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Inviting Ceremony Into Treaty - #IdleNoMore

Secular interpretation provides for 'moderate living' while ceremony sees much, much more

by Miles Howe

Photo: Miles Howe
Photo: Miles Howe

K'jipuktuk (Halifax) – In an earlier piece, we examined the potential of returning Indigenous ceremony and tradition to a place of prominence within the Idle No More movement as a means of monitoring the health of the movement's revolutionary agenda. Indigenous ceremony and tradition (while certainly not a simple or homogenous concept across Indigenous communities) appears to be travelling on a parallel path with the movement's revolutionary aims, towards a renewed vigilance over the possibilities for future generations.

Central to parallel paths of sacred and secular action, in the current context of the Idle No More revolutionary paradigm, is an examination of the treaties that are currently at risk of being undone by the Harper government's implementation of bill C-45, which has been considered to be a step along the road towards the extermination of Indigenous treaty and title. Treaty and title contain within them theoretical safeguards against unhindered industrial expansion, and their maintenance – and proper practice — is of paramount importance to the Idle No More movement.

In Mi'kma'ki (the traditional lands of the Mi’kmaq including Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, Eastern New Brunswick and Nova Scotia), the 18th century treaties signed between the Mi'kmaq nation and the British Crown are treaties of peace and friendship. They do not cede Mi’kmaq title to the British, or surrender rights to the land or resources.

In fact, despite the clear difficulties inherent in contemplating legal documents written in foreign languages, not to mention the abuses toward native people in early British colonial practices, the treaties have managed to stand judicial scrutiny over hundreds of years.

“International law was an Aboriginal concept,” says Eskasoni-based treaty scholar and grassroots spiritualist Rena Gayde. “We did this through what we call in English now 'Confederacies.' For a thousand years we had been signing treaties between each other in these confederacies ... By the time the British came, our treaty-making protocols were extensive.

“The reason we could sign treaties is because we were sovereign people. The British, the French, none of them would have entered into a treaty-making enterprise with the Mi'kmaw and Maliseets if they didn't consider us sovereign people.”

From a secular standpoint, contained within these treaties of peace and friendship is the right of all Mi'kmaw people to a 'moderate living,' an idea which has been upheld in key legal battles, including that of James Simon and Donald Marshall.

'Moderate living' is a contentious term, and, as we shall see, one that only scratches the surface of a traditional understanding of the treaties of peace and friendship. The term has often centred around an understanding of access to fishing and hunting rights, but many treaty scholars interpret the meaning to include a more wide-sweeping and unhindered access to resources. From a secular perspective, it speaks to a provision, safety and comfort level available to everyone. In practice, however, living conditions for the Mi'kmaw people suggest that moderate living has not at all been achieved.

“No one has ever made one step to give the entire population of Mi'kmaqs a chance at a moderate living,” says Rena Gayde. “The fact is that the Aboriginal people are poor and poverty stricken. On Sundays, little children on my street knock on my mother's door and they ask her for slices of bread so they can have a Sunday dinner. This is 2013, not 1913. There's a whole segment of Eskasoni that has malnutrition.”

The notion of 'inherent rights,' from a legal and secular perspective, has also become a contentious term. The original treaties of peace and friendship do not use the term 'inherent rights,' but the notion has been used in an attempt to limit modern day access to resources to levels that might have been available at the time that the treaties were signed. Inherent rights can be interpreted as a hindrance to 'moderate living,' which, again, is only the beginning of what a traditional understanding of treaties sees them as encompassing.

“The nature of our treaties is that the treaty itself dictates what each generation needs,” explains Rena Gayde. “Nowhere in Section 35 [of the Canadian Constitution] does it talk about inherent rights. We do not have inherent rights, because inherent rights are finite, and that's anti-treaty. Treaties were designed so that any conditions facing the l'nu [Mi'kmaq] could be addressed at any time in the future. It was all thought of.”

So while a secular understanding of treaties, as fought out in the highest courts in the land, has arrived at the notion of moderate living being a right, what of the traditional understanding?

Moderate living is certainly a starting point, but does a treaty in ceremony interpretation provide for an even more substantive base from which to launch a revolutionary paradigm? And if so, might it not provide for some degree of guidance to the Idle No More movement?

“When we talk about treaty, we talk about a sacred relationship between ourselves and our Creator,” explains treaty scholar Kevin Christmas, from Membertou First Nation. “When we talk about this treaty relationship, we're talking about the depth of the love and the commitment we have to one another and to our land. Our land defines who we are, and our land gives us what we need.”

The specific treaties between the Mi'kmaq and the British, when interpreted as a promise made in ceremony, are a promise to share in a manner that might provide both nations the ability to exist as 'true humans.' This goes far above and beyond moderate living.

While doubt existed on the part of Mi'kmaq signatories as to whether the British were truly human, oral tradition also recounts that part of the responsibility of the Mi'kmaq peoples was understood to be to teach the settling populations how to be human, until the period of settlement was completed (As an aside, settlement is interpreted to have ended in 1982, upon the receipt of the Canadian Constitution, which means we are living in interesting times indeed).

Within the notion of being a 'true human' are found the tenets of rich, vibrant and sustainable living that eclipse the legal rights contained within a secular understanding of the treaties.

“Every true human has three spirits,” says Christmas. “The first one is called 'safe journey.' That means that this is a holy pilgrimage on this earth. That's why you're here. And the spirit is given so that no matter where you are you may talk directly to Creator. He promises safety and protection against fear and hopelessness.”

One might consider this an equivalent of a freedom to practice whatever religion one desires without hindrance. This may be of no consequence to atheists, but it is also of the utmost importance to certain peoples.

“The second [spirit] is called 'wise council,'” says Christmas. “Whenever you gather to offer help and assistance to somebody, you pray to this spirit, and you must promise that you will get the best advice before you act.”

Christmas notes that the spirit of wise council provides the basis for peaceful community living, as it entrenches processes of consultation, discussion and thoughtful debate into decision-making processes.

Wise council also demands a level of community health, because before community members can engage in wise council, a comfort level must be achieved. This notion appears quite congruous with secular ideas of creating sustainable communities, which include elevating and prioritizing the citizenry's quality of life.

“We can't go about and conduct wi'kapultimk [specific council and consultation reserved for and between Mi'kmaw people] because our people are starving,” says treaty scholar Elizabeth Marshall.

“How could you ask someone to give you a recipe on sugar when they've never tasted it? First we have to elevate the well-being of our communities. We have to take care of the poor, and we have to bring the people out of suffering, before we can start to deliberate with them. Because how can we create holiness when there's so much sickness? And that's what we need to do before we can deliberate, is we need to create that ceremony and that sacred space.”

“The third spirit, it's called 'full provision,'”says Christmas. “Whatever you need has already been provided for you on your lands. There is nothing that hasn't been provided for you.”

Indeed, Mi'kma'ki — and Canada as a whole — are lands of plenty. If full provision were adhered to; if resources were distributed properly and equally, there would be enough for everyone in the country.

At that point, from the traditional standpoint we would be 'true humans.' From the secular standpoint, a true revolutionary paradigm might be said to have been achieved. We see that the the traditional perspective and the secular revolutionary agenda are actually quite synonymous goals, and mutually beneficial.

Not only that, but practicing your treaties is your patriotic duty as a good Canadian.

“To be law-abiding citizens you have to recognize the Constitution [where treaties are entrenched in Section 35],” says Rena Gayde. “Our treaties can't be unrecognized. They can't be abrogated, they can't be changed, they can't be modified … By honouring and protecting the treaties that the Natives signed with the government, you're being a patriot.”

This article was made possible with partial funding from the Nova Scotia Public Interest Research Group.

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