‘Treaty rights’ are the rights that Aboriginal peoples have as a result of agreements they entered into with the French, British and Canadian governments, both prior to and after Confederation. These agreements include both the historic treaties, the last of which were entered into in the 1920s, and modern land claims treaties, dating from the mid-1970s. In Canadian law, these treaties are unique: they are not international agreements, nor are they mere contracts.

Since 17 April 1982, the rights of the Aboriginal peoples contained in these treaties have been constitutionally protected in the same way as existing Aboriginal rights. Specific treaty rights depend on the actual terms of each treaty, including any oral terms that were agreed upon but were not included in the written document. Examples of treaty rights of the Aboriginal peoples are rights to hunt and fish, and to receive reserve lands, agricultural implements, annuity payments, education, and other benefits. In exchange, the European and Canadian governments who signed the treaties generally obtained peace and friendship with the Aboriginal parties, and in some cases the right to open up some lands for European settlement.

The Supreme Court of Canada has established the following principles for interpreting the historic treaties (see R. v. Simon, [1985] 2 S.C.R. 387; R. v. Badger, [1996] 1 S.C.R. 771; and R. v. Marshall, [1999] 3 S.C.R. 456). The treaties have to be interpreted in a liberal and generous manner, taking into account the historical and cultural context. They also have to be interpreted as the Aboriginal parties would have understood them, and any ambiguities are to be resolved in their favour. Finally, the honour of the Crown is at stake, so any appearance of sharp dealing has to be avoided in interpreting the treaties.