by Michael Erskine
MANITOWANING—The day began before the sun rose above Manitowaning Bay, with elder Gordon Waindubence conducting a sunrise ceremony attended by First Nation and non-Native leaders and members of communities from across Manitoulin and along the North Shore—with the preparation of the sacred fire and the erecting of tents and assembly of the field kitchen which was to feed several hundred people who gathered to commemorate the signing of the 1836 Manitowaning Treaty.
As the scent of the sacred medicines offered into the fire wafted across the assembly, rising to meet the creator, the sun began a fierce and unrelenting daylong vigil over ceremonies, political speeches and teachings marking the event.
The story of the treaty and the critical role it played in the development of the relationship between Canada’s First Nations and the Crown was largely familiar to those attending the event, but despite the attendance of a handful of historians, municipal politicians and members of the media, the assembled crowd was disturbingly monochromatic in its complexion.
“You don’t see a lot of white faces here,” said acting Centennial Museum curator Linda Kelly, a current member of the Ontario Historical Society. “It’s really too bad, because people should know about this part of the history of our country.”
Ojibwe Cultural Foundation executive director (and curator) Alan Corbiere was the master of ceremonies and had been a driving force behind the creation of the event. Mr. Corbiere introduced descendants of the original signatories of the 1836 Manitowaning Treaty during one of a number of roll calls throughout the day’s events. Those descendants offered up spirit plates woven from reeds by elder Waindubence. They came from across the province and included some family members who had travelled up from the United States to attend the historic commemoration.
“It is fitting to be here with you as we commemorate 175 years since the signing of the 1836 Treaty,” said Angus Toulouse, Assembly of First Nations Ontario Regional Chief. “It is so important for all of us to appreciate and understand.” Chief Toulouse emphasized the critical role such events play in keeping current roles and responsibilities, especially for future generations. “They need to know how our ancestors have taken care of the land, of the relationships we continue to have with the land.”
The importance of the Anishinaabe maintaining stewardship over the land for the benefit of seven generations into the future is more than simply a cute cultural story, those responsibilities are real and form the basis of the nation’s relationship to the land.
“We need to continue so that future generations can continue to enjoy what we have today,” said Chief Toulouse. Anishinabek Nation (Union of Ontario Indians).
Grand Council Chief Pat Madahbee, whose home community is Aundeck Omni Kaning, was on vacation as he attended the event, but consented to speak. “My fellow chief Glen Hare is here to speak on behalf of the Anishinabek Nation, I had hoped to stay in the background,” he said.
Chief Madahbee said that it was important to understand and remember the history of the development of the relationship between the First Nations and the other levels of government. “We have maintained our side of the bargain,” he said. “We kept our side in good faith.”
But Chief Madahbee’s words were cautionary. “We can’t wait for the other levels of government (to lift First Nation communities and their members standards of living),” he said. “We have to do it for ourselves.”
“We have been too damn nice over the years,” he said. “We need to be more forceful.” Chief Madahbee questioned why the agreements and promises contained in the treaties have not been met.”
Chief Madahbee pointed out that the rights outlined in treaties across the country were not “given” to First Nations members in return for land and resources. “We had these rights long before the settler governments showed up,” he said. “We agreed to share our resources. We did not agree to give away the store.”
The treaties signed between the First Nations and the Crown are living documents, noted Chief Madahbee. “These are living treaties, not ancient documents,” he said. That message is must be reinforced and made clear to both sides of the contract.
Deputy Grand Chief Glen Hare spoke at length in Anishinaabe, following up his comments in English. He said he was excited that local communities were taking leadership roles in keeping the history of the treaties vibrant and alive. Chief Hare revisited the most recent treaty signed on Manitoulin, the 1990 Manitoulin Land Agreement. “I was part of the signing of that treaty,” he said. “As far as I am concerned we lost in 1997 what was signed in 1990.” His comments were punctuated by a member of the audience calling out: “Harris changed that.”
Chief Hare continued along that line, noting that people had been asked to move their cars from the side of the road leading into the property where the ceremonies were held. That property remains a part of the Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve, but the roadway is part of Assiginack Township. “For what?” questioned Chief Hare. “To get us riled up?”
The removal of the vehicles had, in fact, been asked to move to facilitate moving the equipment for the field kitchen onto the property, but the deputy chief’s comments were reflective of the generally pugnacious tone adopted by First Nation leaders clearly frustrated by recent unilateral announcements from the federal government over the expediting of ongoing land claim negotiations.
“I have seen positive change in our communities,” concluded Chief Hare, “but what has been accomplished has been because we have been strong—we have been united.”
Serpent River Chief Isadore Day, who brought wampum belts from his own community including one which he is making from quohog shells with which he had been gifted. Chief Day said that the painstaking effort required to construct a belt in the traditional manner has given him a greater appreciation of the accomplishment and cost represented in the covenant belts.
Chief Day pointed out that there are responsibilities to continue to pass on the knowledge of the agreements between nations—an ongoing responsibility of both sides.
“The covenant chain was to be made of silver, because silver tarnishes and requires constant vigilance and polishing to keep it shining brightly,” he said. “It is the responsibility of our nations to shine that belt.”
But Chief Day spoke at length of the need to repudiate the Indian Act and the colonial relationships the Indian Act attempts to impose upon the First Nations. Education will play an important role in the relationship between the First Nations and the Crown going forward into the future.
“Our young people have been educated,” he said. “We have learned their ways.”
After speaking at great length beneath the increasingly hot sun, Chief Day concluded his remarks by saying, “I have not come to put a wet blanket on you.” A comment, which prompted a quip from Mr. Corbiere, that a wet blanket might not be such a bad thing. “It might help cool me down a bit,” he laughed.
Chief Dean Sayers of Batchewana Bay spoke of the need to become more forceful in dealing with the other levels of government as well, continuing a theme hammered home by many of the leaders present. Chief Sayers invoked the memory of the cordoned off section given to the First Nations to protest their grievances during the recent G20 meeting in Toronto. That section had been hidden out of sight and mind behind Queen’s Park, he said.
First Nations members have to deal with a mindset that is embodied in the comments he had recently heard on a CBC call-in show, noted Chief Sayers. “They said that we were immigrants too,” he said. “That we just happened to come along a little earlier. This is what we have to deal with.”
Chief Sayers noted that there was success in the recent battle against the GST with the concession of the provincial portion of the tax, but that the First Nations must press for complete exemption from taxation from other levels of government. “One nation cannot tax another,” he said. “We are not Canadians. We cannot be Canadians, we cannot be US citizens.”
Wikwemikong Chief Hazel Fox-Recollet invoked the memory of her mentor and predecessor, the late Ron Wakegijig, channeling his words and vision of the important role that education and maintenance of the language and culture of the First Nations. “Knowledge of our culture, our way of life, is power,” she said.
Chief Fox-Recollect delivered a song, accompanying herself on the hand drum.
Aundeck Omni Kaning Chief Craig Abotossaway delivered the shortest speech of the gathering, noting his own descent from Chief George Abotossaway, who had not signed the 1836 Treaty, but who was a signatory of the 1862 Treaty. Chief Abotossaway noted the positive changes that have come to the region’s First Nations, even within his relatively short tenure as chief and the progress that has been made in breaking from the bonds of the colonial system.
M’Chigeeng Chief Joe Hare also spoke at length in the language of his community, before switching to English for the benefit of those who are not fluent. He noted that although the importance of the history of the treaties must be remembered, the 1836 Treaty was, “Not a treaty anymore.”
Chief Hare invoked the memory of the treaties, which followed the 1836 treaty, in which the promises made in 1836 were reduced and modified in what had become a more one-sided relationship of power.
But Chief Hare noted that although much of the promised land was taken away in those proceedings, what remained could be put to good use to improve the lives of those living in the communities. “We were fooled into accepting just a little piece of land,” he said. “But we can still do a lot with that limited land. We have to look for strength in the teaching that have been given to us.”
Chief Hare noted that there still remains huge inequities in the delivery of social services and education funding to the First Nations, matters that need to be forcefully addressed.
“They treated us unfairly and they continue to treat us unfairly,” he said. “We can stand together and ask for equality and fair treatment.”
Sheshegwaning Chief Joe Endanawas took the Eagle Staff of the UCCM from its stand and rested it upon his foot. He noted that there is a lamentable tenancy to lose heart in the fight to maintain treaty rights. The power and strength of the governments seem to make their intransigence insurmountable, but the HST battle proved that some victories can be won through determination, persistence and unity. “We had all of these rights before these treaties,” he said. “What these treaties did was to give rights to the Shoginosh. These are our rights, we cannot sit on our hands and let them be taken from us. We have to stand up for our rights.”
The day of commemoration continued with a dance to the beat of the drum (which took on the impromptu semblance of a round dance), a community feast and series of teachings from local elders and historians, while Grand Chief Madahbee and Chief Shining Turtle of Whitefish River First Nation took the replica of the 1836 covenant wampum belt around to each of the attendees.
Assiginack Reeve Bud Rohn attended the sunrise ceremony in a spirit of solidarity with his community’s neighbours and councillor Brad Ham also took in most of the day’s events.
“It was a beautiful morning and a really great day,” said Reeve Rohn. “The organizers of this event really did a great job.”
The community of Wikwemikong hosted a free performance of the Debajehmujig mainstage production of Global Savages and held another community feast in the village of Wikwemikong that evening.