It didn’t take long for the destruction of First Nations communities to begin following the signing of Treaty 1 between Canada and Indigenous people 150 years ago today.

Opinion

It didn’t take long for the destruction of First Nations communities to begin following the signing of Treaty 1 between Canada and Indigenous people 150 years ago today.

Premier Brian Pallister said last month newcomers to Canada, before and after Confederation, "didn’t come here to destroy anything, they came here to build." He’s been roundly criticized for making the historically inaccurate statement.

The destruction the premier said didn’t occur during the early days of colonialism was in full motion almost immediately after Treaty 1 was signed at Lower Fort Garry on Aug. 3, 1871.

The terms of the treaty included, among other things, a promise to provide each First Nations family with 160 acres of "reserve" land. First Nations were not bound to live within reserve limits. They could continue to hunt, fish and trap on the vast tracks of unoccupied land outside of reserves. The reserve land, though, would be set aside for the exclusive use of First Nations, for whatever purpose they wished.

That promise was violated less than a year later when settlers began encroaching on that territory and exploiting its resources.

Adams Archibald, Manitoba’s first lieutenant-governor who helped negotiate Treaty 1, wrote Ottawa almost a year after the treaty was approved to complain that reserve land was being "robbed by the whites" and that no one was doing anything about it. He said settlers were occupying territory reserved for First Nations and cutting timber on land that didn’t belong to them.

"Is it any wonder if it creates suspicion and fear, or that the Indians seeing nothing done to carry out the terms of the treaty, should come to the conclusion to take the matter into their own hands?" Archibald wrote to the secretary of state for the provinces, Joseph Howe, in July 1872. "This is not a state of things that ought to continue."

Unfortunately, they did continue. Archibald said the federal government was not fulfilling its treaty obligations, including failing to provide First Nations with farm implements (another treaty term) to help them transition to an agricultural economy.

With no federal representatives in Manitoba to respond to First Nations’ grievances, there were "whole families on the very verge of starvation," Archibald wrote.

"It seems to me there ought to be some person here to look after these poor creatures," Archibald wrote in February 1872.

This was just the beginning of the destruction of the lives of Indigenous people Pallister said never happened. The marginalization of First Nations and the failure of the federal government to make good on its treaty obligations set the stage for decades of neglect and further destruction of their economies, culture, language and identities, including through the Indian Act, which was passed five years later.

The effects of that are still felt today; the impact of colonialism has shaped the social and economic order we now live under, including inequality between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. It’s not possible to find solutions to that if we’re unwilling to recognize the factors that led to the current state of affairs.

What First Nations leaders and federal negotiators agreed to during Treaty 1 negotiations was to share the land equally and to coexist peacefully. The treaty was designed to create a mutually beneficial relationship. There were no discussions about anyone subjugating themselves to the other. That was imposed on Indigenous people later.

Sagkeeng First Nation elder Dave Courchene said in a recent interview the effects of that domination continue to this day.

"The real essence of respect is to give and I believe our people have given quite a bit and have not really enjoyed a reciprocal sharing of the abundance," he said. "All we’re living with today are the impacts of that domination."

That’s the part Manitoba’s premier doesn’t seem to get.

tom.brodbeck@freepress.mb.ca

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck
Columnist

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

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