Indigenous Canada – Week 3

If you don’t understand about treaties, you’re not alone. Those that signed them on behalf of the British Crown and the Canadian government didn’t understand what the treaties truly represented either.

The Mi’kmaq have the right word to describe treaties – Angugamwe’i – which means “adding to our relations.” For the Mi’kmaq, signing a treaty meant entering a kin-based relationship with those signing. If we consider each other kin, we could not take actions that would hurt each other. If only agreements like the Peace and Friendship Treaties (1775-1779) were being signed today between countries, we would have the peace we so desperately seek.

Unfortunately, after the country became firmly established as British territory, the Indigenous peoples were no longer seen as allies and equal partners in the trading economy. Instead, they became barriers to Britain’s settlement of the area. As a result, the treaties signed in the 1800’s were a dramatic shift from earlier treaties.

Although the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) were originally granted the monopoly on trading in northwest Canada (originally called Rupert’s Land), it was never given title to the land. Instead they were expected to negotiate with the Indigenous peoples before developing or settling in any area. However, as the HBC moved westward, it established colonies without the required negotiations. Any agreements that were subsequently signed were seen by HBC officials as outright purchase of the land while the Indigenous peoples saw the agreements as peaceful co-existence between themselves and the settlers.

The entitlement that the HBC felt over the land was clearly illustrated when it granted a large area in the Red River Valley to Lord Selkirk and when the HBC later transferred Rupert’s Land to the new Dominion of Canada. How can one transfer or grant land that one doesn’t own? As I said in my previous blog post (Indigenous Canada – Week 2), that assumed entitlement astonishes me.

Let’s go back to the beginning: The British Crown felt justified in granting a huge tract of land to the HBC for trading purposes. How could the British Crown justify that? Because the British were the ones that “discovered” the land; therefore, had the right to monopolize the land. Since the HBC had the monopoly on trading, they felt justified in granting and selling the land. Amongst all this confusion, the Indigenous peoples signed agreements stating they would gladly share the abundance and wealth of resources that the land provided.

Lesson to be learned: Be careful with overseas guests. If they stay too long, they just might claim ownership.

Week 4’s lesson: New Rules, New Game

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