Treaties: More recent than we think, and more recent than blue jeans

Last week I found myself in conversation with a friend about Indigenous history and the importance of Truth and Reconciliation. We talked a lot about truth, and the truth of the matter is that Indigenous peoples have—and, unfortunately, in many cases, continue to be—treated in appalling ways. This may be an uncomfortable and inconvenient truth, but it’s one we have to face head on if we ever hope to reconcile.

The Indian Act and colonial policies stripped Indigenous peoples of their language, family, namesakes, and life as they knew it. Residential schools, religious restrictions, and Reserves are just a few examples of how European settlers ravaged entire communities and cultures.  In addition, the Metis were the “Road Allowance People”, dispossessed of their land through scrip. The scrip process where Metis people were issued coupons to satisfy land claims and dispossessed Metis people from where their ancestors lived for generations. Living amongst a racist settler society that socially marginalized them, creating social problems including unemployment, poor health and high suicide rates and lack of educational opportunities. For context, imagine the Government of Canada showed up at your door and saying, “Guess what, Alex? We’re taking your kids, changing their names, and sending them far, far away for school. You may never see them again. While we’re at it, we’re also cancelling Christmas. Oh, and by the way: speaking English is now off limits. Feel like leaving your neighborhood? You’ll need our permission for that.” As farfetched as this might sound, it’s not far off from so many—too many—people’s realities.

As we sipped on our beverage, my friend responded with something along the lines of, “Sure, but that was a long time ago. It’s history now.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard Treaties and Indigenous history dismissed in this way. Part of me wonders if telling ourselves that Treaties were the work of strangers in some faraway time and place, with vague terms and temporary consequences, is an attempt to relieve us of some kind of intergenerational guilt. Creating space between what happened then and what’s happening now makes the whole thing feel less real.

But Truth doesn’t work that way.

Let’s face facts: the Treaty Six we hear referenced in land acknowledgements throughout the city, was signed right here in Saskatchewan at Fort Carlton and Fort Pitt. I wouldn’t consider a 45-minute drive north of Saskatoon a “faraway land.” Would you?

The people who signed Treaty Six aren’t faceless strangers, either. Alexander Morris, then Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba and the North-West Territories, signed on behalf of the Crown. The McGill graduate was 50 years old; he had a home, a family, and a life. And the Crown? Not some ancient emperor. We’re talking about King Charles’ recent family, not Queen Cleopatra from two thousand years ago.

In the same way, Chiefs Mistawasis, Ahtahkakoop, and Poundmaker are real people. Chief Poundmaker was born near Battleford. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Chief Poundmaker was “someone who worked tirelessly to ensure the survival of his people and hold the Crown accountable to its obligations in Treat 6”. Sounds like a great leader to me.  These Chiefs, and others like them, are relatives of many First Nations peoples here in Saskatchewan, separated by only a few generations. They are not myths. They are real figures in the history of our Province.

If you refer to the actual Treaty document (available here) European settlers and First Nations entered into Treaty “so that there may be peace and good will between them.” Have we fulfilled this promise, let alone the other terms of the Treaty? Certainly not.

And a ‘Treaty’ isn’t – or at least shouldn’t be – a wishy washy document. It was specific, it was intentional, it was (supposed to be) mutually beneficial agreement to avoid further conflict. The definition of treaty sums it up; “Treaty, a binding formal agreement, contract, or other written instrument that establishes obligations between two or more parties and subject to law”.

Treaty Six was signed in August of 1876, a few years after Abraham Lincoln passed the Emancipation Proclamation and declared slaves across the United States to be “forever free.” It sends shivers down my spine to think that our government was preparing to enslave entire nations of people.

Because we’re now in the 21st century, 1876 might sound like a long time ago, but here are some statistics that might surprise you:

  • JP Knight invents traffic lights in 1868
  • The London Underground was opened in 1863.
  • Levi Stauss and Jacob Davis invented jeans in 1873.

What’s my point? When we talk about Treaties, I believe we need to remind ourselves that the places were real (not to mention really close), that the people were real (not to mention relatives), and that it wasn’t really that long ago.

History will judge our generation – and that judgement will be harsh if we fail to tell the Truth and fail to Reconcile the past. 

That’s what’s on my mind; let me know your thoughts.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions in this article are entirely my own. They may be incomplete. I do not and can’t not speak for, or on behalf of, Indigenous peoples. My hope in sharing this is to encourage others to take a moment to reflect on Truth and Reconciliation.