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As Chief Theresa Spence continues her hunger strike, her request that Prime Minister Stephen Harper meet with Chiefs to discuss treaties has many Canadians wondering what relevance treaties could possibly hold today.

Anticipating this uncertainty, I wrote a pamphlet with the Mohawk scholar, Taiaiake Alfred, which was widely distributed both in the U.S. and in Canada during recent ‘Idle No More’ events. The pamphlet laid out in clear and concise language the concrete practical and legislative steps necessary to advance the goal of reconciliation. The outline was based on the recommendations laid out in the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. This Royal Commission, the most comprehensive and expensive in Canada’s history, determined that achieving the goal of reconciliation necessarily entails the restoration of a ‘treaty relationship.’

I recall being a bit confused but mostly just ambivalent the first time I heard Indigenous peoples in Canada invoke the concept of a ‘treaty relationship.’ I was twelve years old and it was the height of what would come to be known as the Oka Crisis. To me, treaties were boring relics — artifacts excavated from Canadian history — of interest to history teachers. As I grew older, I was fairly certain that treaties were irrelevant to modern Canada and to modern citizens like myself. What relevance they might hold did not seem to bear on my life in the same way as did taxes or elections.

That youthful confusion and ambivalence was displaced over the years by a realization in my adult life that if Canada was to claim legitimacy as a nation as opposed to a complex colonial encampment, that legitimacy must derive from the founding treaties that made Canada possible. Accordingly, I recognized that my identity as a Canadian, as opposed to a mere occupier or colonizer, was dependent on the status of those treaties. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

I had always understood that agreements made before I was born formed the conditions of my Canadian citizenship and identity. I am Canadian by pure accident of birth, yet still I recognized that I was born into a society constituted by certain historical events, acts and agreements that more or less structure the obligations we have to others.

Take our relationship to the United States and to Americans, for example. I acknowledge that Canada has no right to impose any territorial, political or cultural arrangement upon them. Likewise, they have no right to impose theirs upon us. Why? Because of treaties and agreements, some old and some new. Specifically, because of the 1814 Treaty of Ghent, the Convention of 1818, the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842 and the Oregon Treaty of 1846, which established the territories and borders of Canada. Within this context, Canada was constituted as a nation through various acts and declarations, e.g., The Royal Proclamation of 1763, the British North America Act of 1867 and the Constitution Act of 1982.

These treaties and constitutional events reflect historical compacts between peoples — agreements that established our right to exist autonomously as Canadians rather than as British subjects or Americans. Of course, there are still a handful of disagreements over the details of the treaties between the U.S. and Canada (e.g. the Dixon Entrance), but the lack of precise territorial borders, or cultural borders for that matter, does not take away from the spirit of the agreement. A number of international agreements detail our right to cultural integrity as well. The U.S. is obliged by virtue of being a signatory to various international treaties and UN declarations not to organize any political assault on other cultures. We are distinct nations — our covenants are nation-to-nation. Our disagreements — including our very borders — are not settled, even after centuries of dialogue. Yet we respect each other as legitimate and autonomous in the absence of perfect borders.

The point I wish to make here is that the legitimacy of Canada and of Canadians as a people is constituted by historical treaties and agreements that contemporary citizens did not consent to but nevertheless benefit from and are obligated to uphold. We recognize the violation of such treaties as unjust.

Imagine if citizens of Washington State decided that because they did not personally sign the Treaty of 1818 they could unilaterally assert ownership over the majority of British Columbia. Ridiculous, right? Or imagine if the United States decided to divest Canada of its traditional political structures and impose its own, arguing that the treaties that safeguard our borders and cultures were established in a distant past and so cannot be taken seriously today.

Imagine if the U.S. effectively interpreted our defining treaties like China’s so-called ‘Seventeen Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet,’ which most sane people recognize as China’s transparent attempt to justify the imperial, colonial occupation of Tibet. Consider China’s claim that Tibet is unfit to govern itself, or that something called “unity” is always preferable to divisiveness. Sound familiar?

I came to see that a similarly ridiculous and transparent disregard for official treaties and more informal conventions is reflected in our dealings with Indigenous nations, whom we once acknowledged as organized and autonomous political nations. Understanding the present means coming to terms with the fact that we stand today in violation of these original agreements, in violation of the 1763 Royal Proclamation/1764 Treaty at Niagara; in violation of international agreements such as the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and in violation of our own 1982 Constitution Act sec. 35(1). I was struck by the realization that you and I are involved in a criminal neglect of the very treaty obligations undertaken in the course of identifying ourselves as a people; if we ignore them we only exist on this land as illegitimate occupiers.

Instead of taking responsibility and recognizing the foundational status of its treaties, Canada continues to enforce a form of colonial rule over Indigenous peoples, most straightforwardly through legislation contained in the archaic Indian Act. Problems abound in band politics defined by the Indian Act, a fact that is entirely predictable and unsurprising. Is there any doubt that Tibet, too, has problems with political corruption? Is there any doubt that any demand for greater ‘accountability’ or ‘transparency’ in Tibetan governance misses the point that Chinese interference in Tibet is the problem?

But lest you think the situation is too far gone — and before you acquiesce to the permanence of injustice while shrugging your shoulders at such seemingly vast and intractable problems — remember that the research has already been done, the difficult conversations have already taken place, and the solutions are in the books, waiting to be instituted.

They exist in the spirit of the original treaties and agreements, and even in our Constitution, but they are also delineated in concrete institutional terms in the four-year Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. The practical recommendations articulated in the RCAP offer a path forward. It is not perfect, but then no agreement is.

Just as current disputes between Canada and the U.S. are informed and constrained by an old treaty relationship that defines us, the dialogue that will necessarily go on between Canada and Indigenous nations in the future must be informed and constrained by the treaties we have made — the very treaties that establish the legitimacy of Canada and of being Canadian.


Tobold Rollo is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science and the University of Toronto. He specializes in democratic theory and Canadian politics. 

(Photo: Arnell Tailfeathers)