Friendship Treaty text gets remade into Manitoulin Island anthem

The Island Singers and Jubilee Singers premiered the Manitoulin Friendship Treaty composition by Jane Best (right, holding her infant son) in 1992.

How the original text came to be, later finding a musical accompaniment

GORE BAY – The Manitoulin Friendship Treaty of 1990 is a symbolic document that has come to represent the positive relationships that exist on the Island between its Indigenous inhabitants and settlers, encouraging a spirit of collaboration and understanding that has sprung back into relevance during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Expositor has recently explored some of the relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples on Manitoulin Island. Since those stories began to appear, this newspaper has heard from some people who shared their perspectives on important links, including the Friendship Treaty.

One such person was Jane Best, a Gore Bay musician who turned the treaty’s text into a choral song that might be considered a Manitoulin Island anthem. 

She attended the 1990 signing ceremony, having just moved to Gore Bay from Toronto in the previous summer with husband Paul and two-year-old daughter Anne.

The family was adjusting to Island life and witnessing the strong connection between people of Anishinaabe and settler backgrounds. This co-operative spirit was also evident at Manitoulin Secondary School, where Mr. Best took up a teaching role.

The announcement that a friendship treaty would be signed to more formally bridge the Island cultures was a must-see for Ms. Best. It was well-attended and featured prayers, a smudge, songs and dancing.

“I found it very inspiring,” she said. “They’re saying, ‘let’s really work together to find ways to share the land and make things more just, to circumvent the horrible tensions that can happen when there’s real injustices about the land and who lives on it.’”

The words of the treaty were penned nearby by then-lawyer Blaine Armstrong. He still remembers setting the words to the page as he sat in a recliner to do his early morning thinking.

“It was from just before daylight that particular day, until the household got stirring and the distractions began. That’s how much time I had, and that’s how much time it took,” Mr. Armstrong told The Expositor.

The Oka Crisis was ongoing in the summer of 1990 in which Mohawks of  Kanesatake and the town of Oka, Quebec (aided by police forces and the Canadian military) engaged in a tense standoff over a proposed golf course expansion and housing build on disputed territory that contained a Mohawk burial ground.

The conflict lasted into September and led to the death of a Quebec provincial police officer, with dozens more hurt on both sides.

Mr. Armstrong had been watching tensions rise across Canada and recognized that Manitoulin Island’s cross-cultural relations were much healthier and balanced. He figured they should be celebrated, especially with Gore Bay’s 100-year anniversary festivities coming later that year—he was also on the town’s centennial committee.

“I had an appreciation of Manitoulin Island and the relationships that formed here, so I was distressed by Oka. And I just thought, ‘no, Oka cannot be the only message that comes out of that summer. There’s got to be a message of harmony as well,’” he said.

Mr. Armstrong was cautious to keep the text of the pledge pragmatic and reflective of the day-to-day realities of Manitoulin Island, rather than trying to create an impression of an impossible utopia.

The words were evidently effective, having been adopted as the official treaty text and resonating with Islanders like Ms. Best. Long after the ceremony, she still had the treaty in her head.

“I remember thinking these were really deep words, and if we could live up to them, how wonderful that would be,” she said. “There’s a sense of both trying to understand each other and working together, and the last line is about keeping harmony by respecting each other’s ways. I think that’s being put to the test now.”

Ms. Best has a background in writing and publishing choral, hymn and folk music. She has released three independent albums.

She contacted Mr. Armstrong for permission to use the words and long-time Island Singers director Dorothy Anstice took an interest as well. It was premiered by the Island Singers in 1992.

A publishing company then wanted the Island Singers to record a version with both English and Ojibwe words. However, due to complications, the Ojibwe translation was not able to be recorded by the group and the publisher lost interest.

The Island Singers continued to perform the song and ‘Friendship’ appears as track three on Ms. Best’s 2011 album ‘Not Alone.’ This is a simpler four-part harmony version sung by Mr. and Ms. Best and Chris and Heather Theijsmeijer. A copy of the song is embedded in this story on The Expositor’s website.

Ms. Best said adding music means the words last longer in one’s memory and can carry a stronger importance through their repetition. 

“Learning a text through a song is a way to feel those ideas stronger; it slows it down and puts it in a certain way that reinforces them,” she said. “Those words can get inside you.”

Ms. Best said she was happy that better understandings are starting to form, especially on the topic of respecting Mother Earth, but acknowledged that there was still much work to be done.

For Mr. Armstrong, the words he wrote still remind him of the love he felt as a child growing up on Manitoulin.

“I had good friends in public school that came from Sheshegwaning. Within the last year, I encountered one of those old friends in the grocery store,” said Mr. Armstrong. “Our first reaction, because we hadn’t seen each other for a while, was to hug.”

He added that the words in the 1990 treaty seem to be as relevant to the people of 30 years ago as they are now.

The four-part harmony sheet music is available for free on Ms. Best’s website, BestSongs.ca.