At first glance, it’s a lineup that makes little sense unless you’re a status Indian.
Hundreds of First Nations people lined up for $5 bills at the annual Treaty Day at The Forks Tuesday, but there weren’t many non-aboriginal people in the crowd, aside from a tourist or two. The event, complete with lasting symbols of an RCMP constable in ceremonial Red Serge, the maple leaf and the First Nations eagle staff, celebrates the treaties that led to the formation of the province.
This year, some 65,000 First Nations individuals in Manitoba are entitled to a treaty payment. Treaty payment days commonly happen across western Canada during summer powwow season.
For Swedish tourist Marcela Ewing, who stumbled on the event while snapping pictures at The Forks treaty payment day was mystifying at first.
Then it became almost ironic.
"My first thought is that $5 isn’t that much," said Ewing, in Winnipeg for a medical conference.
"So they provided the land? And the resources? And they got $5? Well. Thank you," she said.
Her unspoken conclusion was it’s a good thing the bills aren’t about the money and she’d be right about that, reporters heard.
"It’s a gift exchange," Manitoba Treaty Commissioner James Wilson said, after the the event's formal speeches. "This gift exchange is a recognition of the renewal of the relationship and a recognition the relationship is not static and it needs to be renewed and nurtured and worked on," Wilson said.
Next week, for instance, officials from the U.S. Consulate will meet at Winnipeg’s Treaty Commission to discuss job opportunities in the North Dakota oil fields. Under the Jay Treaty, Americans recognize that Canadian First Nations have freedom to cross the border and can work in the United States without a visa.
At the same time, added Ojibway elder Clarence Nepinak, people come to collect the treaty money simply because of the power of its symbolism.
The older he gets, the more Nepinak said he understands treaties at a deeper level.
"The treaties were a covenant that was signed with our people and it’s being honoured every year," Nepinak said.
Given that, it doesn’t matter if Ottawa ignores or breaks treaty promises, he said. Every covenant has a spiritual dimension and as long as it is honoured, it has life and there is hope for change.
"The old people used to say 'ah mano' Let it go. Now that I’m older, I understand the concept of ah mano, of honouring the covenant... and now we are seeing that coming around to us. We can celebrate and be proud of who we are as a people," Nepinak said.