Trail Riders in Jasper
I just finished reading Negotiating the Numbered Treaties: an intellectual & political biography of Alexander Morris by Saskatchewan historian Robert J. Talbot, published by Purich Publishing in 2009. The book looks at treaty negotiations from the viewpoint of a primary negotiator and is refreshing for that reason. It also presents the reader with an interesting set of insights on the meaning of the treaties, not the least of which is the assertion that the impetus for negotiating treaties actually came from the First Nations and were not—as is often supposed—foisted on them.
What struck me most, however, was the moral basis that came to undergird Morris’s approach to treaty negotiation. Morris grew up among the privileged classes in Upper Canada and as a young man would have been inclined to use the word “savages” in reference to First Nations, but when he came in contact with the elders and chiefs in a treaty-negotiating setting, his views changed radically. He was impressed by First Nations’ leadership, began to see them as peace-loving, intelligent and honest brokers of their people’s future, and Morris appears to have sought to respond in kind, almost as if he were “going to school” under the tutelage of First Nations giants like Ahtakekoop and Mistawasis.
Two principles emerge as the guiding ethic of treaty negotiation, namely kinship and reciprocity. It would have been possible to enlist the crudest principle of manifest destiny, driving the First Nations bands off the land, or to adopt completely assimilationist government policy, and this might have happened if it hadn’t been for the clear sight and hard work of Alexander Morris. Although not easy by any means, the negotiations of the numbered treaties arrived at conclusions that at the time, satisfied both sides, although there were many on the Canadian side who considered them far too generous, and many on the First Nations side who felt they were far too miserly. The signings usually ended with a celebration.
I’ve been pondering the kinship and reciprocity paradigms ever since finishing the book, particularly after being involved in a discussion on Psalm 19 in an adult Sunday School class: “The Law of the LORD is perfect, refreshing the soul . . . etc.” Morris came to the conclusion that treaty negotiation had to take place under other principles than land ownership laws. For one thing, they meant little to the First Nations for whom land “ownership” meant something quite different than what Ottawa was visualizing.
So Morris based his negotiations on, first of all, kinship. His preambles almost always portrayed the white man and the red man (sic) as equal children of the Queen, who in turn was the Creator’s appointed representative on earth. There followed reciprocity, the principle that white man and red man would live side by side and would cooperate, settlers helping Indians, Indians helping settlers.
It’s not news to anyone that those who followed Morris in the implementation of the treaties reverted to the legalism that they found much more comfortable, hence the paternalism in the Indian Act and in the functioning of the Department of Indian Affairs, an injustice we’ve never addressed properly. This legalistic view is evident in much of the public attitude toward the treaties; very few enunciate a kinship and reciprocity ethic in their interpretation of them. Many see them as agreements that were fulfilled by the granting of reserves, when reserves were in fact addenda to the treaties as opposed to core issues.
Writer Roger Epp has made the case that all Canadians are treaty people. Morris would have said, “of course,” to this. Most Canadians, I fear, have no such view of the treaties.