October 5th, 2015 – unceded Mi’kmaq territory.
All of us in K’jipuktuk (Halifax) are standing or sitting, reading, talking, living and going about our daily routines on unceded Mi’kmaq territory. What does that mean? What does that mean for whom? And what do we do about it?
Definitive answers to these questions are not easy to find, but the need – in fact, the responsibility – to seriously address and consider these questions is what has motivated the organizing of Between Nations: We Are ALL Treaty People. It is the intent of the event’s organizers to look at what it means for us all – distinctly and collectively – to live where treaties outlining access to the land and its resources have been drafted and signed long before us.
Canada recognizes (at least on paper) over a dozen treaties within its claimed borders. These treaties are intended to govern the territorial rights and obligations of the Canadian state and of the Indigenous Nations who find themselves within the borders claimed by Canada.
Here in Nova Scotia, and throughout Mi’kma’ki (Mi’kmaw territory), it is the Peace and Friendship Treaties that outline the territorial rights and obligations of Indigenous Nations and of the Canadian state. These treaties were the first to be signed and recognized by the British Crown and set the stage for all future agreements between Indigenous Nations and the British (later Canada) on this continent. Interestingly, the province of Nova Scotia is the only Canadian province to recognize Treaty Day, on October 1st of every year, to commemorate the Peace and Friendship Treaties.
Unfortunately, within the non-Native population, there’s a general assumption that treaties and Treaty Day are a “Native thing” only – something that doesn’t concern those who are non-Native. But of course, treaties are agreements between two parties. So whether you’re a First Nation person or not, if you live here, the treaties apply to you. We are all, all of us who live here, treaty people.
Over the last decade, thanks to the recent struggles and campaigns waged by courageous and determined Indigenous activists across the continent, there’s been an increased sense of awareness about the treaties among the non-Native or settler population. There’s also been alliances formed between Indigenous and non-Indigenous activists in common struggles against exploitative resource extraction and other campaigns, the likes of which have not been seen for generations.
But with a growing awareness of the existence of the treaties has come also a growing sense of questioning about how to honour those treaties at a personal level and at a societal level. For both Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations, agency over the treaty relationship is extremely limited. Control over how the treaties are interpreted or respected is concentrated almost exclusively in the hands politicians and bureaucrats of the Canadian state, and to a lesser extent the governmental bodies within First Nation communities that are sanctioned by the Canadian state through the very restrictive Indian Act.
Between Nations is an attempt to examine avenues for people to understand and engage in the shaping of our treaty relationship today. By generating a process of reflection, accompanied by small personal and collective actions, we can begin to move away from Canada’s Indian Act and move toward a People’s treaty relationship that genuinely follows in the spirit of the Peace and Friendship Treaties. That is to say, we can collectively rebuild a relationship where all peoples can genuinely feel we belong to and can truthfully engage in.
However, in doing so, we fully recognize that the responsibility to address the injustice and suffering caused by centuries of broken promises rests squarely and heavily on the non-Native population, most especially those of European settler descent, who continue to benefit economically and politically from the theft of Indigenous lands.
At Solidarity Halifax, our interest in this discussion, and sense of responsibility to act, flows from our understanding that capitalism and colonialism go hand in hand. Today’s capitalist imperative for perpetual economic growth continues the suppression of Indigenous ways of living that have already been severely damaged by centuries of oppression. By fuelling a drive for land and resource privatization in the name of profit, capitalism structures our society in such a way that the suppression of differing worldviews and the repression of those who stand in the way of profit are justified. And so, the Peace and Friendship Treaties that recognize Indigenous sovereignty over this land, and those who attempt to live by the treaties, come in direct contradiction with the capitalist economic system which underlies Canadian society. If the treaties are to be enacted, capitalism must go and be replaced by economic relationships and structures that give true democratic and collective power to all those concerned.
Further to this, our treaties contain an inherent obligation to protect our shared land and its resources for future generations. Already, treaty rights upheld repeatedly in courts have had the ability to stall environmental degradation for profit accumulation on numerous occasions. Support for legal treaty recognition and the collective enactment of those treaty relationships may very well be our only chance to stop our destructive economy as it relentlessly drives us into climate crisis. Fighting for a new democratic economy, fighting for climate justice and fighting for treaty rights are all parts of a same struggle.
With recent attention to front-line resistance against resource extraction from First Nations communities, with the revelations and recommendations that have resulted from the Truth and Reconciliation Report, with the intensifying calls for an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women – all this in the follow up to the widely spread Idle No More movement – it seems there’s no better time to talk about the treaties. But really, when it comes down to it, we’re 400 years late. Indigenous peoples have always been very aware of the acute need to respect the treaties. As non-Indigenous peoples become increasingly aware of the legal and political obligation we have to do the same, it becomes a moral imperative that we not waste any more time.
Msit No’kmaq. (All my relations)