This course is hosted at the University of Alberta, located on Treaty 6 territory, a traditional gathering place for diverse Indigenous peoples including the Cree, Blackfoot, Metis, Nakota Sioux, Iroquois, Dene, Ojibway/ Saulteaux/Anishinaabe, Inuit, and many others whose histories, languages, and cultures continue to influence our vibrant community. 

Territorial Acknowledgment, University of Alberta

LESSON: Thinking about Territory

If you are just starting university, you may notice that many university events begin with the territorial acknowledgment above. University of Alberta Faculty of Native Studies scholar Chelsea Vowel writes that territorial acknowledgments can be powerful when they prompt non-Indigenous peoples to reflect on the conditions of their presence on this land.  Territorial acknowledgements can also make Indigenous students feel more welcome in university spaces.  Yet, when territorial acknowledgments are offered routinely and repetitively, without a meaningful discussion of what it is that listeners are being asked to acknowledge, territorial acknowledgements become depoliticized — meaning detached from conversations about power relationships.  Anishinaabe scholar Dr. Hayden King writes that territorial acknowledgments should prompt meaningful conversations about the obligations the Crown made to Indigenous peoples when they signed treaties, as in the case of Treaty 6.  King reminds us that treaties, made in many parts of what is now known as Canada, continue to govern non-Indigenous obligations to Indigenous peoples.  The relationships between land, gender, and social justice are a focus of this course. So, let’s take a moment to explore what kinds of obligations the Crown — represented in Canada by the Governor General, Canada’s head of state — made to Indigenous peoples when they signed Treaty 6 in 1876.

In 1870 — six years before the signing of Treaty 6 — the Hudson’s Bay Company transferred “Rupert’s Land” or the North-West — a massive portion of land representing about one-third of what is today known as Canada —  to the Dominion of Canada without the consent of the Indigenous peoples who lived there. Indigenous peoples had lived in political communities with governing systems and laws before the British and French arrived in North America.  University of Alberta Faculty of Native Studies scholar Dr. Adam Gaudry explains that the 1870 Transfer Agreement rested on a fantasy of sovereignty based on the European idea of terra nullius — the notion that the land did not legally belong to Indigenous peoples and, therefore, could be taken. Indigenous peoples on the plains resisted the notion that the land they had lived on for centuries — land to which they had their own legal relationships — could be sold without their consent. 

In “Understanding Treaty 6: An Indigenous Perspective”, Nehiyaw (Cree) legal scholar Sharon Venne explains the terms of Treaty 6. Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald, viewed treaty-making as a form of nation-building — a way to take control of Indigenous land and expand the Canadian state westward.  On the other hand, Indigenous peoples viewed treaties as necessary to protect their sovereignty, meaning their ability to enact their own laws, self-govern, and live without interference from a foreign power — in this case, Canada.  Distrustful of the Government of Canada and representatives of the British Crown, some Indigenous leaders, including Chief Big Bear, beloved by Nehiyaw people, resisted signing Treaty 6. Big Bear feared that the government would not honour the terms of the agreement, and he was right.

The Treaty Commissioner requested three things on behalf of the Crown, representing Canada, in 1876. First, the Crown wanted to ensure that the settlers could use the land to farm. Thus, the Commissioner requested the “use of the land to the depth of the plough.”  Second, he requested trees to construct houses. Finally, he asked that the settlers could use the grass to feed their animals. Although the written version of Treaty 6 states that the leaders agreed to “cede, surrender, and forever give up title to the lands,” Cree Elders, as Sharon Venne explains, maintain that this is impossible, given that Cree, Saulteau, Assiniboine, and Dene laws do not permit them to sell their land — only to share it. Thus, Cree Elders dispute this wording.  The leaders agreed to share the lands in return for certain benefits, and they agreed to uphold the terms of the treaty “as long as the sun shines and the waters flow” — the “waters” being the waters that flow from a woman before she gives birth.  This means that Canada is obligated to live up to the terms of Treaty 6 as long as Indigenous women are giving birth to children.

In return for sharing the land with the settlers, the Crown agreed to several provisions, including, for example: healthcare, education, aid in times of famine, and police to protect Indigenous peoples from treaty violations. Canada has not kept these promises. First, on healthcare: in 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled that the Government of Canada discriminates against First Nations children on reserves by failing to provide adequate funding for health care.  Second, on education: in 2015, the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission identified the residential school system as a form of cultural genocide. Third, on aid in times of famine: when the settlers depleted bison populations on the plains in the 1870s and 1880s, Indigenous peoples experienced famine. The Government of Canada refused to honour the commitment made in 1876 to provide aid, as James Daschuk documents.  Finally, on police: the Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls describes police violence against Indigenous peoples and a lack of police accountability when it comes to investigating MMIWG2S.

What does Treaty 6 have to do with gender and social justice? Eurocentric representations of the treaty-making process tend to assume that Cree women had no political and legal power in the late nineteenth century, like their British and French counterparts. In Nehiyaw spiritual, legal, and political traditions, however, women have decision-making autonomy when it comes to relationships to land.  In Sharon Venne’s words:

“When the Elders speak about the role of women at the treaty they talk about the spiritual connection of the women to the land and to treaty-making”.


It is women who have the authority to make decisions about land, and women did not sign Treaty 6. Thus, they did not agree to cede or surrender land.  

In this course, we will take this territorial acknowledgment to heart by using it as a starting point for studying the relationship between gender and social justice — starting here, on Treaty 6 territory, where we are all bound by treaty obligations. Throughout the course, we will consider Indigenous and non-Indigenous relationships using a gender lens and learn about Indigenous feminisms. Can there be social justice on stolen land?


Next, listen to this lecture by Daisy Raphael explaining the relationship between social justice and Women’s and Gender Studies.

Thinking about Gender and Social Justice
Listening Time: 11 min 35 seconds

Before you move on to the assigned resource, take a moment to reflect:

  • Why are you interested in studying gender and social justice?
  • What do you consider to be the most urgent social problem? Why might a gender analysis be important to addressing this problem?