Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

In Canada we are all 'treaty people'

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There is nothing quite like the thrill of buying a first home. To many, it is the single most important purchase they'll ever make with the very memory of it lasting a lifetime.

Yet my guess is that very few non-aboriginal Manitobans realize that, in purchasing a home, they are exercising a treaty right negotiated for Canadian citizens by the federal government.

Some no doubt are a little taken aback that treaties, dating to 1871, are at all relevant today. However, they are. They allow Canadians the right to buy a home but also to sell and purchase property, to farm, settle a new community or enjoy the rich resources of lakes in cottage country.

Each one of these traces back to rights granted to settlers under the terms of the treaties.

There's a reason why some of my union friends fondly refer to treaties as Canada's original collective agreements. That's exactly what they are -- the coming together of two parties to negotiate and mutually agree upon benefits and obligations running on both sides.

However, unlike collective agreements, which all have set expiration dates, treaties are forever.

Consider the following statement from one of Canada's federal treaty commissioners, Alexander Morris, who was widely quoted in 1873 in describing treaties as lasting "as long as the sun shines, grass grows and river flows."

This in itself should help to better understand why, even today, First Nations are so fixated on the enduring significance of these spiritual and contractual agreements.

They're now and forever, just as they were originally intended by all signatories.

Most important, treaties are about relationships. They are not just a form of covenant or contract that lives in perpetuity. They are agreements of honour and respect that define the relationship between First Nations and the government of Canada.

They also provide us with a window into the vision for Canada that both parties shared when the country was in its formative years.

Back then, Sir John A. Macdonald wanted peace, a strong and united country, and access to land and resources to help him accomplish his vision, including construction of a national railway, to protect our fledgling country from a hostile U.S. takeover.

On the other hand, the chiefs saw the world changing in front of them with a rush of settlers, and a buffalo population being decimated.

To preserve their way of life and ensure their very survival, chiefs came to the negotiating table willing to grant the government of Canada access to land and its resources in exchange for the right to hunt, fish and trap.

They also asked for teachers and schools so future generations could benefit from an education system that would allow them to transition into an agricultural and capitalist economy.

Truth be told, more than 70 treaties were signed in total and are responsible for much of the wealth enjoyed today in Western Canada.

Sharing this historic information and how relevant it is for our collective future prosperity, is why a broad coalition of community partners has come together to introduce the Treaty Education Initiative to students across Manitoba.

Under the banner "we are all treaty people," we truly believe positive bridges will only be built and future relationships made stronger through K-12 treaty education that gets all children learning and talking about the fact our shared histories can play a critical role in making us stronger.

Already, after just one full year of teaching treaty education to Grades 4 and 5, teachers are feeling students have gained a greater understanding and awareness of the spirit and intent of the treaties and their impact on each of us and on Manitoba.

"By taking the time to teach about treaty history, progress can be made in changing stereotypical thinking and moving all students further along the road to building good relationships," one teacher said.

We are all treaty people. It's a conversation starter and a challenge.

No, Winnipeg entertainer Fred Penner isn't aboriginal as his involvement in this campaign might suggest. Instead, it reflects the fact he recognizes our enduring 140-year treaty partnership binds us together as individual and collective beneficiaries of these agreements signed so long ago.

If you're sitting at the lake this weekend, look around at the beauty and then give quiet thanks for the treaties.

Remember it is just as relevant today as it was on Aug. 3, 1871, when it was first signed by officials representing all of us.

James Wilson is commissioner of the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, a neutral body mandated to encourage discussion, facilitate public understanding, and enhance mutual respect between all peoples in Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 31, 2012 A13

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