Treaty Talks: Engaging Non-Indigenous Canadians with the Past and Present of Treaties

This is the second post in a series featuring short descriptions of papers and panels that will be presented at the Canadian Historical Association’s annual meeting being held at the University of British Columbia June 3-5.

The last call to action of the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission suggests the statement “I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada including treaties with Indigenous peoples” be included as part of Canada’s oath of citizenship.[1] This revised oath reflects decades of work by Indigenous leaders to restore the vision of treaty-as-relationship and echoes similar calls for recognition of treaty relationships in the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP).[2] But how and where do non-Indigenous Canadians, new and old, learn about treaties?  Treaty education and awareness is uneven across the country. Saskatchewan, for example, has had a Treaty Commissioner since 1989, and has been integrating treaty education into school curricular for more than 20 years.[3]

But in central and eastern Canada, RCAP fell on deaf ears. Until the TRC report again brought the question of treaties forward, knowledge about treaties in central and eastern Canada was concentrated in Indigenous nations, specifically with Elders and knowledge keepers, some federal employees and a few academics and lawyers. While the reanimation of public awareness of treaties has happened across the country, it is perhaps especially notable in those provinces where pre-Confederation treaties were sometimes (conveniently) forgotten by settler governments within decades of their making.

The panel is comprised of three settler scholars working to increase the knowledge and learning about treaties and treaty relationships among non-Indigenous people in the province of Ontario. While our work is in dialogue with Indigenous scholars and knowledge keepers, on this occasion we wish to take up the responsibility as settlers to self-critique and reflect upon various settler-led initiatives. We present examples of what we hope are promising steps to increase understanding  of treaties in Ontario, as we also grapple with the challenges and limitations presented by materials and settings in which treaties are discussed and contested.

Alison Norman’s paper will examine how in the last few years, post-Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Ontarians have seen a significant outburst of public education initiatives around treaties. While this has occurred across the country, Ontario, in particular, has seen a huge growth, in part because of the lack of a treaty commission (which other provinces have, and had been doing this sort of work for years), and in part because of government efforts to revitalize the treaty relationship with Indigenous people and the passing of new legislation around Treaties Recognition Week in 2016.

What is the result of all of this new education around treaties? Are these initiatives just token projects? Are they helping people better understand what it means to be in a treaty relationship? Are they enough? With a topic as complicated as Indigenous history and nation-to-nation relationships with the Crown, is it possible for the public to learn via these various methods? In her presentation, Norman will examine some of these new educational learning opportunities and discuss the content of their lessons, considering the effectiveness of these initiatives.

Heidi Bohaker’s paper will discuss the historic significance of the recent Robinson Treaties annuities litigation, which was the first Ontario Superior court case to be livestreamed “gavel to gavel” and the first to order public online archiving of the thousands of archival documents referenced and expert reports produced.[4] Bohaker appeared as an expert witness for the plaintiffs. The trial, which began hearings in September 2017, was concerned with the question of raising treaty annuities as defined in the 1850 Robinson-Superior and Robinson-Huron treaties.  Unlike earlier land-purchase agreements following the 1763 Royal Proclamation, the Robinson treaties contained an “escalator” clause in which the Crown could increase the annuity if Provincial revenues from the resource-rich lands permitted.

Robinson, Shingwauk and Nebenaigooching. Probably the treaty photo of 1850 showing William B Robinson, Treaty commission on the left, Cheif Shingwauk (1773-1854) centre, and Chief Nebenaigooching (1808-1899) on the right. Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre, Algoma University.

At this trial, the judge made space for Anishinaabe law to inform the court in multiple ways. Anishinaabe opening and closing ceremonies were held at each of the four locations at which the court met. Elders and leaders testified in Anishinaabemowin, while outside each location signatory communities maintained a sacred fire. Host communities held feasts and sweat lodge ceremonies to which all parties participated. In other words, the plaintiffs brought their treaty law to the court.

The resulting local coverage of what transpired in the court has helped non-Indigenous settlers in the treaty territory to better understand the spirit and intent of these treaties. The judge ruled in favour of the plaintiffs in December of 2018; Ontario is appealing the decision. What can we learn from this trial about ways to better educate Ontarians about their treaties and better ways to resolve treaty disputes?

Laura Murray has been researching the 1783 agreement that permitted Loyalists to settle in what is now Kingston, Ontario. She has been doing so at the same time as teaching about this “Crawford Purchase,” with a major emphasis not only on what happened (which is in many ways unknowable at this point), but on what this agreement may or could mean to both Indigenous and settler people today and in future.

This is not so much a legal question as an ethical one. What does it mean to live and learn on land that the British claimed to have purchased outright, whereas the Mississaugas thought it meant only that “white people are coming to live among them”? Murray has also been giving presentations to community groups such as the United Empire Loyalist Association, and has found the treaty to be quite a useful tool to help settlers begin to grasp the violence of colonialism. However, in her work with Indigenous community members to care for an island that holds burial sites from centuries ago, she has found a more complex situation. The Mississaugas were displaced from Kingston almost two hundred years ago, the land is also claimed by the Haudenosaunee, the graves are Wendat, and many of the Indigenous people in the city are from other nations entirely. In this context, the treaty either does not seem to attract much interest in the local Indigenous community, or its invocation causes some tension. This raises the question of whether even research with a decolonizing intent may be too focused on agreements and moments of prime importance in the colonial record — in this case, the establishment of Kingston. Having been brought more to public attention, perhaps it is time for treaties to become more broadly contextualized in subsequent history and other perspectives.

Heidi Bohaker is Associate Professor in the Department of History, University of Toronto. Laura Murray is a Professor in the Department of English and Graduate Program in Cultural Studies at Queen’s University. Alison Norman is Adjunct Faculty at Trent University and Research Advisor at the Ontario Ministry of Indigenous Affairs.

This panel will be held on Monday June 3 at 3:30 p.m. For more details about the CHA’s annual meeting, consult the program here. If you would like to contribute a post to this series, please contact Tom Peace (

[1]Truth and Reconciliation Canada, Calls to Action,  (Winnipeg: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015), p. 11.

[2]Canada, “”, Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (Ottawa: Supply and Services Canada, 1996), ttps://

[3]Saskatchewan, “History,” Office of the Treaty Commissioner,

[4]Restoule v. Canada (Attorney General), 2018 ONSC 7701, Reasons for Judgement.

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