The actual creation of reserves varied greatly before the 1850s. In the Maritimes licences were granted but lands were not surveyed and squatting became a problem. In Upper Canada the situation was more explosive with the arrival of the Indian allies and refugees and the opening of settlement after the American War of Independence. Treaties were made and various reserves created. By mid-century the expansion of economic activities had markedly increased the pressure on Indian land. Spurred by mineral discoveries north of Lake Huron and Lake Superior, the Robinson-Huron and Robinson-Superior treaties, signed in 1850, set the stage for the future creation of reserves. From this time on, treaties would include standard provisions: once-and-for-all expenditures, annuities, reserve lands, and aboriginal hunting and fishing rights.In 1867 the newly created federal government became responsible for 'Indians and Lands reserved for the Indians,' and 119 reserves were then transferred to federal jurisdiction by the original provinces.
The surrender of land continued with a new group of numbered treaties at the turn of the century. Treaty 8 (1899, 1900), the most comprehensive yet signed, covered one-half of Alberta plus parts of British Columbia and the Mackenzie District. The last numbered treaty, no. 11, was signed in 1921. It signalled the 20th-century discovery of oil at Fort Norman, yet another resource attracting white encroachment, and led to the loss of native claims in the rest of the Mackenzie District.
A major preoccupation of government agents in the 19th century was to make a farmer out of every Indian. The ideology of the time viewed cultivated land as a cornerstone of civilization, an idea given particular force by the enthusiasm for commercial agriculture in western Canada. Together with the Christian religion and the English language, the adoption of farming was seen as the basis for the assimilation of native populations.
What was being proposed was a complete cultural transformation. Traditional bison hunters who had ranged over vast stretches of grassy plains were being asked to settle on a given piece of land and grow crops. Insufficient thought was given to the problems inherent in such a fundamental change. In addition, the 'tools' for becoming a successful farmer were not provided; agricultural education was instituted but its application was neglected; equipment sent by governments was inadequate and/or arrived late; seed varieties provided, mainly corn and seed potatoes, were either unsuitable or insufficient. Surprisingly, some native people, such as the Blackfoot and the Cree in Alberta, did become successful ranchers or farmers.
In British Columbia the treatment of reserve lands was different from that in the rest of Canada. Land was granted to individual groups or even families. Thus, reserves were numerous but small, the province arguing that a migratory life-style did not require large tracts of land. The situation persisted even after 1871, when native people came under federal jurisdiction and asked for the same terms as those granted to native people in the prairies.