Last week, we (Indigenous Justice Co-Ordinator Connie Manitowabi and Debwewin Summer Law Student Isabel Klassen-Marshall) had the honour of attending the "Never on the Fringe" Manitoulin Island Treaties gathering hosted by the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation and sponsored by the Robinson Huron Waawiindamaagewin. The gathering was a beautiful way to learn about the history of Manitoulin Island and the importance of treaties, both at the site of the treaty signing and in the surrounding treaty lands. Connie is from M’Chigeeng First Nation and Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory, both on Manitoulin Island, and Isabel is a settler with Russian Mennonite and Scottish/British ancestry. The gathering allowed us both to better understand our history and what it means to be treaty people. We were reminded by many speakers that treaties create obligations on both sides of the relationship. We were also reminded of times, present and past, when settlers have failed to do uphold these obligations and gone back on their word. The Crown's failure to comprehend the enduring nature of a treaty was exemplified in the disregard shown towards the obligations of the 1836 treaty during the formulation of the 1862 treaty.
The gathering, which was hosted by and attended by mostly Indigenous people, also demonstrated that First Nations continue to uphold their side of treaties not just by sharing land when agreed to, but also by continually reflecting on treaty relationships and holding settlers to account, whether it be through information sharing and communication, negotiation, or pursuing legal action when necessary.
It sometimes feels as if settlers don’t see the value in reflecting on treaties that were forged hundreds of years ago, and are not proactive about honouring, living, and nurturing treaty relationships. However, understanding why treaties were formed, and what the original shared intent of many treaties was, is key to reconciliation today. Without doing so, settlers are once again going back on our word. One understanding of reconciliation is that it is meant to bring all people living on this land to a place of living with equal comforts as independent nations. This understanding encapsulates the spirit of many treaties, for example, the Two-Row Wampum. Rather than seeing treaties as land cessions, this understanding sees treaties as two nations agreeing to support each other’s people in living in comfort on shared lands. This understanding requires active participation by all parties. Attending the gathering, participating in ceremony, learning about wampum, listening to many knowledgeable speakers, and enjoying the beautiful Island felt like ways to participate in treaty relationships, and we look forward to continuing to do so through the legal clinic and in our everyday lives.
Terry Debissage’s words resonated with both of us as he spoke about how the organizers of the gathering gave him hope for the future. We would like to thank the organizers – Sam Manitowabi, Naomi Recollet, Alan Corbiere, Josh Manitowabi, and Darrel Manitowabi – as well as all the speakers for reminding us of our obligations and giving us hope for the future. Miigwetch!