OK, so a promise is a promise — that's basic. We start and go from there, right?
You shake hands, you write it all down, and that's how you decide who has which land, how trading works and especially how to get along and avoid fighting.
The living history of treaties and the relationship between aboriginal and European peoples will take a lot of classroom time for students to absorb, but at Elizabeth Armstrong's grades 4 and 5 classroom at Margaret Park School in Seven Oaks School Division, the kids are off to a flying start.
The class has been broken down into small groups to make presentations on treaties, using art, social studies and language arts to design colourful posters.
"A promise is very special," explained student Joaquin Comia.
"A treaty is like a promise," Juliet Garcia said. "They say it and then they shake hands."
Rozel Averbuch elaborated: "The aboriginals made promises to the Europeans, and the Europeans made promises to the aboriginals... I believe so they could trust each other."
Armstrong took a couple of two-day professional-development sessions to learn how to incorporate treaties into the curriculum, using aboriginal educators such as Myra Laramee and Jamie Wilson.
Wilson is the former education director at Opaskwayak Cree Nation and now the treaty relations commissioner.
It can be a little overwhelming for the kids, trying to place events into a context that predates contact with Europeans by hundreds of years, yet reverberates so profoundly today.
"We're trying to establish that aboriginal people, prior to contact with European people, had relationships with other people," Armstrong said. "They had well-organized communities.
"It's integrated into the whole social studies curriculum — it is a part of our Canadian history. You experience this country the way you do because of what went on before."
Armstrong received a big box full of goodies from Wilson's commission to help her teach the kids about treaties. There's an Ian Ross play, books, pamphlets, a treaty coin, an enormous fold-out timeline that covers epochs and eras the kids won't get to in the curriculum until higher grades.
That's one challenge, Armstrong said — putting events into a context of related events the kids have yet to learn about.
Wilson said what started as a 2010 pilot project to teach grades 5 and 6 students about the role of treaties as a building block of Manitoba is rapidly growing into a very successful relationship-building exercise among students of all cultural backgrounds, including those of First Nations descent.
"We hoped, but never quite anticipated, just how significantly the Treaty Education Initiative (TEI) would help build bridges and begin to reshape attitudes among students," Wilson said. "But that's exactly what students and teachers alike are reporting."
First introduced in 2010 to grades 5 and 6 students in 15 schools, the TEI is now voluntarily taught by more than 100 teachers in 64 elementary schools, said officials with the Department of Education.
The Phase 2 pilot program will roll out this fall, aimed at grades K to 4, to be followed by a grades 7 to 12 pilot program in 2013. If all goes as planned, the TEI will be offered province-wide in 2014.
To learn more about the Treaty Education Initiative and upcoming in-service workshops, educators can visit the Treaty Relations Commission website at www.trcm.ca.