What Could Canada Have Been if the Treaty Process Was Fair?

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What Could Canada Have Been if the Treaty Process Was Fair?

The Toronto Purchase was supposed to be a rental, but the Mississaugas were still forced off the land.

A map of the land cessions of the Missisaugas of the New Credit First Nation.

A map of the land cessions of the Missisaugas of the New Credit First Nation.

I’ll start by saying that I am Anishnabe. Or First Nations, or Indigenous, or native, or Indian. I am from a long line of people that discovered this continent first. We migrated across the Bering Strait when it was still frozen between the easternmost tip of Russia and the western tip of Alaska. We overcame incredible odds against the cold, harsh frontier, staving off starvation and exhaustion before migrating further south to what would become known as the Canadian prairies. We found this beautiful, bountiful area in the midst of the largest bodies of fresh water in the world. We had found our hunting ground. We had found our home.

Mississaugas of New Credit First Nation (hitherto known as “we” or “Missisaugas”) made a deal with the British Crown in 1787 that supposedly “surrendered” 250,808 acres: a 14-mile stretch of land from what is now Ashbridges Bay to Highway 27, up to and including 28 miles north, around Bloomington side road. The now-urban centres of Markham, Toronto, York, North York, Etobicoke, Vaughan, Thornhill, and the Toronto Islands, were all essentially rented to the Crown at the time of the transaction for things including, and this is true, 2,000 rifle flints, 24 brass kettles, 120 mirrors, 24 laced hats, and 96 gallons of rum.

When I think about this moment, I can imagine the Red Coats walking away from the “negotiations” giggling and rubbing their hands. During the renegotiations in 1805, after it was clear that there was a disparity between value and payment, we were given an additional 10 shillings.

Although I did not get a laced hat or a jug of rum, I personally received a one-time cheque for $20,000 (CAD). Twenty thousand dollars is a lot of money to most people. No one I know would walk away from a stack of cash that large. Almost all of the 1,700 Mississaugas got a cheque for $20,000 in 2010 after a long land claim negotiations with the Canadian government.

There are two ways of thinking within the non-Anishnabe community—and I have personally had people express both to me. One way of thinking is that we were lucky to sort of stumble upon the reimbursement and that we should shut up and be happy that we received anything at all. The other way is that we have been, and continue to be, grossly under-compensated for this “rental” of our land.

A map of the Toronto Purchase area c.1860. Photo from the City of Toronto Archives Fonds 1231, Item 174.

A map of the Toronto Purchase area c.1860. Photo from the City of Toronto Archives Fonds 1231, Item 174.

The decision to award a one-time payment of $145 million to the Mississaugas was the product of a long negotiated settlement and our band’s willingness to finally put this grievance to rest. Band members voted in 2010 to accept the settlement. Our understanding in 1787 was that this land was to be made freely available to the settlers, that these “gifts” would be given in perpetuity, and that no one, in fact, can own the earth. A one-time payment of expendable materials in exchange for inexhaustible (or so we had thought) natural resources, not to mention the mass relocation of our people to a reservation just outside Hagersville, Ont., is neither acceptable nor fair. The implication that my ancestors would be so inconceivably naive as to sell their birthright—their home—so cheaply is, quite frankly, insulting.

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Signatures on the Toronto Purchase from 1805. Photo from the City of Toronto Archives Fonds 1231, Item 175.

Signatures on the Toronto Purchase from 1805. Photo from the City of Toronto Archives Fonds 1231, Item 175.

Our country will soon celebrate its 150th year since Confederation. We could take a bittersweet view of these proceedings. On one hand, you have the idea of what Canada could have been. On the other, you have the reality of what it is. What would Canada look like today if First Nations and Europeans had started with a different relationship? What if we weren’t lied to, or details weren’t lost in translation during these treaty negotiations? What if we had refused to enter into alliances with these aliens? Would more of our natural resources be intact? Would Canada be a better place? We can never know, but this year is a good time to reflect on how we got to here and what could have been different.

As former Grand Chief Phil Fontaine put it in a 2008 speech, the treaties are “central to our identity as first peoples of this land…[they are] the lifeblood of our nations.” He also argues that the treaties were negotiated in good faith by the First Nations and are sacred agreements not “merely real estate transactions.” The treaty relationship requires ongoing conversations and anything else violates the “spirit and intent,” he argued. “Our treaties were not designed to have one party deny the other of its rights and interests…sadly and unfortunately that has been our history.”

The Covenant Chain Wampum marks the Treaty of Niagara, one of the first treaties between the British and First Nations in Canada. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The Covenant Chain Wampum marks the Treaty of Niagara, one of the first treaties between the British and First Nations in Canada. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The fact that the land dispute around Toronto has finally been settled, and that our community should (hypothetically) prosper because of it, brings me little to no relief. I am left to compare our situation with that of countless other First Nations in this country. Are their treaties less valid? Why have they not been honoured? Should we not just simply settle all of these grievances and grow as a country? After all, wasn’t the land this country is built on essentially stolen from us? Where are the ongoing conversations we should be having about these relationships?

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Our people were initially divided on what to do with the settlement. Just split it up and give cash payout to all 1,700 members, maybe $30,000 or $50,000 each? Take the conservative approach and pay out $10K and invest the rest? At any rate, as part of the agreement, we first had to swallow a number of historical “truths”:

“Under the specific claims process the government is requiring you to assent to a number of historical points.

1. The original land in question was purchased properly from us (1787).

2. The land surrounding the original tract was authentically signed off for at a later surrender (1805).

3. The Islands were included in the surrender…”

Swallow these facts first. Then get paid.

The chief of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, R. Stacey LaForme, says that resolving the land claim meant that settlers now know us as the owners of the traditional land. “It furthered our ability to say that this is our traditional land, you must seek our consultation for your projects,” LaForme says.

“It also raised our political ability because we took active role in speaking to the various government officials and politicians…The land claim gave members the opportunity to do things they would not otherwise have been able to accomplish. It gave us the means to protect our education for our children. It gave us the opportunity to pursue economic sustainability. It gave us many things, but along with all that it gave us many new problems with which to deal. Let us hope we don’t squander opportunities.”

Whatever your political affiliation, know whose land you stand on. Whatever your feelings toward our history, this Canada Day, know that I am home. I have always been home.

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