How centuries-old tucked-away documents can lead Canada and the First Nations toward reconciliation
Talking about treaties in Atlantic Canada has been a political dead end for centuries. Little conversation has occurred, since the governments of the day have controlled the discourses and knowledge through education, or lack thereof, of Mi’kmaw treaties. Many Canadians today have commented, “Didn’t those end with colonization, modernization or federal government neglect? Do they still exist?” The other discourse is, “Treaties are about giving welfare to Indians, free education and tax-free lifestyles.”
Yet, treaties are not legally dead and they are not about handouts or keeping Mi’kmaq and other First Nations as second-class peoples. The Canadian court has declared Georgian treaties to be constitutionally alive, and established a new and distinct constitutional relationship with Atlantic Canada and with Atlantic Canadians.
First Nations view the treaties as a constitutional tool to resolve the previous intractable issues of ending poverty and injustice. And many others have said that too.
Yet, despite the wealth of writing, volumes of government legal and legislative interventions, rules, laws, court cases, research reports, audits and governmental studies, commissions and inquires, treaty recommendations have largely been politically ignored and the public has been left ignorant to them, and the issues behind them.
Confronting political indifference, the Mi’kmaq and some of their allies have turned to the courts to affirm Mi’kmaw treaties as a path to a better future based on their understandings of them and of the oral traditions that provide valid evidence in court proceedings. However, little is known about First Nations peoples’ lives under treaties, or about the changing perceptions of the courts and of Canadians, whether Indigenous or not, to the treaties.
The authors in a new collection of essays, Living Treaties: Narrating Mi’kmaw Treaty Relations, for which I served as editor, supply their own narratives of growing up in the context of government denial of treaties. They explore the impact of the treaties on their own lives, and those of their elders, who were told that the treaties were aimed at building lasting friendships and alliances.
The First Nations were supposed to be the beneficiaries of those ancient, yet contemporary, treaties. But as the narratives in this book show, the treaty relationship was largely administered by government-employed Indian agents, who activated Indigenous people’s poverty and oppression, controlling their access to their natural resources – including the promised hunting or fishing rights in their territories. The writers describe how they arrived at their new comprehensions and interpretations of these old treaties through their own research and activism, and discussions with their elders.
These personal perspectives have been missing in most governmental commissions and reports. This book is thus designed to offer Canadians a Mi’kmaw view of how we have had to live with and under treaties while their benefits and profits flow to Canadians who are, willfully or unwillfully, unaware.
These authors build their stories from many diverse experiences – from a former Indian agent, a chief, several lawyers, a historian, teachers, scholars, activists and more as they relay how Mi’kmaq have rallied against oppression and injustice, and how courts have evolved in their understandings of treaties and Aboriginal rights. They draw from their childhoods, teachings from elders and key role models who they have worked to change the way treaties have been understood, misunderstood, manipulated and used to usurp Mi’kmaq land and self-determination. Their anecdotes are poignant, tragic, angry, funny and scholarly. They start fresh from their own families, from stories and teachings gleaned by the fire or kitchen table, which have a necessary place in history.
Growing up under the threats of provincial authorities or police, residential school nuns and priests, Indian agents and colonial laws, these authors have come to learn the promise of treaties as their elders shared with them, and how the various eras of political force and change began to give them hope, and something to fight for. Sometimes they were fighting for the right to hunt or fish for food, or for their rights to their own education, for their livelihood and sustenance, or for political recognition of their traditional governments and Indigenous knowledges.
One might think that much has changed since colonialism etched its difficult lifelines in Mi’kmaw peoples’ memories. Yet, these contemporary perspectives, enriched by the writers’ memories, will show that Canadians need to be reeducated to the complex issue of correcting historic injustice.
For their part, Atlantic Canadians need to understand what has brought Mi’kmaq success in litigation of our Mi’kmaw rights, and the difficult road travelled by Mi’kmaq in the last century, as Canada built its empire. This time of reconciliation is as Justice Murray Sinclair has affirmed a time for Canadians to take control of their own learning and unlearning, to build a better relationship with Indigenous peoples.