Are treaty annuity payments a group or individual right?

This is the fundamental question in a legal dispute between the Beardy’s and Okemasis First Nation and federal government.

The government argues the yearly payments of five dollars from the Crown to each treaty band member is clearly an individual right.

Representatives of the Beardy’s band say the First Nation benefits collectively from annuity payments so they are a group right.

At issue is the suspension of treaty annuities to 14 Treaty 6 Saskatchewan bands in the late 1800’s for alleged participation in the Riel rebellion.

Speaking at a tribunal hearing in Saskatoon Wednesday afternoon, government lawyer David Smith says the specific claims act simply cannot accommodate the non-payment of treaty annuities.

However, Beardy’s and Okemasis Chief Rick Gamble says annuity payments are a fundamental part of the treaties and First Nations leaders would have never agreed to sign them had they known the Crown could suspend payments at any given time.

“In no uncertain terms would have Chief Beardy I think, or any chief at the time, I don’t think they would have signed treaty if they knew the Crown would have at anytime, without provocation, just decide to end treaties where they were promised plows and oxen and all the other goods of treaty,” he says.

Band lawyer Ron Maurice says First Nations played very little role in the Riel rebellion and the government’s real motive in suspending treaty annuities was to intimidate Indigenous people into falling in line with Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald’s National Policy.

“So this would have included things like not just the withholding of annuities but as well deposing chiefs, breaking up bands and amalgamating them with others, confiscating property, horses, guns,” he says. “So not unlike some of the treatment you would expect to see in Japanese war interns, for example.”

The tribunal hearing wraps up on Friday.