Douglas Sanderson (Amo Binashii) is the Prichard Wilson Chair in Law and Public Policy at the University of Toronto’s faculty of law. He is Beaver Clan, from the Opaskwayak Cree Nation. His recent book Valley of the Birdtail (with Andrew Stobo Sniderman) was a finalist for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize and the winner of the J.W. Dafoe Book Prize.
Benjamin Franklin is perhaps best remembered for his experiments with lightning; the image of him as a young man flying a kite in a lightning storm pressed into our collective memory. But he was a man of many achievements. Franklin also founded the American Philosophical Society, served as an ambassador to France, and is the “Benjamin” who has given his name and face to the American $100 bill for nearly a century.
Sadly, one of Franklin’s more notable contributions to the public record is scarcely remembered today. Beginning in 1736, Franklin – then a printer, working in Philadelphia – made it his business to publish records of treaty proceedings happening in the city between what was then the Six Nations Confederacy and the colonial representatives of Virginia and Maryland. He saw in the records an original, and wholly American form of literature, “a kind of Native American literature, akin to a stage play,” wrote David Nichols, professor of history and Indigenous studies at the University of Indiana Bloomington. The folios are a remarkable record of what it meant for Indigenous and colonial officials to enter into and exist in a treaty relationship.
In reading the documents today, it is startling that there never was a written agreement that outlined the terms. Now, when we think of treaties with Indian nations, we think of a written document, duly signed – a contract, more or less, that made clear who was giving up what and to whom. But the treaty meetings in Philadelphia were nothing like this. Instead, the treaty was a relationship that changed and adapted to new situations year after year. The relationship became known as the Covenant Chain, and annual treaty meetings were conscious efforts to “polish the chain.”
Today, I am thinking of these meetings, and the connections they fostered over the decades, in the context of the current relationship between Indigenous and federal government leaders. What Franklin recorded in his folios was the essence of a long-term and regularly renewed relationship, not just between nations, but between friends who, over time, came to call one another brothers, and who saw themselves not merely in a political alliance, but a familial one. Historically, the nearly annual treaty meetings provided opportunity for give and take, for claim and counterclaim, the holding to account of another party that promised last year to do something, but then didn’t. Polishing the chain meant that broken promises could be explained and put into context. And it wasn’t only settlers or the English who broke promises: The Six Nations Confederacy was a complicated political body without a top-down hierarchy, and inevitably, bad actors would engage in conduct that broke the Covenant Chain’s promises.
On Wednesday, Justin Trudeau announced a cabinet shuffle – part of the now-regular movement of members of cabinet from portfolio to portfolio. This is done in part to hide ministers who may have become liabilities, in part to reward or appease certain caucus members, and in part to ensure regional representation at the cabinet table. Ministers who are not planning to run for re-election are typically shuffled out, to provide public profile to less-prominent caucus members. All of this makes sense – political sense, that is – from the perspective of the Prime Minister and those who follow federal politics.
One cabinet member who was shuffled was Marc Miller, who was moved from Crown-Indigenous Relations to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship. In recent years, I have heard good things about Mr. Miller from Indigenous leadership, and I saw him out there, day after day, meeting with Indigenous leaders, spending time in communities, dancing in powwows, fishing with kids and generally doing his job: building Crown-Indigenous relations. It felt good to see that relationship developing. The Crown-Indigenous file is multifaceted and involves the fostering of hundreds of relationships; Mr. Miller was doing that work on behalf of the Crown.
But this week, Justin Trudeau showed Indigenous people that politics matters more than relationships.
The personal, one-on-one connections that Mr. Miller had made with Indigenous leaders were cast aside to raise the profile of a backbencher before his constituents next go to the polls. Time will tell how Gary Anandasangaree will do in building these relationships again from near-scratch, but the shuffle was a visceral demonstration of an old saying: to Indigenous people, a treaty is a marriage; to the Crown, it’s a divorce.