A journey into treaties

As the Idle No More movement seems to gain more attention and the issue of First Nations treaty rights becomes the latest entree spoon-fed to us by the media I figured that now was as good a time as any to do some digging and some reading and see what all the fuss is about.  I haven’t completed the journey by any means but I sure have learned a lot and, not surprisingly, found some items in the media that don’t actually match up to what I’ve read.

The treaty that seems to be most prominent in the news is the James Bay Treaty, or Treaty No. 9 (not be confused with Love Potion No. 9, which is a pretty good tune) because that is the treaty that was signed by the tribe whose chief is currently on a hunger strike.  Nothing like a good hunger strike to get the attention of the media and to gain sympathy for your cause regardless of its validity, but we’re not going to be distracted by such shenanigans, we’re going right to the source.  The James Bay Treaty is… wow.  What an amazing document.  If you haven’t read it, I strongly encourage you to do so (full text is here) because if you ever get the chance to really screw someone over and take just about everything they have while giving nothing in return you’ll want to use the articles of this treaty as a starting point for your thin veneer of legality.  It’s excellent for that.

The articles of the treaty state that the signatory tribes will

cede, release, surrender and yield up to the government of the Dominion of Canada, for His Majesty the King and His successors for ever, all their rights titles and privileges whatsoever, to the lands included

in return for this (which is, essentially, everything) His Gracious Majesty agrees that

  • the Indians have the right to hunt, fish, and trap on the land they’re giving up unless the government decides to take some of the land back for settlement, mining, lumbering, trading, buildings, roads, railroads, or public works.  (I’m paraphrasing, but it’s in there)
  • the Indians get a reserve of land (which they cannot sell to anyone but the government*) based on one square mile for each family of five, give or take
  • each Indian gets a gift of $8
  • each Indian household gets a payment next year and annually afterwards for ever a payment of $4 per person
  • each chief will receive a flag and a copy of the treaty (for framing, perhaps?  or a dartboard ?)
  • each band will receive teachers, school buildings, and educational equipment (which led to residential schools, the lawsuits from which are mostly settled now)

That’s it.  That’s all of it.  There’s nothing in there about sovereignty, or tax exemptions, or health care, or snowmobiles, flat-screen TVs, or the Internet.  Hell, they don’t even make allowance for inflation in the yearly payment of $4 per person.  This is even meaner that some of the earlier treaties such as Treaty No. 7 which was apparently far too generous when it offered an annual payment of $5 per person and $2000 per year to the tribe for ammunition**.

The National Post ran an article in which the author claimed that the treaty promised the Indians “benefits that served to balance anything that they were giving.”  These words are indeed in the treaty document but they’re in the narrative of the journey and the signing process and are part of a conversation recorded between the commissioners and the chiefs.  These words do NOT appear in the articles of the Treaty itself, which is the document that the chiefs actually signed.  I’m not a lawyer by any means, but I strongly suspect that this little detail matters a lot.

All of this made me wonder, 80 years later, how much the tribe is being paid by the government to live up to the few petty bones they offered in exchange for their little portion of the great nation of Canada.  Fortunately, this information is available without getting out of my swivel rocker, and the fast answer is that in 2011 Indian and Northern Affairs Canada paid the Attawapiskat First Nation a grand total of $17,064,573.

This seemed like a lot of money, so I was curious how large the First Nation is.  Wikipedia (never a truly reliable source, but why would they lie about this?) says that the Attawapiskat First Nation has a total membership of over 2,800 including those members living off the reserve.  This gives us a total of around $6,000 per person.  The original offer of $4 per person, agreed to in 1930 and adjusted for inflation (assuming that Canadian inflation mirrors that of the US) works out to a mere $52.23 so there’s more than inflation at work here.

This is as far as I’ve gotten, but I’m not done because there are a lot of questions unanswered.  My next task is to try to figure out how an offer of $4 per person became  an expense of $6,000.  I’m sure that there were a bunch of laws, lawsuits, rulings, and appeals between those two numbers, but before I even start to work that bit out I run into the much larger question of whether these treaties are even relevant today.  Surely neither side can seriously want to enforce them strictly to the letter; the First Nations would get a pittance and the Canadian government would look like fools (though whether or not this is a deterrent is another conversation).  One Chief was quoted by CBC saying, “…we are saying the treaty of 1905 [ed: Treaty No. 9] is as relevant in terms of spirit and intent then as it is now.”  Really?  I’m pretty sure that the spirit and intent of the treaty as far as the government was concerned was to take land and get rid of the aboriginals who were occupying it.  I’m equally sure that this is not the intent that the Chief would like to have continued, but as soon as you get away from the actual words on the paper that the Commissioners and the Chiefs signed you start running into serious trouble.

There other big questions here, questions like, What do the First Nations want to be, sovereign and self-supporting or supported and forever dependent?  Is there a compromise position between these?  And how does a government atone for a theft they committed 100 years ago?  Can it be done in one shot, or must it be paid for forever?  Is Idle No More about environmental risk, or treaty rights, or Bill C-45, or what?  They seem to be a bit all over the place, depending on who you talk to.  I’m going to completely ignore these questions, do some more digging into the evolution of this treaty and see if I can find out how that $4 per person turned into $6,000.  Maybe that will help answer some of those pesky larger questions.

More to follow.  You’ve been warned.






* Ironically, one of the current points of contention involves the government’s proposed weakening of this provision.  First Nations are of the opinion that it will allow outside buyers to chip away at what little holdings they have left.  I don’t see how this can happen if the bands aren’t willing to sell, but I’m probably confused and ignorant on this one.

** Just in case you don’t yet realize just how cheap this is, note that Treaty No. 7’s offer of $5 per person per year was first signed in 1877 and Treaty No. 9 with its measly $4 per person per year was signed by tribes as late as 1930, a full 67 years later.


4 thoughts on “A journey into treaties

  1. Heather

    Fascinating. Looking forward to more. (and no, before you ask, there was absolutely no sarcasm in that statement, just curiosity)

  2. CR

    Please keep going, this is such an important topic.
    Every day since this thing started I ask your same questions “Is Idle No More about environmental risk, or treaty rights, or Bill C-45, or what?”.

  3. JS

    Theft? Like when that used car salesman Terry Nels*n sells you a lemon off his lot? At least the Dominion offered something… it could have been worse.


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