Indigenous people have received treaty annuities in Canada for 200 years (1818-2018). These annuities are annual payments made to Indigenous people in fulfilment of treaties. They were promised for all time, are still paid now and will be paid in future. The amount is not indexed to inflation. For example, this photo shows a Treaty 8 payment made in Fort Vermilion, Alberta. Treaty 8 (1899) promised $5 per person distributed each year, and Treaty 8 members continue to receive $5 per person today.
Despite the small amount, treaty payments remain an important annual event, which begs the question—what is the ongoing meaning of treaty annuities? Historical records allow us to glimpse the intent and understanding of annuities when they were first introduced.
The First Treaty Annuities in 1818
Annuities were first included in three treaties made in October and November 1818. For example, on November 5, 1818, the Ojibwa and British made a treaty pertaining to the Rice Lake area, with financial terms described as $10 worth of goods at Montreal prices to be distributed annually to each man, woman and child. This was explained by Crown representative William Claus, who introduced the new system of payment that would continue “as long as any of you remain on Earth.”
While Claus didn’t say so, the Crown was likely financially motivated to avoid larger, one-time treaty payments. During this period, there was tremendous Imperial pressure to reduce the Indian Department’s annual expenses, as funded from Britain’s military budget. After the War of 1812 and the Treaty of Ghent (1815) the British foresaw lasting peace in North America, and wished to reduce military expenditures for Indigenous people. By 1818, there were frequent instructions from London to find means to reduce this cost.
Surviving records of the November 5, 1818 treaty council report the Ojibwa Chiefs’ concerns regarding depletion of local game, continued hunting and fishing rights, and protection of islands for their use, but their reaction to the new system of annuity payments was not recorded. They may have been surprised, or potentially dismayed, at not receiving an upfront payment as had been the usual practice. However, the idea of an annual distribution was not a new one. Indigenous people in Upper Canada already engaged in a long-standing official distribution of annual presents as a means of Imperial diplomacy to express gratitude, and to ensure loyalty and military alliance of Indigenous allies with the Crown. After 1818, the treaty signatories simply received a further $10 worth of goods over and above their regular presents. Therefore, while treaty annuities were a departure in how treaties were paid, they mimicked a system already in place. Continue reading