2007, several Elders recalled that their ancestors were fearful of the police officers and of the Commissioners when Treaty was made.4

Some of the photos taken by Commissioner D. C. Scott depicted the treaty ceremony, including the giving of tobacco, the feast, speech making and the gift of a flag. In his view, the people he was photographing were “satisfied”.  However, from the First Nations perspective we know that they were both fearful and hopeful. Based on the Commissioners’ words, they could expect protection of their way of life, especially their hunting, trapping and fishing activities. Without the Crown’s protection their way of life was in jeopardy as more and more development took place in their homeland. Elder Willy Wesley recounted that when the Commissioners came, “everything sounded very good, everything would be done for them.”5  They would have to trust that what the Commissioners were saying on behalf of the King was true.  

Using a Critical Eye to View the Photos Taken by the Commissioners 

When we look at the photos taken by the Treaty Commissioners we must use a critical eye and be aware of their worldview and their goals.  As Treaty Commissioners, they would hardly take photos of unpleasant or controversial events.

For example, in 1929, a photo was taken at Ogoki of a lady holding up her arms and apparently “dancing for joy” when she had received her treaty payment. This photo is housed at the Library and Archives Canada.  The photo is disturbing to members of the First Nation, since they recall their elders telling them that the lady was instructed to pose the way she did by the Treaty paymaster.  She did not make the gesture spontaneously.

As we look at the pictures of the Treaty ceremony, we need to keep this in mind. How strange did the camera appear to the First Nation people? Did they know their image was being captured?  Were they asked to pose in a particular way?   

The Feast 

A feast was provided during the treaty discussions at each place visited.  The photo below was taken by D. C. Scott at Mishkeegomang.  The feast was and is an important part of the fur trade protocol of gift giving and ceremony that had been followed by the Hudson’s Bay Company for centuries.6

Prior to the making of Treaty No. 9, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) traditionally provided a feast at New Years and again during the summer months. The annual ”Indian” feast  usually took place at the same time as the First Nations’ annual council.  For the First Nations, the feast was an occasion to discuss and conclude important matters. At Mishkeegogamang, for example, HBC Post Manager Jabez Williams reported that on July 8, 1902, the Osnaburgh Indians held a feast in conjunction with a “Treaty Council” in which they discussed the merits of Treaty.”7

Treaty Ceremony

When describing the feast that was provided, Treaty Commissioner D.C. Scott comes close to mocking the feast ceremony in his description:

There is a rigid etiquette at these feasts; the food is piled in the centre of the surrounding Indians, the men in the inner circle, the women and children in the outer.  When everyone is assembled the food is divided as fairly as possible until each person is served, no one takes a mouthful, the tea grows cold, the hot pork rigid, and half the merit of the warm food vanishes, but no one breaks the rule.  They still wait patiently until the Chief addresses them. At Osnaburgh while Missabay [the Chief] walked to and fro striking his long staff on the ground and haranguing them in short reiterant sentences- the same idea expressed over and over, the power and goodness of the white man, the weakness of the Indian, the kindness of the King, their great father,- there they sat and stoically watched the food turn clammy!8

For the First Nations, however, the feast was a sacred occasion.

The Flag

The Commissioners brought a large 12 foot Union Jack flag with them. According to the Commissioners, the flag was accepted with delight.10  However, several Elders from the James Bay area reported that the flag would have held little meaning for the people present at the time of Treaty, although it would have been received politely.

Treaty Ceremony Flag

At Eabametoong, when the Union Jack was presented, the Commissioners explained that when the Chief was replaced by his successor, he was to turn the flag over to the new Chief.11 

At Marten Falls, Chief Whitehead gave a speech when the flag was given, in which he reportedly expressed gratitude for the benefits the King was providing.12

At Fort Albany, because so many were absent the election of Chief and Councillors was postponed until the following year. Consequently, the flag was not given at the time, but the people were told “that on election of chief he would be given a flag wh[ich] he was to fly on all occasions when visitors or Govt. officials visited his camp & that after that term of 3 years the flag would be transferred to his successor unless he was reelected.”13

From the Commissioners diaries and reports, we see that no explanation was given about the meaning of the flag.  For many First Nations, the flag, like the feast, represent the arbitrary nature of the Treaty process, and the Commissioners’ ignorance of the people they were making treaty with.14

The Gift of Tobacco

Distributing Tobacco

There is no direct evidence in the written record that the Treaty Commissioners and the First Nation signatories to the Treaty engaged in a pipe ceremony.15 However, tobacco was given as a gift and distributed during the feast. In some Treaty No. 9 communities, tobacco was given as an offering to the spirits, and the smoking of tobacco meant that the spirits were also present at the meeting. However, the Elders from the Mushkegowuk area reported that red willow or sweet grass would have been used in their area, and stated that the gift of tobacco would have meant very little to their people.  For the Mushkegowuk, the actions of the Treaty Commissioners would have appeared peculiar.16

No Medal for Treaty No. 9

When Treaty No. 9 was made, in the mind of Treaty Commissioner Scott, these ceremonial practices took on much less significance. Treaty No. 9, for example, is the only numbered Treaty that does not provide a medal for Chiefs and Councillors. The government correspondence does not explain why this is the case. 

The most likely explanation is that neither Ontario nor Canada was willing to pay for Treaty medals, given the disagreement between Canada and Ontario over who should pay the treaty expenses – including things like the cost of medals, feasts, and gifts.

It could also be that because government officials believed there was little risk that the Treaty would not be signed, they thought a medal was not necessary.  After all, even before leaving Ottawa, Commissioner Scott told the Commissioner of the Hudson’s Bay Company of the Treaty terms, adding “I have done everything I can at my end to make things successful and I am sure we will have no hitches.”17 

It was clear that there would be no real negotiations with the aboriginal people they were to meet with.  As James Morrison observes:

Given the petitions being received, particularly from those bands living closest to the railway line, the department undoubtedly assumed that the northern Ojibwa and Cree would accept any proposals the government would put forward.”18 

The Treaty Commissioners arrived at the communities with a written document that already contained the terms of the Treaty. They did not bring the agreement between Ontario and Canada with them at all.  There was no room for negotiations.


1 D. C Scott, The Last of the Indian Treaties, Scribners Magazine, 1906.

2 In his article, “The Last of the Indian Treaties, Scott states that the Indian nature now seems like a fire that is waning, that is smouldering and dying away in ashes.

3 D. C. Scott, The Last of the Indian Treaties, Scribners Magazine, 1906.

4 Elders Meeting in Timmins Ontario, March 2007, facilitated by Dr. J. Armstrong.

5 Interview with Elder Willy Wesley, August 2000, by Dr. J. Armstrong. Fort Albany.

6 When Canada and Ontario first began to determine the terms of the Treaty, the government of Canada contacted the Hudson’s Bay Company to seek advice and to arrange for transport and supplies.  C. C. Chipman, the Fur Trade Commissioner for the HBC, informed D. C. Scott that the cost of feeding the Indians might be 30 cents per day and include bacon, flour, tea, sugar and tobacco.  He added that it would be advisable to add a few luxuries.

7 Letter from Jabez Williams, Osnaburgh House, to Alexander Matheson, Hudson‘s Bay Company, Nipigon, HBCA, B.155/b/2: 90d-91d.

8 Scott, Scribners, page 580.

9 John M. Cooper Field notes, Catholic University of America, Eat all feast, Abitibi.

10 Diary of Commissioner Samuel Stewart, (at Osnaburgh for example, July 11-13)  LAC RG 10 Vol. 11399 file 1, Reel T. 6924.

11 Diary of D. G. MacMartin, July 18-21 1905, Queen’s University Archives, Misc. Collection, pp. 30-43

12 Diary of Commissioner Samuel Stewart, July 25 1905, LAC RG 10 Vol. 11399 file 1, Reel T. 6924

13 Diary of Commissioner D. G. MacMartin, August 3-8 1905, Queen’s Univ. Archives, Misc. papers, MacMartin papers, pp. 73-81

14 NAN Canada Treaty Discussion Forum, March 2007, Timmins Ontario, facilitated by Dr. J. Armstrong

15 While on their journey, the Treaty Commissioners noted that their guide Simon Smallboy offered tobacco to the spirit of a drowned woman. In Flannery, Glimpses of a Cree Woman’s life.

16 NAN Canada Treaty Discussion Forum Elders Conference, Timmins Ontario, March 2007. Facilitated by J. Armstrong.

17 Letter dated June 29th, 1905, from D. C. Scott to Chipman, HBC A12/ft, 243/1

18 James Morrison, Treaty Research Report, Treaty No. 9, 1905- 1906, Treaties and Historical Research Centre, 1986, Canada.