Same same?

In the years surrounding the war, Japanese Canadians, German Canadians, Ukrainian Canadians were all taken from their homes and put into internment camps. This is one of those…whattayacallems…parts of Canadian history that gets sorta shoved under the carpet because when faced with something that makes us feel bad, Canadians are a lot like puppies. I have a friend who told me that when his dog pooped on the floor, she would pick up the poop and go and hide it in the chesterfield. And that’s pretty much what Canadians do with our own history that we find kind of nasty.

When Louis Riel was elected to Parliament, he couldn’t take his seat because most of Upper Canada wanted him killed, and I think there were warrants out for his arrest. What was he in trouble for? Telling Upper Canada that the people who’d broken the land and homesteading in Manitoba kind of owned their own land regardless of their heritage. I could be fuzzy on the details because the only thing that was taught in my elementary school about Louis Riel is that he was a criminal who betrayed the government of Canada and was exiled to the US and was hanged for treason. And that because of Louis Riel, the Canadian government was able to pretty much wipe out the Red River Rebellion, which was a good thing because what would we do if a bunch of Métis people were able to declare themselves a distinct society and want to govern people of non-Indigenous descent? CLEARLY we would devolve into some kind of savage oligarchy, ruled by a controlling despot who muzzles the press and underfunds education, science and research, and…oh wait. Shit.

al_historictreaties_treaty-text_main_1361286085685_eng“The Treaties were enacted so that the Indians could have a place to live in Canada and could learn how to sustain themselves with agriculture.” I mean. It’s no goddamned wonder most students don’t like learning “history”. Because it makes no bloody sense. A “treaty” is a formal and ratified agreement signed between countries. So at some level, the Canadian government recognised that the Indigenous peoples of Canada represented distinct nations. Why in the world would a foreign government (Canada) have to draft treaties for Indigenous peoples to live where they’d always lived? And why on earth would Indigenous peoples need to learn how to survive when clearly they’d been surviving quite handily for thousands of years before foreign boots landed on this country’s soil? But of course, when you’re in grade three and you don’t understand a lot about these weird concepts like private ownership and international trade agreements, you just kind of believe whatever is in your text book, or whatever your teacher teaches you.

History must be told in terms of story. There’s fiction, and there’s non-fiction. And usually, history is non-fiction. Usually. Unless you’re Canadian and you’re learning the kind of history that doesn’t even actually mention internment camps for Immigrant Canadians during (and after) the war. Unless you’re Canadian and you’re learning that the British (Canadian) government wanted to “help” Indigenous peoples by basically putting them in internment camps and then reneging on most of the terms of the treaties they’d signed.

Imagine my confusion when I learned about the Treaty of Versailles and how Europe was *surprised* when Hitler violated the terms of the treaty and began amassing military troops and reinstating military conscription in Germany. Why was anyone surprised about this? Clearly the purpose of treaties is to write down a bunch of stuff you don’t really mean, which you have no real intention of doing, for a bunch of people you don’t really much like anyway. This is what the word “treaty” meant to me, because in Canada, it was pretty clear that the only reason the British government offered to entreat with the Indigenous peoples was because it was easier to control a population of people who’d been starved nearly to extinction, decimated by disease, and ethnically cleansed from their traditional lands in the American midwest. And just outright killing them was so…American. The Prime Minister (Sir John A.) had a dream to unite Canada under one government, but in order to do that, the peoples who had “title” to the lands in the west would have to agree to surrender them. Most of the Indigenous peoples were in a desperate enough state that some help looked pretty damned good.

We learned in grade three about the destruction of the bison herds. We learned about the Trail of Tears. We learned about the disease and the starvation that turned entire nations of peoples into groups of nomads, trying to find a place to live in a country overrun with foreign settlers who were looking for the same thing. We learned that the Government swept in and saved the people. But we didn’t learn what our government signed on behalf of all Canadians with the Indigenous peoples, *forever*. Most of us never read the numbered treaties under which our own homes were governed. (Some of us went and looked them up in the municipal library because we had Questions.)  I am not a scholar of Aboriginal law nor of Treaty law. Nor of law at all, really. The point I want to make here is that the Government of Canada signed these treaties *in perpetuity*. There’s no end date on them. More on that in a minute. Keep that in your head though, okay?

Look, I know you didn’t much like my rant yesterday. Nobody likes it when we point out each others’ weaknesses. There are an awful lot of people who don’t seem to understand that Indigenous peoples were never given any “free stuff”. Indigenous peoples in Canada had their traditional homelands *annexed* by a foreign government. A foreign government came in to their native homeland, annexed it, and set aside certain portions on which the indigenous peoples could continue to live.  This was pretty weird, if you think about it. Invading forces usually stormed a country, killed off all the leaders and warriors they could, took the land away from every other landowner, installed their own leaders in positions of authority, and then enslaved the indigenous people. Anyway, that’s really neither here nor there. The point is that reserve land is not “free land”; it’s a concession of property granted or traded for other lands or services.

Let’s put this in perspective. If the Americans decided they didn’t want to sign any more international trade agreements with Canada for natural resources like oil, lumber, potash, and water, and they kind of wanted to just, you know, take over Canada and make it part of the US of A, and they came up here with their military prowess and their redneck militias, we’d be screwed. Canada wouldn’t be a nation anymore. Your land titles might not be valid anymore, since they were registered in a country that no longer exists. Sure, you say, that would never happen. Times have changed. (Well, but not really.) Or what if China did it? What if China decided to annex Canada and you had to learn Chinese in order to get anything official done? And you couldn’t go to church anymore because the official religion in China is no religion at all or Taoism so your little church on the corner would become a temple or a laundromat or a government office.

So this racism, this intolerance and distrust and judgment towards Indigenous peoples in Canada and recent immigrants to Canada, it’s awful. Everyone everywhere hates each other; that’s why countries have borders at all. Very few of them are geographically-based; national borders are imaginary lines drawn in the sand that basically say “you keep your people over there and I’ll keep my people over here” in a sad but powerful game of Auntie-I-Over. But the way to move out of our xenophobic and sorry monocultural rut is to talk to each other. We need to learn about each others’ history and culture. We need to park our indignation at the door.

Read the Treaties that govern what are essentially international relations for the area in which you live. You’ll see that, f’rinstance, the terms of Treaty 4 (which covers the place I live) cedes approximately 50,000 square miles (that’s a lot of miles, square or otherwise) in exchange for, among other things, an annual payment, *in perpetuity* of $5 for every man, woman, and child in the Band. FIVE BUCKS. Five bucks A YEAR. Why, for an average, healthy woman, that amounts to nearly $450 over a whole lifetime! That’s, like, a lot of bucks! Man. If the federal government gave *me* FIVE FREE DOLLARS A YEAR, and if I invested it wisely at birth, I could possibly TRIPLE the investment and make almost FIFTEEN HUNDRED DOLLARS over my 90-year lifespan! My band could receive ammunition and twine! TWINE! Amounting to not more than $750/year. That’s a LOT of twine. I could be given a school! FREE! And I wouldn’t have the option of whether or not to send my kids to that school! The government would just come and take them from me! And then rape them and beat them! And force them to speak a foreign language! That would be SO AWESOME! And let’s not forget that as long as I stay on my reserve, I am not allowed to have any alcohol or spirits. Sorry about the Grey Cup party, lads. But if we pool our $5 for a few years, we could maybe set up a big-screen teevee on the edge of the reserve and sit on a couch on the other side of the border and drink beer!

Now, if you live a bit further north and are living under Treaty Six, you’re super lucky because the terms of this treaty originally allowed the government to take away whatever land they wanted from your reserve (which was establised when about 121,000 square miles were ceded) for “public works or buildings” provided proper compensation was provided. You also got to share one plough and one harrow for every three families if you decided to engage in agriculture. And each Band got one whole whetstone! Oh, and every family has *access to* a medicine chest kept at the Indian Agent’s home. So that’s pretty nice. I’m sure the Indian Agents are *more than happy* to run clinics out of their homes!

So if you think that five bucks a year, access to education, shared farming tools, and a shitload of twine, along with some land set aside out of between 50,000 and 121,000 square miles of land is a good deal, then you and I should have a talk about what you’re willing to sell your beachfront cottage for. I *happen* to have rather a lot of twine I grabbed from Grandmother Smaug’s hoard. And let’s just make sure you understand that in order to receive your five bucks a year, access to education, shared farming tools, and a shitload of twine, you have to live where the Government tells you to live, and you’re *not allowed to leave your neighbourhood without permission*, and you *aren’t allowed to have a beer on your own land*. Because if you leave your neighbourhood, for many years, you could be arrested. For a long time, if you married someone who wasn’t from your neighbourhood, you had to leave your neighbourhood and forfeit your five bucks a year.

I hear people say “why should I be held responsible for what happened 150 years ago?” I can answer that. It’s a pretty easy answer, actually. It’s because *our government* signed internationally binding treaties that last *forever*. Our government essentially agreed to these terms on your behalf, three generations before you were born. If you are Canadian, you are covered by, and are therefore governed by, and are therefore held responsible to uphold the tenets of, every treaty signed with every nation in Canada, by the Canadian government. Just like you’re covered by, and are held responsible to uphold the tenets of international agreements signed with the United States or Germany or China. You personally might not have signed those treaties, but your government did. And that’s why it’s your (and my, and every Indigenous person’s in this country) responsibility to know what you’ve been signed up for, what your rights are, what our rights are, and how we can enact those rights *together*.

That’s the thing, see. We’re all in this together. So get over your ridiculous sense of entitlement if you think that you deserve MORE than you’ve received (which is essentially a taxpayer-paid education, taxpayer-funded health care, a pretty good standard of living, political empowerment) and should be getting five extra bucks a year and a shitload of twine. No, you didn’t vote for Sir John A. Macdonald, but that doesn’t negate the fact that he signed international treaties on your behalf. I didn’t vote for Stephen Harper, and he’s ruining the country without my consent too. (This is one of many reasons why it’s *kind of important* to vote, and to cast an informed vote.)

Education, health care, land claims – these are all treaty rights (among other things). They are rights that were given in exchange for Indignenous peoples ceding a LOT of land (like, all of Canada between Ontario and the BC Coast). Land that you couldn’t afford to buy if you tried. Even if you were the Koch brothers. If you need to think of treaty rights as Canada’s “sale price”, then go ahead. What is your homeland worth to you?

More reading:
Canada’s Numbered Treaties 

cenobyte
cenobyte is a writer, editor, blogger, and super genius from Saskatchewan, Canada.

6 Comments

  1. Here in Australia we never signed any treaties with the European invaders. We’re still at war.

    When we win then we’ll see about a fucking treaty. They’d better be ready to beg for their twine.

      1. The Maori negotiated the Treaty of Waitangi after eating lots of invaders. Doubtless they brought their cutlery to the signing to help keep attention focused. My ancestors took one look at the pale, disease-ridden poms and decided to stick to kangaroo stew.

        According to this site (http://www.info.dfat.gov.au/treaties) Australia has signed many treaties.

        That Australia is the invader.
        It’s signed treaties with other nations but never with us indigenous Australians.

        1. Very good point.

          I love learning about Australian culture and history. I don’t know much about indigenous Australians or how your culture differs from the Maori…mostly because of misinformation, I suppose.

          BACK TO THE LIBRARY!!

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