Opinion: ‘Pretty clear’ Canada didn’t uphold its treaty promise

Treaty recognition week just ended, and I almost missed it. Perhaps you are in the same jiimaan (Anishinaabe word for boat) as me? I truly didn’t know what I didn’t know (something that I find that is happening to me more and more as I age). I’m still reflecting on this week, and how I can be on the right side of history.

The Ontario Government started #treatyrecognitionweek in the first week of November as part of the recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report. The 94 calls to action include a number of educational components so that Canadians and newcomers to Canada learn about “the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal–Crown relations.”

As important as the content of this week was, I would have missed it had it not been for my social media feed.  Fortunately, I tuned in early in the week and attended a number of virtual events to educate myself about the treaties in my region. In particular, given my last name, I thought it was about time that I knew about the Robinson Huron Treaty, signed in Sault Ste. Marie in 1850.

The Ontario government’s treaties webpage www.ontario.ca/page/treaties says: “Ontario would not exist as it is today without treaties. They form the basis of the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Although many treaties were signed more than a century ago, treaty commitments are just as valid today as they were then.”

If I didn’t know the rest of the story, I could have been impressed by the messaging which basically acknowledges that regardless of where we live in Canada, we are all treaty people. But, of course, that is not the end of the story.

Changing websites to waawiindamaagewin.com/treatyweek2021, I read the transcript of the Robinson Huron Treaty, and noted that the Crown agreed to pay an annuity to the 21 First Nations signatories to the agreement for the use of the land, and that the annuity would be increased as revenues from the lands increased. It also created reserves of land for “the exclusive use of First Nations,” and the treaty highlights First Nations’s ongoing traditional rights to hunt and fish. I also learned that Waawiindamaagewin means “promise” in Anishinaabe. Of note, the Waawiindamaagewin website has recordings of the sessions for the week.

That took me to www.robinsonhurontreaty1850.com, a website for the litigation over the Robinson Huron Treaty. Reading the history that they provide, it states that the annuity payment for the 21 First Nations hasn’t been increased since 1874. Legal proceedings began in 2012. In December  2018 (Stage 1), and again in June 2020 (Stage 2), the courts found in favour of the First Nations. The Ontario government continues to appeal the decisions of the courts, even though the federal government says it is ready to negotiate.

Regardless of what lip service is on the provincial government website, it seems pretty clear that Canada didn’t uphold its promise. Granted, the treaty doesn’t mention indexing for inflation but, 171 years ago, that wasn’t part of regular conversation either. Bottom line, the deal was to share in the gains off the land, and the government didn’t do that fairly.

Ogimaa (‘Chief’ in Anishinaabe) Dean Sayers, of Batchewana First Nation, has suggested that we need to be more tolerant of each other and embrace our differences as we are here together now. He hopes that as we continue to learn together, that we all ask more questions and not take everything at face value. I think his wisdom and patience is enlightening.

As my part of trying to do right here, I pass on to you what I’ve learned. I also signed a petition on the litigation website asking our government to stop litigating and to instead negotiate with the First Nations to honour the Robinson Huron Treaty. The rent is due.

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