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The documentary Trick or Treaty? by Alanis Obomsawin follows the journey of Indigenous leaders in their quest for justice as they seek to establish dialogue with the Canadian government.

Alanis Obomsawin's new film is bracketed by two long-distance journeys. The first is a canoe trip in 1905 by Duncan Campbell Scott, the poet and bureaucrat delegated by the governments of Canada and Ontario to make a treaty with the Cree of Northern Ontario. The second is a 1,600-kilometre foot trek to Ottawa in the winter of 2012 by a half-dozen young Cree from a settlement on James Bay, to protest the ways in which treaties settled a century before had been ignored or misunderstood.

The James Bay Treaty, also known as Treaty No. 9, eventually covered a vast portion of Northern Ontario. Native people regard it and the other numbered treaties as foundational charters of land-sharing, but the paper brought back to Ottawa from Scott's Northern Ontario tour tells a different story. The Cree signatories "cede, release, surrender and yield up" their lands, the document says, and though traditional hunting and fishing can continue, the province can hinder or curtail them whenever it pleases.

Few if any of the Cree who signed had enough English to read those terms, although the document claims everything was "interpreted and explained." But was it? Cree oral histories of the encounter with Scott say nothing about land surrender or regulated hunting. Obomsawin's Trick or Treaty? argues that Treaty 9 is a puzzle that can be solved only by considering everything that was said before the paper was signed.

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Part of the film focuses on the quest by two very different men to understand the making of Treaty 9. John Long is a Nipissing University historian who studied the journals of witnesses to the process, and Stan Louttit was a grand chief of the Mushkegowuk Cree whose grandfather was one of those who signed the treaty.

Long's researches included close study of a little-known diary by George MacMartin, the only one of the three treaty commissioners (the others were Scott and Samuel Stewart) who did not work for the Department of Indian Affairs.

At several stops along the way, Long says, MacMartin's account revealed that the "surrender" clauses of the written treaty were neither mentioned nor explained, and that the Cree were assured "that they could hunt wherever they pleased." In a paper Scott wrote after the treaty was signed, he admitted that the explanations were far from thorough. Since the Cree could not be expected to understand Canadian law and government, he wrote, "the simpler facts had to be stated, and the parental idea developed, that the King is the great father of the Indians, watchful over their interests and ever compassionate."

Some were reluctant to buy this "paternal idea." Missabay, a blind chief at Osnaburg, told Scott that he worried his people would become bound to their reserve lands, and unable to hunt or fish as before. The commissioners' official report says Missabay was told these fears were "groundless, as [the Crees'] present manner of making their livelihood would in no way be interfered with." In fact, Indian Affairs had been restricting indigenous people to reserves in other parts of Canada since the 1880s, and Cree along the Treaty 9 tour route were already being prosecuted for trading in furs that the department thought they shouldn't have.

The film's title comes from a remark in Long's 2010 book, Treaty No. 9: Making the Agreement to Share the Land in Far Northern Ontario in 1905. Long's scholarly doubts about the fairness of the process boil over in Louttit's presentations to northern Cree communities about deception pure and simple. The grand chief, who died in June, particularly fumes over the lack of respect shown to Cree oral history. The irony is that he is obliged to point to Long's researches into the written record to prove that "we were right."

Another big part of Trick or Treaty? tells of the eruption of Idle No More in 2012 in the wake of Bill C-45, which changed several laws related to native people and the land without consultation. Obomsawin's footage of thousands converging on Ottawa plays almost as an elegy to the optimism and pride of that period of native activism. There's a lot of impassioned oratory, including a quietly searing impromptu speech by Shawn Atleo, the former head of the Assembly of First Nations, about the "poverty [that] is killing our people."

But the most moving image in the whole film may be that of a young woman in a bright blue dress and fringed shawl, dancing alone along a slushy street behind a parade of demonstrators. She looks so very assured of who she is, and where she's from, and what belongs to her.

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What's missing from Trick or Treaty? is any reference to the evolution of judicial understanding of what the treaties mean. In a series of judgments since the 1990s, the Supreme Court has found that "the oral promises made when the treaty was agreed to are as much a part of the treaty as the written words," as the court wrote in R. v. Morris (2006).

Translating this theoretical understanding into workable courtroom practice is more difficult, says Aimée Craft, an Anishinaabe legal scholar and assistant law professor at the University of Manitoba. It's fine to say that oral promises and history are legally valid, she says, but how do you reconcile that with long-standing rules against hearsay evidence? The bias toward paper becomes even greater in appeal courts, she says, and pushes the indigenous view of the matter further away.

"You lose that oral value and dimension," Craft says, "and you lose the spiritual value, the connection to the land." Obomsawin makes the same point at the end of Trick or Treaty?, with words by Santee Sioux poet John Trudell ("we are the land"), and sweeping aerial imagery of the waters and lands that Duncan Campbell Scott tried to harness, a century ago, with a piece of paper.

Trick or Treaty? plays in Toronto on Oct. 25 (5:30 p.m.) at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, as part of the imagineNATIVE festival (imaginenative.org), and in Montreal on Nov. 20 (8:30 p.m.) at Cinéma Excentris and Nov. 22 (2 p.m.) at Cinéma du Parc, as part of the Montreal International Documentary Festival (ridm.qc.ca/en/).

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