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We are All Treaty People

December 24, 2012

by Tara Williamson

As an Indigenous person from Manitoba, I grew up learning to call myself a Treaty Indian. I grew up in the territory of Treaty 1 (Swan Lake, Manitoba) and I am a member of a Treaty 5 nation (Opaskwayak Cree Nation). I listened to the oral traditions about what that treaty meant for us as individuals, families, and communities: a medicine chest, a school house, farming equipment, and five bucks five bucks five bucks!

It was always understood that these treaty “payments” were in exchange for the land. Not that anyone’s oral tradition ever said ALL the land, or even OWNERSHIP of the land. But, they were agreements settled during difficult times by our ancestors who were trying to make the best decisions they could for their grandchildren. And, since the settlers were already here, it was better to make formal agreements and plan to protect the basic necessities of life for future generations than do nothing.

It wasn’t until I became an adult that I first heard the expression “We are ALL treaty people.” Quite frankly, it blew my mind. I mean, of course I’m a treaty Indian, but, it never occurred to me that my neighbours were Treaty Settlers.

But, of course! Treaties and agreements require at least two parties. How did Settlers forget that? How did I forget that?

I forgot because colonization and settlement have been normalized . Simultaneously, the depictions of Indigenous peoples as “freeloading,” “angry,” “on welfare,” “criminal,” and “lazy” have also been normalized. Truthfully, these two normalizations are the different sides of the same coin, they need each other to exist. As a result, Settlers are able to sleep easy with a sense of entitlement to the land and the governance structures that have been placed upon it. In their minds, treaties were a one-time transaction that guaranteed an eternity of good nights’ sleeps for them and their future generations. Of course, in the minds of Indigenous peoples, the treaties are living, breathing agreements that we are reminded of every day, that we cannot forget, because we live displaced in our own territories every day.

But, I think that’s about to change. As neo-liberal and conservative agendas push forward legislation that favours corporate interest over the interest of everyday Canadians, Settlers will slowly begin to pay attention. Their sleeps will start to become more restless as they realize that they are NOT, in fact, entitled to their “own” land. When their water also becomes unsafe to drink, when their children cannot afford to be educated, and when the “democracy” they cling to so desperately starts to fail, they will realize that something is terribly wrong.

Ancient Indian prophecy alert: You can’t eat money. And, as the political climate shifts and things like water become privatized and polluted and oil becomes scarce, Settlers will begin looking for solutions. Inevitably, the cornucopians will insist that a new technological invention will save us. But, the rest of the population (74% of Canadians perceive climate change as a threat) is going to be pretty hard pressed to find a solution to the environmental degradation that is not only being promoted by current governments and multi-national corporations, but also sanctioned by both domestic law and international trade agreements.

It’s then that they’re going to realize that all of the federal and provincial legislation that was supposed to protect the basic human rights of Canadians was overturned or amended while they were getting good sleeps.

Then what?

As a first step, let me suggest treaties. In Manitoba alone, there are 848,420 acres of Crown Land Entitlement settlements up for grabs. Under the jurisdiction of First Nations, that land could be protected with band council resolutions and public support. Right now, there are limitations to the power of First Nations to govern on our own territories, those barriers aren’t going to get any less intimidating without public support and the recognition that, when the last tree is cut down in your neighbourhood, your only protection might be located in the small communities that are spread across the country that still have the interests of the land in mind and the legal power to govern those lands.

I mean, who are you going to trust when it comes to protecting the land for your children: Indigenous peoples or the Canadian government? And, when you answer that question for yourself, remember the treaties.

After all, we are all treaty people.


Tara Williamson is an Anishinaabekwe/Nehayowak who was raised in Gaabishkigamaag, Swan Lake, Manitoba and is a member of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation. She has degrees in social work, law, and Indigenous governance and is currently a Professor at Fleming College in Nogojiwanong (Peterborough, Ontario).  She is a musician, aunty, sister, daughter, and poet.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. December 24, 2012 5:16 pm

    Actually in BC most Indigenous people are not treaty people with the exception of the Douglas Treaties on Vancouver Island, a portion of Treaty 8 in the northeast section of the province, and the “modern day” treaties of the Nisga’a etc.

    • December 28, 2012 8:16 pm

      To follow up on Tara’s point – I think much of the call for respecting Treaty is premised on the honoring of the spirit of the Treaty process, as much as it is about the actual wording of the treaties or even their actual existence. There are those who would go back and read back for the ‘letter of the law’, looking for ways that Indigenous peoples have not honored their end of the specific treaties (as a way to abrogate their own responsibility as settlers and to excuse their ongoing colonial violence) but this misses the point. Idle No More, as it seems to me and as part of a much larger, longer movement, is not so much about the specific treaties but a respectful relationship that honors Indigenous sovereignty, Indigenous peoples, and Indigenous ways of thinking and acting in the world.


  2. Tara Williamson permalink
    December 25, 2012 10:17 pm

    Aaniin zig zag,
    You are absolutely right. I think a principle of alliance still applies in BC in that Settlers ought to be learning how they can support First Nations to support their sovereignty over their unceded territories. This is where real and meaningful environmental protection will come from, I think.
    Miigwech for reading,

  3. Val Stump permalink
    January 2, 2013 11:42 pm

    I think the term “Treaty” needs to be decolonized because I find it very insulting. I’m from BC and I’m thankful my people will not agree to join any form of selling our traditional lands. I enjoyed the article but the title was a stab to the gut. Lol. From my experience treaty was always used as a racial word. For example, I’ve seen people call others “Treaty Indian” and then they would laugh.
    Another thing, just by witnessing how the governments dishonour the treaties makes me sad and angry. My experience with being a participant of Idle No More here in Prince George was about change. I felt the resistance from the younger generation to make change. Our ancestors probably never did use treaty as a terminology. I think it’s time to change that word.

    • Tara Williamson permalink
      January 3, 2013 11:38 pm

      Aaniin Val,

      Miigwech for your comments. I had no idea that ‘Treaty Indian’ was used in that way in BC (even though I lived there for 3 years) so I’m glad to learn that.

      I like the concept of treaty because I think it is important for Settlers to acknowledge their history. But, I also appreciate that it might not be inclusive of everyone. I guess I use the idea as a concept to encourage learning about the past.

      Maybe it’s time for a new concept that acknowledges treaties and other agreements and sovereignty? Something more broad?

      Miigwech for reading.


  4. January 13, 2013 11:58 pm

    Tara, my ancestors signed Treaty 1 and I grew hearing the same–that we are ‘Treaty Indians’. Thank you for pointing out that the other part of the equation is that our non-native neighbours are ‘Treaty Settlers’. It provides greater context to this discussion of treaty and non-treaty rights.


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