Notes on 4th Text for Reading Field: St. Germain

Canadian History, Week One:

Jill St. Germain, Indian Treaty-Making Policy in the United States and Canada, 1867-1877 (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2001). [Online preview: ]

St. Germain compares government policies for treaty-making in the United States at Medicine Lodge Creek in October 1867 and at Fort Laramie in April and May 1868, with those in Canada during the negotiation of the seven Numbered Treaties with the Indians of the West, from Lake Superior to the Rockies, between 1871 and 1877. Germaine notes that although historians have largely neglected to compare and assess where and how the two countries differed in the application of their treaty policies, historical contemporaries were very aware of the two processes and frequently made comments about perceived differences. Her study challenges assertions that Canadian policy was distinctly superior and questions the claim that it was the more ‘humane, just, and Christian.’ She argues instead that critical differences in circumstances in the West not only led to different policy development by the two governments, but also explains differences in the results of policy application — in particular, the higher frequency of violence and larger reserve land holdings in the United States.

St. Germain finds Canadian policy makers were for the most part smug and arrogant — taking credit for invention of a purportedly benign policy where it was not due. She avers, however, that some authorities recognized that the Canadian approach to treaty-making had imperial, and pre-Confederation antecedents. She also notes that in response to repeated criticisms of the American direction and the vaunting of the Canadian approach, one exasperated American statesmen pointed out that both policies were based on British precedents “established here before our Government was formed, and only modified as circumstances and the changed condition of Indian tribes required it.”[1]

In St. Germain’s opinion, the different outcomes can be traced to two main factors. The first is different rates of immigration. Where immigration in the Canadian West had not been great, in the United States it had led to virtual population crises along the frontier. The second factor arose out of the first: to ease tensions between settlers and ‘Indians,’ American policy makers believed that the Indians had to be rapidly assimilated. The American civilization policy was therefore more concerted in design and application than the Canadian.

As the pressures facing American inhabitants were largely absent in Canada, matters were much simpler. No violent conflict between peoples, due to uncontrolled immigration, existed to prompt treaty negotiations for security purposes. First Nations in Canadian territory were not threatened with extinction from incoming settlers. In consequence, there was not the same humanitarian impulse in Canada to solve an ‘Indian problem’ through a concerted policy of civilization. In comparison to the American drive to initiate policy, Canadian officials reacted to circumstances more indifferently and rather sluggishly. The Canadian disinterest was reflected in the treaty terms as well as implementation. Canadian treaties were more narrowly defined documents, with a much greater focus on extinguishing ‘Indian title’ to land.

The decline of the buffalo was used by American treaty commissioners to persuade  Indian tribes of the benefits of a ‘civilized’ existence. A major aspect of official concern was to ‘save’ the Indian ‘race,’ but promoting adoption of an agricultural lifestyle was only one element in this struggle. In Canada, First Nations demanded  terms that would allow agricultural development, and the overtones of racial absorption were absent. Because Canada did not feel the same impetus as the United States to arrive at a solution, these demands voiced by First Nations were not given high priority. The Canadian government was preoccupied with instituting national policy conducive to cross-continental geographic completion. As a result, Indian policy was not immediately applied, and there was no interest in funding it. Extinguishing land title was really the only issue of importance from a government perspective. Thus, although agricultural and educational clauses were not regarded as objectionable, there was also no call for the immediate transformation of every aspect of Indian social and cultural life – in sharp contrast to the United States.

As soon as the American civilization and reservation policies became coercive, and they quickly did so, the people of the Plains realized that they were facing extinction through assimilation. Their strong cultural tradition militated against passive resignation to such an outcome. Across the American Plains, violent resistance in the form of warfare persisted for a decade after the Fort Laramie and Medicine Lodge peace treaties were signed. The response in Canada was entirely different because the civilization components of the numbered Treaties were minimal, and both schools and agricultural implements were set to arrive only after First Nations bands had decided to ‘settle down.’  The Canadian government did not regard this as something that had to occur immediately. St. Germain thus finds that apparent Canadian ‘tolerance’ was really only a manifestation of greater indifference. Interventionist policy required not only interest and attention but financial support. In her view, Canada was not willing to offer any of these, which explains the reluctance on the part of the government to expedite the surveying of reserves and the distributing agricultural equipment.

In the short term, Canada’s diffident approach did maintain a relatively peaceful ‘Indian frontier.’ However, this was not due to the wisdom of Canadian statesmen but to the optimism of First Nations peoples within Canada’s borders — coupled with their desire to best their most obvious enemy, starvation. Both governments assumed their treaty policies would mark the conclusion of outstanding issues related to Indian peoples, but in both cases treaty processes and policies only ensured that resistance from the peoples slated for absorption would be ongoing.

Additional online commentaries:

Ged Martin, review of Indian Treaty Making Policy in the United States and Canada, 1867-1877 by Jill St. Germain, Canadian Journal of History (April 2004)

Related Texts:

Treaty 7 Elders and Tribal Council, with Walter Hildebrandt, Sarah Carter, and Dorothy First Rider, The True Spirit and Original Intent of Treaty 7 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill – Queen’s University Press, 1996), Online preview:

John Leonard Taylor, “Canada’s North-West Indian Policy in the 1870s: Traditional Premises and Necessary Innovations,” in Sweet Promises: A Reader on Indian-White Relations in Canada, ed. J.R. Miller (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991), 207- 211, Online preview:

John L. Tobias,”Canada’s Subjugation of the Plains Cree, 1879-1885,” in Sweet Promises: A Reader on Indian-White Relations in Canada, ed. J.R. Miller (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991), 212-240. Online preview:

[1] James Harlan, quoted in St. Germain, Indian Treaty-Making Policy in the United States and Canada (2001), 159.


About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
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