By Catherine Murton Stoehr
There is a hard disconnect between the actual treaties that the Mi’kmaq, Great Lakes Nations, and Metis forced through strength of arms and today’s “reconciliation moment.” And it is this: no Indigenous person in the history of this place ever wanted large numbers of non-Indigenous Canadians to live here. Not out of dislike or insularity but because they knew then, as now, that an element of the non-Indigenous Canadians would steal from, assault, and murder their people with predictable, chronic regularity.
For their part the British, later Canadian, governments never wanted to live in peaceful reciprocity with First Nations, Metis and Inuit people. We tried over and over again to assert political and legal supremacy over them. It is Canada’s unrelenting, insistent will to erase all Indigenous rights and land holdings that the We’tsuwet’en face today.
Because their violent origins have been forgotten, Canadian treaties’ diplomatic language of “peace and friendship” and shared economic benefits have created a false narrative about the historic relationship between Canada and First Nations, Metis, and Inuit people. The treaties have been read, and represented, as expressions of affection, trust, and a kind of preference between Canada and various First Nations. This interpretation has been useful to the Canadian state and many Canadians as it’s nicer to think of ourselves as having freely extended largesse to First Nations than to have repeatedly attempted supremacy and been forced back into a nation to nation posture at gunpoint. Which is the actual truth.
When the British attempted a unilateral expansion of their settlements into Mi’kma’ki, the Maliseet and Mi’kmaq fought them off forcing the 1725 Peace and Friendship Treaty.
After defeating the French, the British attempted to put soldiers into the former French forts in the Great Lakes territory. The Great Lakes nations killed most of those soldiers and forced the 1764 Treaty of Niagara.
When Canada sent surveyors to map Anishinabek territory north of the Great Lakes, Shingwaukonse met them with a war party, and eventually the Robinson Huron Treaty was negotiated.
When Sir John A Macdonald sent surveyors into Metis territory, they were turned back until diplomatic protocols were followed. When vigilante settler miners defied Nlaka’pamux legal jurisdiction in the Fraser Canyon an alliance of nations forced the miners to negotiate a set of co-occupancy agreements.
The outcome of each of these wars limit Canada’s ability to assert total sovereignty over Turtle Island today. The British acknowledged Mi’kmaw sovereignty over Mi’kma’ki and promised to punish anyone who harmed their people. The Robinson Huron Treaty cut the Anishinabek in on resource revenues and enshrined hunting and fishing rights. Riel’s resistance secured distinct Metis religious and political rights. The Fraser Canyon agreements reigned in vigilante settler violence.
There is no treaty on We’tsuwet’en land, though – as Alan Corbiere, Rick Hill, and others have argued – the terms agreed at Niagara in 1764 form a kind of “foundational treaty” that is constitutionally pertinent to the We’tsuwet’en standoff today. (Click here to watch an important lecture where Corbiere discusses the fundamental importance of the 1764 treaty)
If that is the case, the Treaty of Niagara included a prescient concession: Before allowing any British people to establish forts or communities on their land, the Great Lakes confederacy forced us to promise that we, through our military and police forces, would proactively control and prosecute any of our own citizens who attempted to steal from, physically harm, or squat on the land of any First Nations people.
Over two and half centuries ago Wabbicommicot, Guyasuta, Ninivois, Takay, and other Great Lakes leaders knew that corrupt fur trade post commanders and violent fur traders could be brought to heel by French and British policies and, that despite that, justice notwithstanding, colonial officials might not always be inclined to discipline their own people. That is why, in a treaty that would shape the relations between settler and Indigenous peoples for “as long as the sun shines”, they insisted Britain perform that role.
Hence Sir William Johnson at the Treaty of Niagara, negotiating a desperate peace with Obwandiyag’s (Pontiac) and Guyasuta’s warriors actively attacking British soldiers, envoys, forts, and settlements from Illinois to Virginia,
No ill disposed People will ever be suffered into your Country, nor any lies told to blind your Eyes whilst they stole your Furs. The English will deal fairly with you. They will treat you kindly, and trade with you honestly. You will grow Rich, and happy, and your Brothers Contented So that our Union cannot be shaken.
The Western Confederacy demonstrated deep insight into settler colonial strategies by identifying and shutting down a loophole from that obligation, inserting what you might call an “anti-gaslighting clause”. Not only did Johnson promise that the British, and by extension the Canadian government, would keep squatters and thieves off of Indigenous territory, he also promised that Britain would not ignore but be attentive to Indigenous reports of any such settler criminality and proactively pursue anyone who harmed First Nations people or impinged on their territory,
I will bring to Justice any persons who commit Robberys or Murders on [you],
Keep your eyes on me, & I shall be always ready to hear your Complaints [and] procure you justice.
Again, everyone at the time of these treaties was negotiating from a shared assumption that two of the communities had directly conflicting interests.The negotiators were laying out minimum requirements to end an ongoing “hot” war.
What does that mean in We’tsuwet’en territory and British Columbia today?
It means that no one who has been paying attention is surprised that successive British Columbia governments, regardless of party, want to work with international oil and gas companies to organize mutually profitable energy strategies regardless harm to First Peoples persons or rights. Which is why they are explicitly constrained from doing so by our Nation’s founding legal orders.
The Wet’suwet’en reassert that constraint today.
That Trans Canada is “ill disposed” toward the We’tsuwet’en is indisputable. Impact benefit agreements, while not effective as “lies to blind their eyes,” are at least compelling incentives to silence under conditions of extreme duress.
The Canadian and British Columbia governments did not want to take on the role of disciplining or controlling private interests who stole from, or abused First Nations, Metis, and Inuit people but in order for us to live on the land they were forced to make that promise.
We, those of us who are non-Indigenous people in this place, if we wish to live by the rule of law, are bound by it.
That Canada, and many Canadians, should resist this demand aligns tightly with our behaviour, as a society, in the past. We come to this contest again, as many times before. Canada and its private interests have asserted supremacy, the We’tsuwet’en, like the Mi’kmaq, Shawnee, Lenape, Anishinabek, Seneca, Metis, Potawatomie, Odawa, Nlaka’pamux, and others before them have asserted sovereignty.
What remains to be seen is what pressure will be brought to bear on either side. Will other First Nations stand against Canada in solidarity and common interest with the We’tsuwet’en?
Will “pro-Indigenous” settlers pressure their government to respect at least some real expressions of Indigenous sovereignty as the Aborigines Protection Society and other progressive groups have done in the past?
Will pragmatic, socially savvy moneyed interests reign in the extreme behaviour of Trans Canada and the Trudeau liberals to protect their own wealth and moral standing as Sir William Johnson and the British Indian Department did in 1764?
This is the weakest link.
As Robert Jago has recently noted Canada today has less reticence to use violence to break up protests than they did as recently as 1950s. I would add that Canada’s economic elite has effectively insulated itself from association with the nation’s political and military actions; they bear no risk of reputational taint when the nation acts without honour.
The point is: Canada never MEANT the treaties. Not when they were made, not now. But then, and it is looking increasingly like now, there was enough real force ranged against them to enforce them.
As Long as the Sun Shines.
Catherine Murton Stoehr is a non-indigenous writer and historian living on Nbissing Territory (North Bay).
Editors note: This post was edited in December 2021.