Editor’s Note: This article is part of our ‘Coulees to Muskeg – A Saskatchewan Environmental History’ series. This series is a partnership between NiCHE and the Saskatchewan History & Folklore Society (SHFS). All articles in the series appear on the NiCHE website and are published in SHFS’s Folklore magazine.
The Natural Resources Transfer Agreement, or NRTA as it is most frequently known, is a subject talked about often in Indigenous communities on the Canadian prairies, even if the term might be foreign to the average settler on the streets of Brooks, Battleford, or Brandon. In fact, despite being a fairly well-educated settler myself, it was only in the community halls of First Nations that I began to develop an awareness and understanding of the NRTA.
While prairie settlers may be largely ignorant about the NRTA specifically, most have come to accept as a given that jurisdiction over land and resources rightfully rests with the provinces they live in. Over the decades, provincial politicians on the prairies have been quick to push back on Ottawa when that jurisdiction has felt inadequately respected, often accruing electoral benefit as a result. Perhaps this reality has never been truer than recently with the passage of the Saskatchewan First Act and the Alberta Sovereignty Act. These pieces of legislation, clearly designed to be provocative and assertive, more so than substantive, purport to assert anew the provincial jurisdiction these provinces were “awarded” by the NRTA over ninety years ago.
These pieces of legislation, clearly designed to be provocative and assertive, more so than substantive, purport to assert anew the provincial jurisdiction these provinces were “awarded” by the NRTA over ninety years ago.
The truth, however, is that this was not always the way it was. If Canada had lived up to the spirit and intent of the numbered treaties, it would not have turned out this way. This was the topic of a recent (May 30, 2023) online event hosted by the Kairos Prairies North “Decolonization Group” and the Treaty Land Sharing Network. At the event we heard from special guests Elder and former Okanese First Nation Chief, Marie-Anne Daywalker-Pelletier, Saskatchewan Treaty Commissioner, Mary Culbertson, and University of Alberta Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research Dean and political scientist, Roger Epp, who helped us think about the historical background, contemporary relevance, and possible future of the NRTA, particularly as it intersects with the spirit and intent of the numbered treaties and the idea of Canada and First Nations sharing land. A recording of the event can be viewed here:
Early on in the evening, I provided a short overview of the history of the NRTA, and I have adapted my remarks here.
The year 1870 is a logical starting point as we think about how the NRTA came to be. At this time, Canada as a nation is three years old, but only consists of what are today Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and parts of Ontario and Quebec. Canada is young and poor, but ambitious, and worried about its even more ambitious southern neighbour, the United States. Canada wants the colony of British Columbia to join Confederation and wants to ensure the United States does not expand northward. As a first step to securing these goals, Canada begins negotiations with the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) to purchase what is known as Rupert’s Land. The HBC was “given” Rupert’s Land in 1670 by the English king and has operated there for the last two centuries. Although the idea that HBC “owns” the land is ridiculous, as far as settler law is concerned, Canada’s expansion westward requires the HBC be paid. The deal is done in 1870, and Canada now feels it has de jure control; of course, the de facto situation is very different: the actual occupants of the land, mostly First Nations and Métis, were never consulted or compensated, and when their thoughts are heard, they do not, of course, agree that Canada owns their land!
Canada does recognize the lack of de facto control. The need to negotiate with Indigenous peoples is, in fact, embedded in the legislation transferring Rupert’s Land to Canada. And so, in 1871, the numbered treaty negotiations begin. From 1871-1922, Canada negotiates Treaties 1-11 in an attempt to gain exclusive and total sovereignty over an enormous area spanning from what is now northwestern Ontario to southern Northwest Territories and northeastern British Columbia.
I have studied the history of the numbered treaties, and especially Treaty 6, and there is much that could be said about them. Specific to the NRTA, however, I think three points are especially important.
First, whether or not we believe the treaty negotiations were good faith negotiations, there can be no doubt that the negotiations suffered from differences in worldview between the settler and Indigenous negotiators. For example, Indigenous Peoples generally understand land and natural resources to be their relatives; while First Nations had a sense of geographical jurisdiction, it would be anachronistic or ethnocentric to speak of First Nations owning land and resources; after all, you cannot own your relative. For Canada, of course, ownership, whether by individuals or the Crown, is an extremely applicable concept—with ownership comes exclusive rights to exploit, sell, and transfer, and this is what Canada wanted. At a fundamental level, these perspectives on land and resources stem from spiritual and religious perspectives; for most Indigenous spiritualities, humans are understood to be “at the bottom”—the most dependent of all beings, and therefore mindful to live in relationship with land and resources in a way that is respectful, symbiotic, and harmonious. In contrast, Christians are comfortable with concepts of owning and exploiting land and resources, generally understanding that God has given Creation to them to control. Some might argue that Christians have abused their trust when it comes to Creation, but nonetheless the inherent assumption is that decision making around land and natural resources rightfully lies with humans.
Canada clearly understood the treaties to be the mechanism whereby it obtained exclusive jurisdiction over land and resources. This was never the First Nations understanding.
Second, and further to these differences in worldview, Canada clearly understood the treaties to be the mechanism whereby it obtained exclusive jurisdiction over land and resources. This was never the First Nations understanding. Rather, they understood the treaties as creating mutually beneficial relationships with Canada that would see settlers sharing the land with them, as they had done amongst themselves for millennia.
Third, the oral traditions of many treaty-adherent First Nations suggest that while they were willing to share the land, they considered this sharing to stop on the surface—a commonly heard term is “the depth of a plow.” This would mean that natural resources found below the surface (for example, oil and gas) would not be included in what First Nations intended to share with settlers.
These observations about numbered treaties are important to keep in mind as we think about the NRTA, as well as legislation like the Saskatchewan First Act and the Alberta Sovereignty Act.
In the late decades of the 1800s and early decades of the 1900s, settlers moved into the Province of Manitoba and what are becoming the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta in extraordinary numbers. Canada’s vision is fulfilled—Canada now stretches from sea-to-sea-to-sea, and First Nations have been dispossessed, largely confined to tiny reserves. Despite the obvious colonization of Indigenous peoples by settlers, the prairie settlers are also beginning to develop a narrative about their own colonization by eastern Canada. This is partly because other provinces within Confederation enjoy administration and control over their natural resources, but Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta do not. This puts the three prairie provinces in a position of inferiority, which they, of course, consider unacceptable, and pressure builds to fix this. By 1930 negotiations between Ottawa and the prairie provinces have been going on for at least eight years, and finally in 1930 the Natural Resource Transfer Acts—one for each of the provinces, came into being. While we often refer to the NRTA in the singular, in fact each province has its own act, although they are nearly identical in terms of what they do—primarily transfer jurisdiction over natural resources from the federal government to the provincial governments. The NRTAs were understood to be hugely significant, and there were apparently parties thrown to celebrate.
As with the purchase of Rupert’s Land in 1870, there was no consultation with or compensation of Indigenous Peoples relating to the NRTA in 1930. Indian Affairs bureaucrats were consulted, because the federal government recognized that the NRTA would impact on its treaty obligations, but ultimately the concerns addressed in the NRTA related to Indigenous Peoples is limited to hunting and fishing rights and land for reserves—with no acknowledgement that First Nations might also have a say over how their lands and resources should be dealt with. For the last almost one hundred years, treaty First Nations have consistently made clear that they consider the NRTA a violation of treaty and inherent rights, including at the recent Assembly of First Nations (AFN) meeting in Ottawa in April when Chiefs raised this issue with federal government ministers and created something of a stir in mainstream media—likely the first time in some time that the NRTA featured in the lead stories of mainstream Canadian news media!
The context of 2023 provides a unique opportunity for us as settlers to learn about the NRTA and how far off its vision of Canada, and especially the prairie provinces, is from the optimistic vision of the numbered treaties negotiated in the decades and years prior to 1930.
The context of 2023 provides a unique opportunity for us as settlers to learn about the NRTA and how far off its vision of Canada, and especially the prairie provinces, is from the optimistic vision of the numbered treaties negotiated in the decades and years prior to 1930. To put it bluntly: the NRTA involved Canada stealing from First Nations, whereas treaties envisioned sharing between First Nations and settlers to the mutual benefit of all.