TREATY 45 ½ – June is National Indigenous History Month, a time of reflection and learning, but the local history concerning Indigenous People surrounding Listowel is not well documented or well known.
The reason for that gap is complicated and multi-faceted, but it can be found and understood.
Before the arrival of Europeans, the Saugeen Ojibway Nation (SON) occupied two million acres from what is now the town of Arthur to Lake Huron and north to Georgian Bay. The land spread across the region and surrounded the Maitland River and what would become the town of Listowel. In 1836, The Saugeen Treaty no. 45 ½ opened 1.5 million acres (everything below the peninsula from Southampton to Owen Sound) “in exchange for economic assistance and protection from settler encroachment ‘…upon which proper houses shall be built for you, and proper assistance given to enable you to become civilized and to cultivate land, which you Great Father engages for ever to protect for you from the encroachments of the whites,’” according to the Saugeen Ojibway Nation Environment Office. Listowel would later incorporate 39 years later in 1875.
The history of the region is complex and starts not here in Treaty 45 ½ but in Niagara, according to Randall Kahgee. Kahgee is a lawyer at Olthuis Kleer Townshend LLP. He is also a former chief of Saugeen First Nation.
His primary focus, though his practise is diverse, is Indigenous rights law. He says that to understand Treaty 45 ½, you should look to the Treaty of Niagara, 1764.
Treaty 45 ½ “certainly wasn’t our first rodeo, so to speak,” he explained. “I think it’s important to take a step back. There was a starting point for what our relationship was supposed to be with the Crown, and I always step back to the Treaty of Niagara and use that as an illustrative point – and certainly our nation was a part of that gathering. After the defeat of the French at the Plains of Abraham, the Crown was looking to solidify its relationship with the Indigenous People … and that was one predicated on mutual respect.”
He said that in 1836, 72 years later, that was the context to which Treaty 45 ½ was agreed upon.
“We sought certain conditions to ensure that relationship remained intact. And that was that, the Crown would ensure that we would be able to continue to maintain that relationship: able to hunt, to trap, fish, gather medicines, and maintain spiritual connection to those lands and those waters. We know, of course, that didn’t happen. Not surprising, there’s a legacy of broken promises there,” said Kahgee.
Kahgee has been involved with modern treaty negotiations and recently began teaching at the Lincoln Alexander School of Law. These disputes, he tells students, is one of patience.
“A lot of the issues that Indigenous communities often face are very complex. They’re never simple. Often these things take years to resolve – not a matter of days, or weeks or hours – it’s a long process. I often say to my students we’re playing chess, not checkers,” said Kahgee.
“You have to be well-versed; you have to know what it is you’re talking about. And it’s very important, depending on any given situation, that you understand the history in the community and have a have a respect for that… We know that historically the promises that were made, in the context of treaties haven’t been upheld and there’s still a tremendous amount of work to do to reconcile those treaties. The treaties are significant because they were reflections of what our relationship was meant to be.
“My experience is that treaties get tarnished. The Crown wants to take a very impoverished view of those treatments and look at those treaties as simply land transactions or surrenders. They were much deeper than that. In many ways, the oral perspective of our people is so important, more important than words that are on paper.”
Kahgee says that, in his opinion, telling the story and history of Indigenous People is important, but he respects that everyone has a different opinion.
“I think that will depend largely on any given Nation, as to how they would choose to share that information. I totally respect that communities want to safeguard that and are very cautious in how they share that.”
That being said, “If people have an understanding of the history, then they have a responsibility to do something with that knowledge,” he said. “They just can’t be ignorant to it… some people are reluctant to talk about that history for the sake of protecting their voice, and I respect that. Certainly, I take the view that it’s important that we work to educate others and take opportunities to do that, because it’s not taught in schools the way it should be. It’s not accurate the way it’s taught.”
He also emphasizes that a lot of these wrongdoings are not ancient history. These are very recent.
“The way Indigenous history has been taught in the schools – that somehow we were willing participants in this experiment called Canada, and that, you know, we were great to the pioneers, and everything was ‘apple pie’ – that’s not the case. And we know that Canada has a very, very dark chapter. It sought to isolate and to essentially marginalize and diminish our people, strip us of our cultures, strip us of our language, take away our very identity, remove us from the land, confine us to reserves, dismantle our forms of governance, and implement a system that was foreign to us at the time, and penalizes us if we sought to better ourselves.
“Two things would have happened to me when I attained my law degree. One, because I attained a post secondary education, I would cease to be an Indian under the Indian Act. This is a time when membership committees weren’t allowed to have their own membership laws. It was Ottawa that decided who was and was not a member of your Nation. If I attained a post secondary education, I would cease to be an Indian, which meant I was no longer a member of my Nation. I wouldn’t have any of the entitlements that would come with that, with being a member of the Nation. The second thing that would happen, if there were any issues, say the committee won a challenge, they have a treaty, for example, they couldn’t do that, because they weren’t allowed to retain legal counsel. So not only did I cease to be an Indian but I cannot represent my people or advocate for my people as a lawyer, because they weren’t allowed to retain lawyers. That was all by design.”
The Indian Act was passed in 1876 and though it has been amended, it is still a functioning act in Canada.
Asking the right questions
Christin Dennis, of the Aamjiwnaangis (Chippewas of Sarnia First Nation), is a knowledge keeper for the Avon Maitland District School Board (AMDSB).
As he joked, “I was a knowledge keeper, not knowing I was knowledge keeper up until five or four years ago.”
Apart from knowledge keeper he is also an artist and a sweat lodge operator. He noted that rediscovering his culture was something he did when he was older, once he realized that he wanted to learn more.
Through the AMDSB, he works with the Indigenous Education program in educating students on his culture and also teaching teachers as well. He will come in to speak about his own experiences as a Sixties Scoop survivor.
Recently, Dennis explained, the AMDSB has partnered with Aspen Acres Farms to educate students on a native horse species to Canada. The Ojibwe ponies, as they are often informally called, are native to the region unlike European horses.
“There aren’t many of them left,” Dennis explained. “When Natives were being put on reserves and reservations, the horses were put onto the reserves and then when they were taking children off the reserves to boarding schools and adopting them out, they were shooting the horses there.”
At one point there were only four horses. After rescuing them, there are now 230.
Through his work as a knowledge keeper, he also teaches about Indigenous art and writing, teaching students different traditional methods.
There are no records of Indigenous history at the Perth County Museum and Archives due to a lack of documentation. The resources, sparse as they are, are from biased accounts and should be taken with a grain of salt, given the prejudice of the time. To discover more about the local Indigenous history of the area, one needs only to ask the right questions and keep an eye out. That’s what Dennis says as least.
“The thing is once you start to look and you’re committed to looking, I think the universe works with you,” Dennis said. “I believe the universe or the Creator will bring the people that every need. I guess that saying is ‘when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.’ It kind of worked that way. When I was ready to look inward and to look forward to seeking that knowledge, helpers seemed to appear. It was like magic, right?”
He says that places like the Perth County Museum and Archives may lack resources for learning, but it is a colonial institution. Historically, those kinds of institutions have not been reflective of the Indigenous Peoples’ rich history.
“At one time,” he reasoned, “they told everybody there were there were no horses here. History is being rewritten again. They told you the children were fine at the residential schools and we knew that for years that they weren’t. We knew that many of them died and were buried in unmarked graves.
“When you start asking questions, things start to happen, things will start to draw towards you. When you’re asking the right questions, you’re going to the right directions.”
Connor Luczka, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Listowel Banner