Respecting and Honouring Treaty Relationships

 In Resources

In 2016, the province of Ontario passed legislation to declare the first full week of November as Treaties Recognition Week. This year, Treaties Recognition Week is November 5-11, 2023. So, what is a Treaty, and why is it important to recognize and acknowledge them? 

Treaties are legally binding agreements that set out the rights, responsibilities, and relationships of First Nations and the Federal and Provincial Governments. Treaties with Indigenous people include:

  • historic treaties with First Nations (70 historic treaties in Canada were signed between 1701 and 1923), and
  • modern treaties (also called land claim agreements)

Indigenous Nations have long used treaty relationships to protect their traditional lands, resources, and ways of life while maintaining peace and friendship with other Nations. These treaties are considered sacred, spiritual pacts.

As an educator, how can you help learners understand treaty relationships? How can we all demonstrate our commitment to the spirit and intent of the treaties? Let’s learn about treaties across Turtle Island from Elders and Knowledge Keepers. As you do, reflect on your learning and consider what you can do to demonstrate your commitment to respecting and honouring treaty rights, responsibilities, and relationships.

Read on to consider your role and some of the resources available to support you in your journey.

Whose Land?

“Treaty is forever. It cannot come strictly from a monetary thing, it’s got to come from what you are as a people, the land was given to us, so I believe it’s a gift from the Creator, you have a responsibility to look after it. The needs are different than what they were back then, the needs are different, so therefore you have to move along with the time to be able to look after the needs that you have.”

– Bentley Cheechoo, originally a member of Moose Cree First Nation and also a former Chief of Constance Lake First Nation and Grand Chief (Indigenous Voices on Treaties).

One of the main effects of the historic treaties signed between 1701 and 1923 was the creation of reserves. After signing treaties, many Indigenous Nations found themselves restricted to small parts of their traditional and rightful territories and large sections of their lands were given to European settlers.

The colonial and Canadian governments used treaties to secure land so they would have access to valuable natural resources and the ability to build industry across the country. Many Nations signed treaties with the understanding that their land would be accessed and used by settlers in exchange for goods and annual financial compensation, not that they were signing away the title. To Indigenous people, land is not a commodity to be owned, and therefore, it could not be signed away.

Everyone in Canada lives on Indigenous lands. Whose land do you live on? Visit the Whose Land digital map as a class. Turn on the Treaties & Agreements filter to learn about different treaty territories across Canada. Have learners work in groups to research local treaties in various parts of Canada using the site and encourage discussions about ceded and unceded land and historic and modern treaties.

Treaties and Truth and Reconciliation

Treaties Recognition Week was established in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action. Respecting and honouring treaty relationships is an important part of truth and reconciliation. In his interview for Indigenous Voices on Treaties, former Ontario Human Rights Commissioner and citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation Maurice Switzer, Bnesi, shares his beliefs about how reconciliation can happen in Canada:

“For me, when we talk about truth and reconciliation, we’re really talking about the original spirit and intent of treaties. And to me, we will know when reconciliation is starting to happen in Canada when people of all different backgrounds and creeds and languages and colours are living in mutual respect because that was the relationship that was envisaged a couple of hundred years ago when the treaty process started.”

Treaties have no expiration date. As long as the sun shines, the grass grows, and the river flows, treaties are meant to endure. While some people talk about treaties as being “ancient” or irrelevant to their lives today, the truth is these documents are legally binding.

The Role Treaties Play in Our Lives 

Many people may think of treaty rights as “special” Indigenous rights; however, all people living in Canada are treaty people with their own set of rights and responsibilities.

“Some people make an assumption that only Indigenous people are treaty holders, when in actuality, it’s the entire community is a treaty holder, Indigenous, non-Indigenous community members are all part of the treaty, and so the importance of learning about the treaty is because it governs part of our relationship together.”

– Cora-Lee McGuire-Cyrette, Chief Executive Officer of the Ontario Native Women’s Association (Indigenous Voices on Treaties)

In treaty negotiations, one of the main principles is finding a good balance between what Indigenous peoples want for their governments and what people who aren’t from First Nations would like. We are all treaty people. Let’s work together towards a sustainable future for all of us.

How Can I Participate during Treaties Recognition Week and Beyond?

These are just a few meaningful ways to engage with available resources, in-person and virtually. 

1. Attend Local Events and Workshops

Here is a list of Treaties Recognition Week events in Ontario. Find a workshop near you, or try a virtual event!

2. Dive into Educational Resources

Read books, watch documentaries, and browse online resources about the history and significance of treaties in Canada. Here are a few suggestions to start: 

📚Whose Land Is It Anyway? A Manual for Decolonization is a free eBook by Peter McFarlane and Nicole Schabus. 

🎙️Dr. Pamela Palmater, a Mi’kmaq lawyer, professor, activist, and politician from Mi’kma’ki, New Brunswick, hosts the Reconciliation Book Club on YouTube. You may wish to use the episode “Reconciliation Book Club – Whose Land Is It Anyway?” as a companion for your learning.

📽️Trick or Treaty? by Alanis Obomsawin. Watch the full documentary on the National Film Board of Canada website.

💻Treaties and Worldview, a high school resource kit that helps learners understand how the differing worldviews of settler Canadians and Indigenous Peoples during the negotiations of the Numbered Treaties may have impacted each party’s understanding of the final agreement.

3. Advocate for Meaningful Change

Advocate for policies and initiatives that promote truth, reconciliation, and the rights of Indigenous peoples. Visit Idle No More and LANDBACK to learn how these movements resist unfair treaty terms and honour Indigenous sovereignty. 

What are you planning for Treaties Recognition Week in your classroom? We’d love to hear your ideas!