Reviewed by Karl Hele
Two Families is a wonderfully refreshing Nihiyaw (Cree) perspective on the Indigenous-Canadian relationship as explained by Johnson. Throughout his easily readable and engaging text, Johnson explains how the Nihiyaw adopted the Queen and her people, making them cousins with equal rights to share the territory.
Within this context he notes that the Nihiyaw and by extension other First Nations did not adopt symbols, such as Crowns, or paper records, such as constitutions, or entities, such as corporations; they adopted people. From this adoption based on equality of peoples came the concept of treaty and treaty rights extending to the newcomers. It is the relationship of peoples as equals as well as their relationship to treaties that many newcomers, particularly the British and Canadian governments with their symbols and sovereignties have forgotten. He also speaks of the Nihiyaw concept of non-interference and respect for difference, adding that the diversity of perspective is necessary for all of humanity’s survival.
From this Nihiyaw understanding of treaty and relationship of equals, Johnson then explores concepts of taxation, laws, political divisions, resources, assimilation, leadership, sovereignty, the settler constitution, youth, and the next seven generations. Throughout the text, Johnson reminds his reader that he is not attempting to make Settlers feel guilty or angry nor is he trying to interfere with their internal affairs; instead he is seeking to teach and create understanding of the meaning of adoption and treaty.
For Johnson, the Nihiyaw and all First Nations treaties are what allowed for the establishment of the Canadian Constitution and the legal occupation of Indigenous lands. The Constitution and other Settler laws did not create treaties nor do these documents allow for a unilateral alteration of treaties. Additionally, these Settler rules did not grant, recognize, diminish, or alter Indigenous rights. Indigenous rights exist from the connection to the land. It is the Settler right to live here peacefully as equals that was established under the treaties. For Johnson, Settler attempts and claims of superiority in all things has led to the creation of all the problems and disadvantages faced by First Nations – it is an imbalance created and reinforced by ignoring the treaties and adoption as equals by Settlers. To me the biggest take away from Johnson’s Two Families is the absolute need to re-establish a relationship of equals under treaties that share and respect the lands. Without this recognition of the relationship as affirmed by treaties, reconciliation is hollow.
Harold Johnson, Two Families: Treaties and Government. Saskatoon: Purich Publishing Ltd., 2007.