What are Treaties? Why should you know about them?

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When we go to certain places around Manitoba, we hear people say this phrase (or a variation of it) or see it posted prominently:

“We would like to acknowledge that we are currently on Treaty # __ territory.”

They may go on to say that the place is the traditional territory of the specific First Nations groups that were signatories to the certain Treaty. Have you ever wondered why this is done and what it means?

What are Treaties?

A Treaty is an agreement. When we talk of First Nations Treaties, we refer to “negotiated agreements that clearly spell out the rights, responsibilities and relationships of First Nations and the federal and provincial governments” (What is a Treaty? Treaty Relations Commission Manitoba). These agreements were about solidfying alliances, and often dealt with the sharing of land, resources, and coexistence, in exchange for assurances. Examples of assurances include annuities as an acknowledgement and annual reminder into perpetuity, of the solemn agreement that was made between the two historic Treaty partners (First Nations peoples and the Crown as represented by Canada) and continued right for First Nations to practice their traditional livelihoods of hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering. Meanwhile, Canadians (represented by the Crown) gain rights to settle and make a living on the land.

Treaties are significant pacts and contracts. They are “an enduring relationship of mutual obligation” which ushered in a peaceful coexistence between First Nations and non-First Nation people. They have been negotiated in Canada between First Nations and the British Crown as early as 1701 and continued in both pre-and post-Confederation periods. The Canadian government acknowledges 70 historic and 24 modern-day Treaties. These are considered important building blocks of the nation.

(TRCM/CTV Vignette: Share the Land)

When we acknowledge that the place we are on is Treaty land, it speaks volumes about the importance of these pacts. At the same time, we are also acknowledging the original people of the land who were here even before the nation of Canada was formed.

Do you want to know whose land you’re on? Check the Native Land map. Key-in the location on the search tab to highlight the area on the map.

Why should you learn about Treaties?

“We are all Treaty people”.

This means that Treaties do not involve only the First Nations and the government or the Crown, it also involves you. Every Canadian has Treaty rights. For example, if you own property or plan on owning property in Canada, you are exercising a right that goes back to the very first signed Treaties.

As James B. Wilson, former Commissioner of the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, puts it:
“It (knowing what Treaties represent) is fundamentally important to understanding the country we live in. To me you can’t be a fully engaged citizen unless you acknowledge and understand that shared history – it’s part of our collective identity.”

As newcomers to Canada, learning about Treaties is an essential piece that will help us form an authentic picture of what Canada is. It will help us better appreciate the relationship (and the continuing relationship) between the First Nations peoples and the federal and provincial governments. More importantly, it is a big part in understanding the country’s origins and how it developed.

“As we assimilate and continue to become part of the Canadian society, being informed about Treaties can help us become more aware of current economic and societal issues that First Nations peoples are facing. Understanding Treaties is one of the steps that can prevent us from making quick judgments or forming biases and become more discerning and sensitive members of society.”

Why are Treaties still relevant today?

Historic and modern-day Treaties continue to be key elements in future relationships between the First Nations and the Crown. As Research Director Michael Anderson said, “the essence of the Treaty was to create a nation together that will exist in perpetuity, for as long as the sun shines, the grass grows, the waters flow” (as cited from Treaties from 1760-1923: Two sides to the story, Isabelle Montpetit, CBC News). So Treaties continue to be the foundation upon which Indigenous and non-indigenous people build the nation and enjoy its benefits in the context of mutual rights and responsibilities. In fact, there are still modern-day Treaties being negotiated in Canada today. These Treaties concern First Nations traditional territories that were not included in the Treaty-making process. They also reflect First Nations peoples’ choice at the time to not be part of the Treaty process but rather retain their lands despite the dangers of encroachment by others.

As a newcomer to Canada, you may also wonder about current concerns regarding First Nations Peoples rights. You may hear about disputes and claims that relate to an unfulfilled obligation of a Treaty or another agreement, or a breach of statutory responsibilities by the Crown. These usually stem from the interpretation of the Treaties. Today, in examining these issues, “the Supreme Court of Canada has found that the written text alone cannot grant an understanding of the “spirit” of the Treaties: the courts must now examine the historical context and the perception that each partly likely had of the agreement” (Issues of modern-day interpretation, The Canadian Encyclopedia). This process requires consideration and inclusion of the First Nations oral tradition.

As we assimilate and continue to become part of the Canadian society, being informed about Treaties can help us become more aware of current economic and societal issues that First Nations peoples are facing. Understanding Treaties is one of the steps that can prevent us from making quick judgments or forming biases and become more discerning and sensitive members of society.

With thanks to Amanda Simard, Education Manager and Cynthia Bird, Lead Writer, Treaty Education Initiative, Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba for reviewing this article.

Sources: Treaties, Treaty Relations Commission Manitoba; Treaties with Aboriginal People in Canada, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada; Issues of modern-day interpretation (Treaties #1 and 2), The Canadian Encyclopedia; The importance of Treaty education, Working effectively with Indigenous Peoples blog. Retrieved April 18, 2018.

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Community Resources

Want to learn more about Treaties? The Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba has many resources that you can start with. Go to their Webinar Series page to view six videos on the basics of Treaties. Their Multimedia video gallery features various lectures from experts, including Elders, historians, and academics on various aspects of Treaty rights.

Here is a list of Treaties in Manitoba: Treaties in Manitoba.

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