How to be a better treaty person • Troy Media (2023)

Most Indigenous people know that their ancestors envisioned a strong future for them through treaty negotiations, says Chelsea Vowel, an assistant lecturer at the U of A’s Faculty of Native Studies. And many Indigenous people have signed treaties, which describe how they can live together in a good way with settler society (descendants of European settlers) and new immigrants.

Chelsea Vowel

That explanation of treaties might sound simple but, from there, it gets more complicated. Vowel says treaties aren’t just for Indigenous people. They are for everyone who lives on these lands, and everyone can benefit from them.

So here’s a guide to treaties, what they were meant to do, who they benefit and how we can all become better treaty people.

What are treaties?

If this seems like a big question, it’s because itisa big question.

“There’s a series of legislations and case law that you have to look at to figure that out, and it varies by location,” says Vowel. “For hundreds of years, treaty-making throughout North America was aboutEuropeans securing allies in their warfare with other Europeans. There were non-aggression treaties, the Peace and Friendship Treaties, agreeing not to war with one another and to come to mutual aid when necessary,” she says.

Treaty agreements are different across Canada and were signed for different reasons depending on the region. Treaties address land sharing, health concerns and relationship building.

In Canada, we have the Numbered Treaties1-11, negotiated and signed between 1871-1921, that were based mainly on theRobinson Treaties(1850). ThePeace and FriendshipTreaties in the Maritimes ended hostilities between the British and First Nations to create alliances against the French.

There are alsounceded territories, which have never been formally negotiated between First Nations and the government of Canada. And there are urban treaties, newer negotiations in places that didn’t have long-standing treaty agreements in place. Treaties, land agreements and unceded territories vary by location – it’s not a one-size-fits-all model.

What were the agreements supposed to do?

Vowel says First Nations expectedthe treaties to be living documents that could be revisited to address new circumstances. The signed treaties were not meant to be a standalone document with a few signatures. They were meant to do something for people who were arriving in an area or already living there. Treaties provide a framework for Indigenous folks and settlers to live in a good way as community partners and neighbours. They were supposed to be lasting documents that signatories could revisit, Vowel says, not agreements to surrender land titles.

“Our ancestors imagined lives for us that are contained in the treaty and provide guidance about how to live with these new relatives in our territory,” says Emily Riddle, Senior Advisor for Indigenous Relations with the Edmonton Public Library.

Treaties can protect us all

Treaties provided a framework and a way for people to live together on Turtle Island, the term for North America found in many First Nations creation stories, such as Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee.

Emily Riddle

The agreements hold Indigenous people accountable to share the territory with non-Indigenous people and were intended to be mutually beneficial, providing opportunities for Indigenous people to engage equally with settler society. They’re also meant for immigrants, migrants and European settlers. Vowel and Riddle agree that following the framework that treaties provide offers the possibility of living in more equitable conditions. But the mutually beneficial opportunities in treaty agreements haven’t always been upheld, they add.

Take Canada’s response to COVID-19, for example. Riddle says pandemic aid was part of the numbered treaties through oral negotiations undertaken byfirst Nations representatives who negotiated the terms of these agreements on behalf of the nations. Riddle adds that while traditional medicines are an inherent right, folks in Treaty 6 (and other Prairie numbered treaties) also negotiated access to Western medicine.

“We negotiated for a medicine chest for Western types of medicine because we saw pandemics like we have right now come along,” Riddle says. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, she says there was little pandemic aid from the Government of Canada — “a breach of that treaty agreement,” she says. She’s referring to the early stages of vaccination rollout for Indigenous communities, some of whichexperienced severe outbreaks. But governments, includingAlbertaand thefederal government, later corrected course and included Indigenous communities early in the phased vaccination rollout.

COVID-19 is just one example of health disparities. According to a fact sheet provided by the National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health, indigenous people face significant physical and mental health concerns such as suicide, diabetes, and other serious illnesses at higher rates than non-Indigenous people in Canada. There is also a lack of health-related policies that directly target the health and well-being of all Indigenous people, according to Mike Gouldhawke, writing for the research centre, the Yellowhead Institute.

Who benefits from treaties?

Treaties are meant to protect all people, regardless of Indigeneity. There shouldn’t be a reason for anyone to live without the resources they need to survive, Riddle says, because Treaty 6 ancestors agreed that migrants and immigrants could live on the territory peacefully and in prosperity.

“People think treaty rights are only for Indigenous people. But other people that live on these territories have rights through the agreements,” Riddle says. “Treaties should and can be a way to make sure that we have enough for future generations. They should be so forward-thinking that the decisions we make will impact generations we never meet.”

Treaties could also empower people to speak up about, for example, their freedom of religion, which the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms upholds. Riddle believes that Treaty 6 encompasses a framework for empowering immigrants, migrants and people of colour in Canada to speak up against religious discrimination.

“The people who are being harassed for wearing a hijab should be able to say, ‘No, we have this treaty agreement and a right to religion within this,’ ” she says.

Treaties prescribe how people can live together in a “good way,” which Riddle defines as respectful and reciprocal relationality —a non-hierarchical interdependence, which includes non-human relationships. It encompasses contributing mutual aid, land sharing and the dissemination of Indigenous knowledge. All of us could be working together to live up to and benefit from the treaty agreements, she says.

How to be a better treaty person

Being a better treaty person starts by learning. Often people don’t know whose land they are on or what their local treaty agreement is. Vowel says learning about the treaties and upholding them can provide a new way of doing things instead of “extractive capitalism and oppressive hierarchies.” The starting point is asking questions and using resources created by Indigenous folks, she says.

“That’s when the real action begins, when you start to ask questions,” Vowel says. She suggests learning Indigenous people’s names in their language and doing your best to pronounce them properly, or learning about the territory you’re in and how to find local communities on the map. “You can’t be in a relationship with somebody if you don’t even know their names.”

To get started, Vowel suggests a few questions to ask yourself: What did the treaties mean? How have they benefited you? What are some of the ways that treaties have been broken? Once you start asking these questions, she says the next step is to ask yourself what you can do about it. And then take steps to do that.

“It’s not enough to be like, ‘Well, injustice happened and continues to happen. And gosh, now I realize that I benefit from it, but I’m just not going to do anything about it because it’s not my job,’ ” says Vowel.

“Treaties are not simply between the heads of governments. They involve all people, whether or not they were descendants of the signatories.”

Once you’ve learned some of these things, you’re in a good position to dig deeper. What is the Indigenous interpretation of this treaty agreement? Is there more to the story than the written agreement? Who can I share my newfound knowledge with? Vowel says when we start to know the treaties, we start to act differently.

Riddle adds that the treaties provide us with a structure to think about our institutions. How can we implement them into our professional and personal lives? What does this mean for our everyday lives? “Then we can start to think of what needs to be rebuilt in order to live that way collectively,” says Riddle.

She also believes that implementing treaty frameworks calls for living with the land in a better way. It encourages us to think about things like resource extraction and to address the ways the Earth has been harmed and destroyed because, as she puts it, “If you want to continue to have clean water and live on this planet, then it is something we have to address within the next 10 years.”

Forward, together

Learning to live with each other in a good way, in kinship – respecting relationships with each other and with non-human relations— means respecting Indigenous people and their rights to self-determination and territorial title, says Vowel.

“When we talk about nations, then we’re not just talking about a single community. We’re talking about the wider political existence of many communities that share a particular culture and a particular history,” says Vowel. “Indigenous Peoples should be able to discuss with their treaty partners, the Canadian state, the issues that arise instead of the way Canadian courts narrowly construe things such as duty to consult.”

Treaty agreements weren’t meant to be static, she says. Rather, they were widely believed to be living documents, something to be revisited over time as our world changes.

People who are living on these lands need to understand, renew and insist on having better relationships with one another,” says Vowel. “I really do believe that we can do that through renewal of treaties with Indigenous Peoples, because treaty-making is for the mutual benefit.”

Our treaty ancestors negotiated for the tools and frameworks for us to be able to live in an ethical and equitable way with each other and our non-human relations. Now it’s up to us to learn them, implement them and adhere totâpwêwin Cree for the truth.

This article was submitted by the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine. The University of Alberta is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.

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Troy Media is an editorial content provider to media outlets and its own hosted community news outlets across Canada.


What does it mean to you to be a treaty person? ›

In many cases, the Indigenization process lacks substance. The process often comes with a slogan: “We are all treaty people.” “We are all treaty people” is intended to emphasize that all people have treaty rights and responsibilities.

Why is treaty important to me? ›

Treaties provide a framework for living together and sharing the land Indigenous peoples traditionally occupied. These agreements provide foundations for ongoing co-operation and partnership as we move forward together to advance reconciliation.

What does it mean to be all treaty people? ›

Many people think of treaty rights as “special” indigenous rights however, all people living in Canada are treaty people with their own set of rights and responsibilities. Treaties are a foundational part of Canadian society.

What does it mean to be a treaty partner? ›

The Indigenous Treaty Partner (ITP) Program meets each individual where they are in the journey of reconciliation and brings them to a point they feel comfortable acting as an ally to their Indigenous neighbours. The Partners believe that mutual understanding is the bedrock of positive working relationships.

What makes us all treaty people? ›

In many cases, the Indigenization process lacks substance. The process often comes with a slogan: “We are all treaty people.” “We are all treaty people” is intended to emphasize that all people have treaty rights and responsibilities.

How do you become a member of a treaty? ›

Treaty body membership requirements

To be a person of high moral standing and recognized to have competence in the relevant field of human rights; To be available to regularly attend the sessions of the Committee in question; To serve in their personal capacity.

What is an example of a treaty? ›

A treaty can be called a Convention, a Protocol, a Pact, an Accord, etc.; it is the content of the agreement, not its name, which makes it a treaty. Thus, the Geneva Protocol and the Biological Weapons Convention are both treaties even though neither has the word “treaty” in its name.

What are the 3 types of treaties? ›

Treaties can be bilateral (between two States) or multilateral (between three or more States). Treaties can also include the creation of rights for individuals. Treaties are commonly called 'agreements', 'conventions', `protocols' or `covenants' , and less commonly `exchanges of letters'.

What is the most important treaty? ›

Treaty of Versailles (1919)

The Treaty of Versailles was signed between the Western allies and Germany at the end of World War I. The manner in which it was handled stood in stark contrast with the inclusive way in which post-Napoleonic Europe was organized—terms were dictated, not negotiated.

What is a treaty good definition? ›

treaty, a binding formal agreement, contract, or other written instrument that establishes obligations between two or more subjects of international law (primarily states and international organizations).

What is a treaty meant to do? ›

A treaty is a formal agreement between two or more sovereign nations about something of mutual interest and importance. Thus, making treaties with Native Nations reflected a clear recognition by the United States government of the inherent sovereignty of the Native Nations with whom they treated.

What does having a treaty mean? ›

A treaty is a negotiated agreement between two (or more) parties. It is only signed when all parties agree.

Is a treaty a promise? ›

Treaties: Promises between governments. Treaties are legally binding contracts between sovereign nations that establish those nations' political and property relations. Article Six of the United States Constitution holds that treaties “are the supreme law of the land.”

Does treaty mean peace? ›

noun,plural trea·ties. a formal agreement between two or more states in reference to peace, alliance, commerce, or other international relations.

Why is it called a treaty? ›

Under international law, a "treaty" is any legally binding agreement between nations. In the United States, the word treaty is reserved for an agreement that is made "by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate" (Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the Constitution).

What are the traits of a treaty? ›

Treaties are agreements between nations. They can be bilateral, between two nations, or multilateral, among several nations. Key aspects of treaties are that they are binding (meanning, there are legal consequences to breaking them) and become part of international law.

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