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Opinion This Canada Day, let’s reconcile the truth about treaties

J. Edward Chamberlin was senior research associate with the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. He is professor emeritus at the University of Toronto and an officer of the Order of Canada

The history of our country is complicated, but our motto, A Mari usque ad Mare – from sea to sea – reminds us of a simple truth: Our nation was made possible by the treaties made after Confederation between the first peoples of the Prairies and the newcomers to Canada.

The treaties were undoubtedly designed to transform an Indigenous homeland into a hinterland of colonial opportunity; but they were also tokens of trust, underwritten by spiritual sanctions, and they included promises to help the first peoples of the plains survive the collapse of the buffalo herds, the devastation of diseases and the influx of settlers. Canada touted the ideals of these alliances far and wide, relishing the contrast with the United States, which stopped entering into treaties the same year Canada started.

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The Canadian treaties facilitated an Eastern promise to build a railway to the West, but they also reflected a commitment (which Canada inherited in 1867 with the British North America Act) to fair dealing with Indigenous peoples as "allies and friends." If you call them subjects, said William Johnson, the British architect of that policy in the 1740s, you'd better have an army at your back.

Even as they looked to future colonial prospects, those who treated with the first peoples in the Canadian North-West during the 1870s believed in Canada's commitment. They had good reason to, for the 2,000 or so Euro-Canadians on the Prairies in 1871 were vastly outnumbered by more than 30,000 Indians (to use the language of the time) and 10,000 Métis. They were also experienced peacemakers, and their leaders looked less for a fight than to the future. As Adams Archibald, the lieutenant-governor of the North-West Territories, wrote: "It is impossible to be too particular in carrying out the terms of the agreements made with these people. They recollect with astonishing accuracy every stipulation made at treaty, and if we expect our relations with them to be of the kind which is desirable to maintain we must fulfill our obligations with scrupulous fidelity."

Not every Indigenous community in Canada entered into treaty, but the treaties stand for the relationships upon which the new country was founded. They still demand our "scrupulous fidelity" and they need to be recognized as ours as much as theirs. We are all treaty people, bound by commitments made in our country's name; and no matter how honestly or recently we arrived here, we are implicated in its broken promises, which poisoned those relationships.

The anniversary of Confederation provides an opportunity to reconcile the promises of the past with the possibilities of a future in which first peoples and new peoples can trust each other and believe in each other. Those who have borne witness to the residential schools eloquently remind us of the cultural mustard gas of that wretched system and the institutionalized social engineering of the Indian Act. Reconciliation is the word, but the way is not clear.

What is clear is that it will come community by community, not just by national fiat. And we can take inspiration from the courage of the First Nations entering into alliance with the new nation, as well as from the actions of some immigrant communities, especially in the ranching foothills of Alberta, who resisted the invitations to division and distrust and disrespect promoted by politicians in Ottawa and their totalitarian operators in the field.

But it's also a time to think big and celebrate a new order of Canada with something similar to the Marshall Plan, which revitalized Europe after the Second World War. If that could be done for enemies an ocean away, surely it can be done for this land's first peoples to whom we made promises as allies and friends. We might even feel proud as Canadians, rather than immersed in shame and blame. It won't be easy, but the past 150 years have been far from easy for the Indigenous peoples of this country.

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