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Calgary residents learn 'we are all treaty people'

Bill Phipps and Cheryle Chagnon Greyeyes

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Two weeks ago, 75 people showed up for 35 seats at a free downtown Calgary seminar called "We Are All Treaty People." This was the first of three lunchtime brownbag seminars intended to "bring healing between mainstream Canadians and First Nations peoples," said Karen Huggins of Calgary Project Ploughshares, who is organizing the events. Even for the busy Central Library crossroads, the turnout was surprising. Entering, I overheard a woman say, "I thought I was in the wrong room at first, there were so many white people there." 

Cheryle Chagnon Greyeyes of the University of Calgary Native Centre opened the workshop by acknowledging that Calgary sits on Treaty 7 land, which belongs to five nations: the Blackfoot, Sisika Kainai, Piikani, Sarcee from Tsuu T'sina and Eden Valley, and the Stoney Nakoda people from Morley. All those nations still live within a day's drive of Calgary and indeed the city wraps itself around the Tsuu T'sina nation on its southwest flank. "The rest of us are all visitors here," she reminded the room.

Not too many years ago, a person from one of the reserves who ventured into the city would have felt like the visitor. And from 1885 to 1951, under the Indian Act, officially reserve residents had to get a "pass" to leave the reserve, which they had to produce if challenged. The Indian Act also provided residents with Indian status cards, sometimes called "treaty cards." "Those cards have nothing to do with the treaties," said Cheryle Greyeyes. "They were from the Indian Act" -- a piece of federal government legislation that also sent First Nations children to residential schools. 

On the other hand, treaties -- signed agreements between First Nations and the British Crown -- have gained serious traction in the courts and in federal and provincial negotiations, especially since the 2015 federal election. "What does it mean to be a treaty person?" asked Greyeyes, and answered, "Being Canadian means we are all treaty people. Does a treaty person need a status card? An Indigenous person?" She paused then answered again, "No! Under the Indian Act, all Inuit, Metis, status and non-status Indians are Indigenous people."

She waved her hand drum. "The treaties were intended to last forever. We are treaty people to the end of time. The government, as it turns out, was not so committed. They wanted the land and access across the land. Our ancestors wanted peace. Our ancestors and the white people had different views of what the treaties meant. But the spirit of treaty prevails in court cases."

"I'm an old white guy," said the Rev. Bill Phipps, to appreciative chuckles from the crowd for his modesty. "My ancestors signed treaties to govern relationships between and among the First Nations who were around at the time. Those treaties are nation-to-nation agreements, even if my ancestors chose to forget that. They are sacred texts for First Nations people and should be sacred texts for my people as well."

Bill Phipps and his wife Carolyn Pogue have supported First Nations causes since 1983, when they arrived in Calgary and discovered the Lubicon Nation's battle with local oil companies. In 1998, as Moderator of the United Church, he apologized for the church's role in residential schools. In 2004, he ran against Stephen Harper in Harper's first campaign for Parliament, in a by-election called when a Conservative MP stepped down so the new Leader of the Conservative party could win a seat. Although the Liberals didn't field a candidate as a courtesy to the new Leader, Phipps ran for the NDP, because he believes in the democratic process.

"I believe that honouring the treaties can provide a basis or framework for our new relations with native people, as called for by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission," he said. "Most were understood as treaties of peace building, living in peace with each other and the land. Treaties are mentioned in 17 TRC calls to action. To be a citizen of Canada means that you honour and fulfill and abide by the treaties. Honouring the treaties has to lie at the heart of the reconciliation process."

In the same way, he said, non-natives could show their eagerness for reconciliation by carrying "non-Native treaty cards," Carolyn Pogue's idea for showing solidarity. "Simply print, clip and fold the card in half for your wallet," she wrote in her United Church Observer column. "It can ride around in there as a quiet reminder of where we live." And she offered a list of 21 suggestions for using the card, such as:

"The Bearer of this card has the right to:

1. Listen to Aboriginal music via the Internet, radio, CDs and concerts.
2. Visit an Aboriginal Friendship Centre.
3. Attend a powwow.
4. Read fiction, nonfiction and poetry by First Nations, Métis and Inuit writers.
5. Ask your child's teacher to invite an elder into the classroom.
6. Ask your local library to invite a Métis, First Nations or Inuit author to give a reading.
7. Ask your local church what they are doing to live out the apologies regarding residential schools."

This spring, Project Ploughshares will present their annual Peace Award to the three commissioners of the TRC: The Honourable Justice Murray Sinclair, Dr Marie Wilson, and Chief Wilton Littlechild. Also, Project Ploughshares Calgary has two more seminars ready to go: in February, Chantal Stormsong Chagnon and young environmentalist Matt Hammer will talk about caring for the earth. In March, Lee Crowchild will lead a discussion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's 94 Calls to Action. Project Ploughshares is finding the downtown library location attracts a wider audience than their residential riverside location. In fact, said Huggins, "Next time we have to hold the sessions in the John Dutton theatre. There's so much interest, we need the chairs and the sound system." 

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