We are All Treaty People
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.
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.