In 1990, now-retired Oxford County dairy farmer Allan Slater offered to share his 150-acre farm with the Anishinaabe residents of Caldwell First Nation (CFN), also known as the Chippewas of Point Pelee. Although historically a distinct and sovereign First Nation, CFN had no recognized land base or reserve, and still doesn’t today.
On a sunny summer day several CFN members drove to Slater’s farm, and walked his land with him. After two hours and much conversation about what sharing the land might mean, the CFN group concluded that Slater’s farm was too far from the hub of their traditional land base in Essex and Kent Counties to meet any of their community’s needs. They expressed their appreciation for Slater’s thoughtful gesture, and returned home.
Why would a non-Indigenous farmer reach out to Indigenous people in such a manner? Nearly 30 years ago, actions like these surely would have been rare if they occurred at all.
In Slater’s case, he considers his awareness of myriad historical and contemporary injustices inflicted on Native peoples in Canada before and after Confederation as the primary motivating factor. Those wrongs include what Slater considers to have been the effective theft of pre-colonial Native sovereign territories by Crown officials of the day.
Slater credits his mindfulness in part to The United Church of Canada – he is a member – and its own ongoing efforts to address the transgressions visited on Indigenous society by, in particular, polices of forced assimilation. They include the United Church’s own acknowledged complicity in the now widely-publicized Indian Residential School system with its many documented attendant horrors.
Are non-Native farmers and private landowners today, nearly 30 years after Slater’s initiative, sufficiently cognizant and sensitive to all that has historically befallen Indigenous peoples? And if they are, how motivated are they to reach out to First Nations communities, like Slater did, to enter into a dialogue that might have some form of consequence for the land to which they hold legal title?
According to non-Native author Kent Nerburn, North America’s non-Indigenous population is and has been, at some level, aware for many decades of the historical injustices meted out against the continent’s Native population. In his book, Neither Wolf Nor Dog, Nerburn writes, “…I have never met an honest and aware non-Indian person in America who didn’t somewhere deep inside struggle with guilt about what we as a culture have done to the people who inhabited this continent before us.”
Nerburn continues: “A tragedy has taken place on our land, and even though it did not take place on our watch, we are its inheritors, and the earth remembers.”
Slater acknowledges that feelings of guilt were in part the reason for reaching out to CFN members. But it was, he says, guilt mostly arising from Canada’s lack of interest and initiative to face up to and meaningfully address past and present wrongs committed against Native peoples. He thinks fear may be at the root of farmers’ and private landowners’ reluctance to talk about the situation.
But do they want their land back? It’s questions like this one, Slater thinks, that many farmers may have uppermost in their minds when they hear in the news that Indigenous people are demanding justice, including the settlement of land claims.
The many disputes over access to land seem to have their source in the treaties negotiated between the Crown and First Nations peoples across Canada, and what either side considered to be the duration of the agreements. Typically, says Glenn Trivett, an Ojibway historian and teacher who lives in Mount Forest, Ontario, the treaties ended with language like, “as long as the sun shines” and “as long as the rivers flow.” A pipe was usually smoked to solemnize the deal.
According to Trivett, smoking the pipe (often mistakenly referred to as a “peace pipe”) was a deeply sacred act and meant the highest level of sincerity. Trivett should know. He is a Midewiwin pipe carrier, one of the few entrusted by his people to carry a sacred ceremonial pipe.
Language like “as long as the rivers flow” meant that, “This agreement will be in effect forever,” Trivett says. But forever is a long time. Much longer, Trivett adds, than Crown officials had in mind. Unbeknownst to Indigenous signatories of the treaties, Trivett says, sealing the deal did not mean forever for the British.
Why the disconnect?
Some argue that, because of differences in culture and worldview, Indigenous and Crown negotiators could not possibly have understood one another. Indigenous peoples looked upon the land and saw something sacred to be treated with care and respect. Europeans regarded the land more as a base to exploit for commercial gain. Unlike their treaty counterparts, they saw themselves not as being in and of the land, but over against and above it.
For the Christian European colonizers, their essential detachment from the land was reinforced by Biblical scripture, in particular, passages like Genesis 1:26: “Then God said…And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth….” Whether through fundamentalist belief or as convenient justification, the colonizers used such passages to rationalize not only their dominance of the natural world, but their control and ultimately oppression of Indigenous peoples and appropriation of their sovereign lands.
In his book, No Surrender: The Land Remains Indigenous, Athabasca University historian Sheldon Krasowski argues that Indigenous peoples did not intend to surrender their land through the treaty processes. Indigenous Chiefs wanted to share the land with settlers in exchange for treaty benefits offered by the Canadian government, including annuity payments, reserved lands, education, and sometimes ,assistance with transition to agriculture.
Treaty commissioners, Krasowski says, had a common negotiating strategy: they would discuss the benefits of treaties and ignore the hitches, including land-surrender clauses. And yet, he adds, echoing Trivett’s words, Crown negotiators were following Indigenous protocols or customs that were “led by [Indigenous] Elders [and were intended to establish] a spiritual bond between Euro-Canadian and Indigenous Peoples that continues to exist as long as the sun shines, the grass grows, and the rivers flow.”
Were Crown officials fully aware of the solemn nature of the proceedings and the absolute and sacred seal of smoking the ceremonial pipe?
In a March 2003 paper analyzing the historical economic factors affecting the development of Indigenous peoples in Canada, Trivett quotes the British at the time of intensive treaty making in the 17th and 18th centuries: “…We [the British] are a million people. We are invincible, the sun never sets on the British empire, we are dominating the world. Indians are dying in huge numbers from [European] disease…Sometimes we are giving them blankets…that have diseases on them to speed up the process, but they are going to die anyway…In two to three generations…there will be no more Indians.”
For the British, Trivett says, “forever” meant about three generations or 75 years. That’s how long Crown officials thought it would take them to achieve Indigenous erasure.
The treaties, Trivett adds, were about “convalescing the Indians to their deaths.” Many of the entitlements written into the treaties for Native peoples were not envisioned as long-term investments, he says. “They were put in place to make Indians comfortable until they passed away, leaving their land behind for the taking.”
For First Nations, Trivett says, total surrender of their sovereign lands was never up for negotiation. Co-operative sharing of the land, yes, but not complete capitulation.
Many Indigenous writers, as well as Indigenous oral histories, are emphatic that there was often no real surrender of land. In her book on Treaty One, Breathing Life into the Stone Fort Treaty: An Anishnaabe Understanding of Treaty One, Anishinaabe legal scholar Aimée Craft argues that “[t]he Anishinabe did not surrender their land in the Treaty One negotiations. It was not in their power to do so, as they did not own it. In their eyes, they were in a sacred relationship with the land, endorsed by the Creator.” The Crown negotiators, however, in a merely functional way, “viewed the treaty as a transfer of land.”
Such mutually exclusive ideas continue to inform the differing perspectives on land claim negotiations today. Cree writer Harold Johnson states emphatically that Elders who are familiar with the oral histories “dispute the written record of the treaties…When the written record is compared with the oral history, it is clear that much of what my family members said to the commissioner has been omitted, and that which has been recorded has been perverted.”
Many farmers and landowners seem not to know much about the history of treaty making and treaty violations in Ontario and elsewhere in Canada. With the upsurge in recent years of Indigenous activism and coverage of it in mainstream media, some are becoming aware, and are stunned by what they’ve learned.
“I farm on unceded Algonquin territory southwest of Ottawa,” says Maureen Bostock, a Lanark County farmer. “After I moved here I realized it was Algonquin territory — I was shocked to realize that the land was appropriated in the 1800s. The government had never sat down with the Algonquin people to sign a treaty. It’s only the last few years that the land-claims process started in this area,” Bostock adds.
Farmer’s unions perhaps have a particular responsibility to help raise awareness among their members about the truth of the treaty and land surrender processes, and to guide their members along a path of reconciliatory justice with respect to future land sharing. Among Ontario’s three farmers’ unions, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA), the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario (CFFO), and the National Farmers Union-Ontario (NFU-O), only the NFU-O, in conjunction with its national partner, the National Farmers Union (NFU), has policy addressing Indigenous justice issues including land claims.
“We know as farmers that we need to be having difficult conversations about how we have come to the land on which we are farming,” says Maureen Bostock, a member of the NFU’s Indigenous Solidarity Working Group.
Learning about Indigenous peoples’ historical and sacred bond with the land and the history of violation of their sovereign rights is a critically important place to begin, Trivett says. He regularly teaches courses for non-Indigenous peoples on Indigenous history and culture that delve into these issues. People who have experienced the teachings say they are liberating and empowering and in no way induce guilt or shame.
All farmers’ unions in Ontario could talk to representative First Nations’ organizations about what policies would best support their efforts to ensure their historical treaty rights are respected and land claims successfully settled.
Says Bostock: “Until we resolve inequity, until everyone has access to the same resources, and all of the injustices have been corrected and the land claims have been settled, our work is not done.” ◊