The word treaty is used often when discussing First Nations affairs, but there seems to be some confusion about what a treaty really is.
The dictionary definition simply states that a treaty is a formally concluded and ratified agreement between two or more parties … a negotiated agreement made in good faith. And according to the dictionary, a treaty is also the formal document that embodies the agreements made.
The word treaty has been around since 1425 thanks to Middle English, which is from the Old French word traite, which is from the Medieval Latin word tractātus.
And according to international law, a treaty can only be made between two or more nations or sovereign states, formally signed by those authorized to represent each of the nations or sovereign states, and solemnly ratified by the several sovereigns or supreme power of each nation or sovereign state.
In Canada, a number of treaties were signed between First Nations and Great Britain, even before Canada became a country. In fact, in 1701, the first of many treaties between the British Crown and First Nations peoples were negotiated and signed. And it’s these historic treaties — signed between 1701 and the present — that are the basis of the comprehensive land claims by First Nations peoples.
“What are comprehensive land claims?” you might ask.
A comprehensive land claims is those where there are continuing Aboriginal rights to land and natural resources, and cover land title rights, fishing rights, trapping rights, and financial compensation. And from those comprehensive land claims come specific claims which are claims that have to do with the mismanagement of First Nations lands and assets by the government and/or its agents.
One of the many problems with the treaties is the way in which the British Crown shifted the balance of power away from First Nations peoples and in favor of the British Crown. Between 1764 and 1836, and in the years directly following the Royal Proclamation, the British Crown was determined to assimilate First Nations peoples rather than recognize First Nations as independent nations.
The treaties that were agreed to with the British Crown were written on parchment by the representatives of the British Crown. The treaties that were agreed to with First Nations peoples — such as those that made up the Twenty-Four Nations Belt — were recorded with hundreds and hundreds of colored shell beads on wampum belts.
With the signing of the Treaty of Paris (titled the Definitive Treaty) on September 3, 1783, the British and the Americans excluded the First Nations representatives from the discussions and agreements made between the two countries. Neither the British Crown nor the American government was interested in acknowledging the rights of First Nations peoples or the treaties that had been signed previously.
The document began thusly:
In the Name of the most holy and undivided Trinity
It having pleased the Divine Providence to dispose the hearts of the most serene and most potent Prince George the Third, by the grace of God, king of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, defender of the faith, duke of Brunswick and Lunebourg, arch-treasurer and prince elector of the Holy Roman Empire etc., and of the United States of America, to forget all past misunderstandings and differences that have unhappily interrupted the good correspondence and friendship which they mutually wish to restore, and to establish such a beneficial and satisfactory intercourse , between the two countries upon the ground of reciprocal advantages and mutual convenience as may promote and secure to both perpetual peace and harmony; and having for this desirable end already laid the foundation of peace and reconciliation by the Provisional Articles signed at Paris on the 30th of November 1782, by the commissioners empowered on each part, which articles were agreed to be inserted in and constitute the Treaty of Peace proposed to be concluded between the Crown of Great Britain and the said United States, but which treaty was not to be concluded until terms of peace should be agreed upon between Great Britain and France and his Britannic Majesty should be ready to conclude such treaty accordingly; and the treaty between Great Britain and France having since been concluded, his Britannic Majesty and the United States of America, in order to carry into full effect the Provisional Articles above mentioned, according to the tenor thereof, have constituted and appointed, that is to say his Britannic Majesty on his part, David Hartley, Esqr., member of the Parliament of Great Britain, and the said United States on their part, John Adams, Esqr., late a commissioner of the United States of America at the court of Versailles, late delegate in Congress from the state of Massachusetts, and chief justice of the said state, and minister plenipotentiary of the said United States to their high mightinesses the States General of the United Netherlands; Benjamin Franklin, Esqr., late delegate in Congress from the state of Pennsylvania, president of the convention of the said state, and minister plenipotentiary from the United States of America at the court of Versailles; John Jay, Esqr., late president of Congress and chief justice of the state of New York, and minister plenipotentiary from the said United States at the court of Madrid; to be plenipotentiaries for the concluding and signing the present definitive treaty; who after having reciprocally communicated their respective full powers have agreed upon and confirmed the following articles.
And thus were the new international borders between Canada and the United States created, and unlawfully splitting many First Nations lands in half, contrary to treaties signed by the British Crown and First Nations.
But this only happened in Canada, right?
The United States also has a long history of negotiating and signing treaties with First Nations peoples and breaking them. For example, back in 1830, the U.S. government signed an agreement with the indigenous peoples of the region where a land exchange was brokered. In exchange for the land east of the Mississippi, they were given land to the west of the Mississippi that was agreed to belong to the First Nations people “forever.”
Forever had a quick expiry date as travelers and traders were given the rights to the exchanged land by the U.S. government as travelers and traders moved West.
In other words, for hundreds of years, governments have been unilaterally deciding to stop honoring treaty terms knowing that the treaties were written in such a way as to severely limit the power First Nations peoples had to enforce those same treaties.
And while those treaties recognized the inherent sovereignty of First Nations peoples — inherent sovereignty being a legal term that means a group is recognized as a legitimate, independent nation capable of entering agreements with other parties and governing its own internal affairs — the truth of the matter is, First Nations sovereignty has been disregarded and disrespected repeatedly.
So, what is a treaty? To those who negotiate and sign a treaty in good faith, it is a legal and binding negotiated agreement to be respected by all signatories.
It’s time to meet with government representatives responsible for honoring these treaties, and make them aware that it’s time to stop disrespecting, stop dishonoring, and stop disregarding the legal and binding negotiated agreements of our ancestors. Respecting the treaties is the legal, moral, and ethical thing to do.