Treaty Relations and Decolonization: Indigenous Community and Academic Perspectives

June 8, 2023
Dave Hazzan

By Dave Hazzan, writer and academic, completing his PhD in History at York University

Jeffrey Denis wonders why treaty-making is not studied in sociology. “Until recently, sociologists have paid very little attention to treaties,” Denis, Associate Professor of Sociology at McMaster University, said, “And I find that odd because treaties are all about relationships and responsibilities, and this should be right in our wheelhouse as sociologists. And it’s not.” 

Paul Pritchard and Alicia Clifford, Ph.D. candidates in Sociology and Health, Aging, and Society (respectively) at McMaster University, queried a panel of Indigenous Elders and sociologists about the effects of treaty-making on society, their nations, and themselves. 

Robert Green comes from Shoal Lake First Nation and is Elder-in-Residence at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. When asked to describe the treaty he came from, he spoke for several minutes in Anishinaabe, holding an eagle feather, looking solemn. At the end, he said, “I’m asking for forgiveness from the Creator because I’m going to be talking about Treaty 3, on the territory I come from,” he said. 

Treaty 3, as far as Greene is concerned, is not a document men wrote. “Chiefs,” he said, negotiated the treaty, but they did it with the guiding hand of the Creator. This makes the treaty sacred to his people, no matter how badly violated it has been by successive governments. 

Hayden King is an Anishinaabe man from Gahoendoe or Christian Island. He is President of the Yellowhead Institute and Assistant Professor of Sociology at Toronto Metropolitan University. He describes a treaty process for his people that was less about cementing relationships than being pushed from place to place by the Pre-Confederation Ontario governments. Christian Island did not become their “home” until 1829 when they were “tricked into signing a surrender” with the Crown. Through government deception, King said they were the first community to surrender hunting, fishing, and trapping rights. “Or the right to feed ourselves,” King clarified. 

The second question was about honouring “living” treaties. Susan Hill is an Associate Professor of Indigenous Studies and History at the University of Toronto and a Mohawk woman. In her community of Grand River Basin, Hill is active in the organization Protect the Tract, which seeks to extend a moratorium on development in the community watershed. The Chiefs in Grand River were receptive to the movement but had strict conditions – any agreement had to conform to the treaty’s terms. 

Hill and Greene also noted that the Indigenous people made treaties with each other before any settlers arrived on Turtle Island. Hill bemoaned that those treaties seemed to have been forgotten. “Wacky things in the courts in Ontario [are happening] around some land claims,” Hill said, as First Nations battle each other over land. Hill argued that individual First Nations “need to remember these much older agreements with each other, made by our ancestors,” to resolve disputes among themselves. 

Hill and Green noted that settlers and First Nations had different understandings of the treaties, and these misunderstandings were often deliberate. Regarding Treaty 3, Robert Greene argued, at length, that there were significant discrepancies between Anishinaabe and Crown understandings of the agreements. “The agreement was based on a right-of-way, leasing these two roads to go from Thunder Bay to Red River,” Greene said. “We said we [would] give rights of passage to the Queen’s subjects, the right to pass through our lands and territories,” Greene said. “But we will not allow farmers to settle on our lands. All oral history says this is what the Chiefs agreed to.” 

But farmers arrived anyway, soon after the treaty was signed. “The only mistake the Grand Council of Anishinaabe Chiefs made was they trusted the commissioners to keep their word and promises,” Greene said. “The Chiefs thought they were negotiating with equally honourable men. They didn’t know they were negotiating with liars and thieves.” 

Hill comes from the United States and had a vision of Canada similar to the one the Canadian government seeks to perpetuate. “Canada loves to think it’s such a beautiful, kind, loving place, and you know, as someone who grew up in the States, we always had that impression,” Hill said. “Living here is a very quick lesson in Canadian hypocrisy.” Hill insisted Canada must have a reckoning with itself if it is to survive as a country. 

Indigenous and settler understandings of treaties are so different that the courts have recognized that most treaties have two interpretations. Though the Supreme Court requires that Indigenous interpretation of treaties be given equal weight to settler ones, Hill says this is not politically possible. “The reality is, courts will always find a way to work around [Indigenous treaty understandings],” Hill said. For courts to “really recognize” Indigenous interpretations, “they would have to acknowledge they don’t have authority because they don’t.” And the courts can’t do that. 

King notes that even modern treaties, like the Nunavut and James Bay Agreements, are continually violated by provincial and federal governments. “This is not a historical trend,” King says. “It is a feature of settler-colonialism.”