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November 4, 2009

Treaty tampering, a book review

Reuel S. Amdur

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Compact, Contract, Covenant, J.R. Miller, University of Toronto Press, 2009.

“White man speak with forked tongue.”  These words of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce find their echo in J.R. Miller`s Compact, Contract, Covenant. 

Miller, a University of Saskatchewan history prof, has provided a broad picture of treaties and less formal agreements between whites and Indians in Canada. 

When the treaty-making became a process of land transfer, Miller finds a frequent discrepancy between the written treaties and the oral commitments. 

This discrepancy is especially significant because many, if not most, of the Indian signers were illiterate.

The common discrepancy was around hunting and fishing rights, which were orally given unconditionally but circumscribed in the written document. 

Even when tribes attempted to exercise rights specifically granted in writing, such as a right to determine the location of a reserve, they were sometimes prevented, being shunted to less desirable property. 

Treaty commitments were not always carried out, such as a promise of aid to buffalo-hunting tribes facing loss of the buffalo to learn and carry out agricultural pursuits.

In early contacts, pacts between whites and Indians were designed to promote trade and friendship.  Miller delves into anthropology to explain that ritual kinship between traders was essential in Indian cultures, and intricate ritual was the norm in treaty-making at the land transfer stage as well. 

He argues that Canadians were interested in treaty-making when it was in their economic interest, when there was a desire to expand agricultural cultivation to new areas or when precious resources were being pursued.  Hence, treaties came later in more remote areas. 

Indians had an interest in treaties with Canadians in order to promote the fur trade, to promote peace among tribes, to provide protection from the Americans (“the long knives”) and out of desperation because of extreme destitution or the danger of destitution.

In more recent times, some literate Indian leaders backed by legal and other professional expertise have been able to make better deals. 

Thus, the James Bay and Nishga`a treaties have given Indians more than earlier settlements provided.  In part, recent victories have followed a Supreme Court decision recognizing original Aboriginal entitlement existing in the absence of treaties.  That decision was important in propelling British Columbia to take negotiating more seriously.

The treaty process is currently bogged down, proceeding at a snail’s pace.  In whose benefit is the delay, one might ask. 

The government continues to give as little as possible.  In the case of the Lubicon, it attempts to hive off part of the tribe to reduce any claim. 

In his conclusion, Miller regrets the general public`s reluctance to accept the idea of special treatment for Indians. 

There is special status for Quebec and special recognition of rights of  Protestant and Catholic minorities, so why not for Indians?  Of course many people object to these provisions as well, and perhaps he has already made a better argument: White man speak with forked tongue. 

Reuel S. Amdur is a freelance writer based across the river from Ottawa.

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