By Tobold Rollo

[This post first appeared on Tobold Rollo’s website.]

As Chief Theresa Spence continues her hunger strike, her request that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Governor General meet with Chiefs to discuss treaties has many Canadians wondering what relevance treaties could possibly hold today. Anticipating this uncertainty, I wrote a pamphlet with the Mohawk scholar, Taiaiake Alfred, which was widely distributed both in the US and in Canada during recent ‘Idle No More’ events. The pamphlet laid out in clear and concise language the concrete practical and legislative steps necessary to advance the goal of reconciliation. The outline was based on the recommendations laid out in the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. This Royal Commission, the most comprehensive and expensive in Canada’s history, determined that achieving the goal of reconciliation necessarily entails the restoration of a ‘treaty relationship’.

I recall being a bit confused but mostly just ambivalent the first time I heard Indigenous peoples in Canada invoke the concept of a ‘treaty relationship’. I was twelve years old and it was the height of what would come to be known as the Oka Crisis. To me, treaties were boring relics – artifacts excavated from Canadian history – of interest to history teachers. As I grew older, I was fairly certain that treaties were irrelevant to modern Canada and to modern citizens like myself. What relevance they might hold did not seem to bear on my life in the same way as did taxes or elections. That youthful confusion and ambivalence was displaced over the years by a realization in my adult life that if Canada was to claim legitimacy as a nation as opposed to a complex colonial encampment, that legitimacy must derive from the founding treaties that made Canada possible. Accordingly, I recognized that my identity as a Canadian, as opposed to a mere occupier or colonizer, was dependent on the status of those treaties. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

I had always understood that agreements made before I was born formed the conditions of my Canadian citizenship and identity. I am Canadian by pure accident of birth, yet still I recognized that I was born into a society constituted by certain historical events, acts, and agreements that more or less structure the obligations we have to others. Take our relationship to the United States and to Americans, for example. I acknowledge that Canada has no right to impose any territorial, political or cultural arrangement upon them. Likewise, they have no right to impose theirs upon us. Why? Because of treaties and agreements, some old and some new. Specifically, because of the 1814 Treaty of Ghent, the Convention of 1818, the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842, and the Oregon Treaty of 1846, which established the territories and borders of Canada. Within this context, Canada was constituted as a nation through various acts and declarations, e.g., The Royal Proclamation of 1763, the British North America Act of 1867, and the Constitution Act of 1982.

These treaties and constitutional events reflect historical compacts between peoples – agreements that established our right to exist autonomously as Canadians rather than as British subjects or Americans. Of course, there are still a handful of disagreements over the details of the treaties between the US and Canada (e.g. the Dixon Entrance), but the lack of precise territorial borders, or cultural borders for that matter, does not take away from the spirit of the agreement. A number of international agreements detail our right to cultural integrity as well. The US is obliged by virtue of being a signatory to various international treaties and UN declarations not to organize any political assault on other cultures. We are distinct nations – our covenants are nation-to-nation. Our disagreements – including our very borders – are not settled, even after centuries of dialogue. Yet we respect each other as legitimate and autonomous in the absence of perfect borders.


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