Just one little word said it all.
The newspaper report about some issues troubling members of the public concerning the pending Algonquin Land Claim depicted the sheer immensity of the proposed agreement.
The claim covers nine million acres of Eastern Ontario.
Over a million people live in the affected territory, and there are another million seasonal and recreational users.
Some 117,500 acres of provincial Crown land along the Mattawa and Ottawa River watersheds will be transferred to an estimated 8,000 descendants of the Algonquin people who petitioned Canada to resolve their land issues over 240 years ago.
It would be nothing short of miraculous for a legal issue of this scope to be wrapped up without some noses being put out of joint. And that’s at the best of times.
Unfortunately, it seems that whenever First Nations try to conclude deals with others in Canada, it turns out to be the worst of times.
It’s been this way for the better part of the past 150 years. Before that, newcomers were only too happy to make deals with Indigenous peoples.
When European settlers were just off their boats and learning how to paddle and portage canoes, and use snowshoes so they wouldn’t sink out of sight, they were delighted to have Indians as their friends. They wouldn’t have survived the North American climate without learning Indian survival skills, and they soon developed a healthy respect for First Nation military prowess.
It took British redcoats 200 years to knock the French off the North American perch they had occupied since Jacques Cartier sailed up the St. Lawrence. But it only took about 24 months for a band of warriors led by Pontiac to capture nine of the 11 British forts on the western frontier of what was then Canada. The British had made the mistake of thinking they could skimp on their rent – the “presents” Europeans traditionally paid First Nations for sharing the use of their lands.
Seeing that their dreams of settling the vast continent hinged directly on their relationship with its original inhabitants, the British issued the Royal Proclamation on Oct. 7, 1763, recognizing the concepts of Aboriginal title and sovereignty. When over 2,000 leaders of some 24 Great Lakes Indian Nations accepted Sir William Johnson’s promises at Niagara the following July, the treaty process was officially launched and the foundations for a new British colony were in place. Payment equivalent to millions of dollars in today’s terms, as well as guns, ammunition, blankets, and metal implements were given, along with Johnson’s solemn pledge: “Your people will never be poor. They will never want for the necessities of life as long as the world exists.” Each year, as was the custom, the terms of the treaty would be recited at meetings between the Crown and First Nations leaders, and huge allocations of “presents” would be given to the Chiefs in exchange for sharing their land.
The wrinkled parchment of the Royal Proclamation and purple and white beads of two large wampum belts created Canada’s first constitutional relationship. The image woven into the Treaty of Niagara Covenant Chain Wampum Belt that was to set the tone for future relationships between settlers and First Nations was of two standing figures with hands linked in friendship, to signify the spirit of sharing and alliance to which the parties had solemnly agreed.
Because of them, 10,000 warriors – most of them Anishinabek – provided the bulk of the fighting forces that successfully defended Canada against American invaders in the War of 1812.
But the collective public memory tends to fade pretty quickly.
Thirty years after First Nations warriors had been instrumental in saving Canada’s bacon in the War of 1812 the lavish annual “presents” promised in the Treaty of Niagara – Canada’s “rent” – began drying up. Based on the Niagara precedent, dozens of treaties were made between the growing Dominion of Canada and First Nations, many of whom each year line up to receive a paltry $4 annuity payment – not adjusted for inflation for over a century.
Sixty years after the War of 1812 had ended, Canada was imposing the Indian Act on First Nations people, launching an ill-conceived attempt to assimilate them. In forcing over 100,000 children to attend Residential Schools, the official policy was “to kill the Indian in the child”.
Canada’s political leaders hoped the treaty promises would vanish, along with Indian cultures, traditions, and beliefs. Millions of students graduated from schools across Canada without ever learning about treaties, residential schools, or such Native contributions as paddles and snowshoes.
On the other hand, the collective memory of First Peoples tends to be quite vivid, so much so that the Supreme Court of Canada has enshrined the validity of our oral tradition. That comes with the territory, when you’re original inhabitants.
So persisting for 240 years in establishing a treaty relationship – like the Algonquins have done in Ontario – should come as no surprise.
What should come as a surprise is that, in the wake of all this history, you can still pick up a newspaper and read someone saying : ”…we want the Algonquins to get their treaty, but….”
That’s the annoying, offensive, and absolutely incorrect little five-letter word – “their”.
“We are all treaty people” has become a virtual mantra in an attempt to educate Canadians about the privileges – and obligations – that belong to them by virtue of the agreements they have made with First Peoples.
Canada will never be the best country it can be until its political leaders, journalists and citizens use “our” to talk about treaties, the agreements on which rests their country’s reputation as a true and just democracy.
Maurice Switzer is a citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation. He is director of communications for the Union of Ontario Indians and editor of the Anishinabek News.