All Treaties Aren’t Created Equal

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Joseph Quesnel

Originally appeared in the Winnipeg Sun.

Does the type of First Nation treaty negotiated with the federal government make a difference?

Is there any advantage in signing a modern treaty today as opposed to having a historic Numbered Treaty, as in the case of Manitoba?

According to data from Aboriginal Affairs, there just may be. This is relevant to Manitoba, where First Nations have signed six historic treaties with the Crown. The data looks at well-being using the Community Well-Being Index (CWB).

The CWB looks at socio-economic well-being by measuring the state of education, labour force activity, income, and housing in a community. CWB scores range from zero (lowest well-being) to 100 (highest), with each component having an equal weight in the overall score. The data clearly shows a difference in performance between modern and Numbered Treaties.

Between 1981 and 2006, the CWB index of Modern Treaty First Nations (+19) improved at nearly twice the pace of Historic Treaty First Nations (+10). Additionally, between 2001 and 2006, while progress in well-being virtually flattened for Historic Treaty First Nations, Modern Treaty First Nations kept pace with non-Aboriginal communities.

The lowest CWB score for a treaty extending into Manitoba was Treaty 2 at 46. The next was Treaty 1 at 49. Treaty 5 was also at 49. Treaty 4 was at 52. Treaty 9 was at 55. Finally, Treaty 3 was at 59.

These scores contrast greatly with First Nations having modern treaties. The highest score was for the Tsawwassen First Nation Agreement in B.C. This community scored a CWB of 89. The Nisga’a Agreement in B.C. scored a 65. Finally, the James Bay and Northern Québec Agreement (Cree only) in Quebec scored a 56 as well.

Many of these modern treaties involve a certain degree of self-government and autonomy. Some of them have negotiated out of the Indian Act. What is clear from empirical evidence is sovereignty matters to a First Nation. According to the respected Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, sovereignty does matter to successful indigenous communities. The study found out “when Native nations make their own decisions about what development approaches to take, they consistently outperform external decision makers on matters as diverse as governmental form, natural resource management, economic development, health care, and social service provision.”

The Frontier Centre released a study in 2010 showing self-government agreements do impact perceptions of quality of governance and services. The study looked at the Nisga’a self-government agreement and found Nisga’a residents trusted their government more than all others. The Nisga’a also believe their government performs better in delivering health and education services. However, the study also showed they felt their government was consulting average members less often.

Clearly, the type of treaty can make a difference. However, it is hard to distinguish the impact of treaties on well-being from the impact of regional factors. For example, bands with historic treaties outside the Prairies region have favourable scores compared with modern treaties. First Nations in Prairie provinces represent about 45% of all First Nation people in 2006.

Perhaps this realization can help us better understand why some treaty areas are lagging behind others.