Treaty Paradigms

Bryce LansdellBy Bryce Lansdell

As mentioned in my prior blog post, apart from working as a teaching assistant for the Indigenous Law Centre’s summer course, I also had the opportunity to work as a curriculum development research assistant. The Indigenous Law Centre is in the process of developing an accredited certificate program in Indigenous and Aboriginal law, which is intended to accept students for its inaugural year in the summer of 2022. Currently, the Indigenous Law Centre is in the process of developing course proposals and syllabi to be submitted to the school for approval and accreditation.

As part of my internship, I was invited to help assist in developing some of these courses by compiling literature reviews and developing proposals for possible class content and weekly learning objectives. Helping to conduct research and compile sources on various topics within Indigenous and Aboriginal law greatly expanded my research skills and increased my familiarity with different scholars and academic sources. Conducting research also opened my eyes to the breadth of resources—whether podcasts, videos, or interview transcripts—that are available online which allow one to listen and learn directly from Elders and their teachings.

The first and primary proposal that I worked on was a course about treaties. Having taken Indigenous Legal Traditions at McGill with Prof. Aaron Mills, I had received a brief introduction to understanding different foundations and paradigms regarding treaties between Indigenous and settler communities, with the topic having piqued my interest quite a bit. In turn, I welcomed the opportunity to learn more by conducting research.

Although I do not have space here nor the personal capacity to justly represent the Indigenous treaty paradigms that I researched, I found the foundations and starting points of Indigenous treaty making to be both radically different from what I was accustomed to, and very humbling and inviting. One article that has stuck with me described treaty as a process of two separate peoples “growing together from the earth”, by living in relationships of kinship, mutual respect, and gift giving.[1] These relationships were created and cultivated in part through ceremony and were renewed and altered according to the varying needs and gifts of the parties.

In reading primary sources from settlers about treaty making, I was fascinated how the practices of gift giving, peace pipe, and exchanging wampum had been often adopted by both parties in early treaty making. However, while I found some accounts of attempts at respectful interaction, the more the dominance of the Canadian state grew, the more a colonial understanding of treaty—as a contract entailing fixed and written obligations with disputes to be resolved in colonial courts—began to be imposed. Although this latter treaty paradigm is largely now the dominant narrative, Indigenous understandings of treaty never disappeared, even if they were forced underground.

As I conducted research, I felt grateful for the sheer amount of both academic and non-academic work that is being done to revitalize Indigenous treaty paradigms. A common theme of many of these sources is the importance of language in housing fundamental understandings of the world. In turn, I would like to end with some of the Cree words that I have learned from the Treaty Elders of Saskatchewan. Although all these words deserve far longer explanations than I will afford here and my understanding is only approximate, I hope that this can serve as a very condensed introduction to some of what I have been learning.

  1. iyiniw miyikowisowina” (“that which has been given to the peoples”) and “iyiniw sawêyihtâkosiwin” (“the peoples’ sacred gifts”).[2] These terms speak of the special relationship that Indigenous peoples have to the land as first peoples, and the gifts that they have received from the Creator due to this relationship. This special relationship to all of creation was nourished and sustained through ceremony by various peoples in Saskatchewan.
  2. Miyo-wîcêhtowin (“having or possessing good relations”). This entails living out a vision of life of peace, good relationship and sharing by Indigenous peoples towards others in response to requirements of the Creator. This good relationship which informed treaty making was “to consist of mutual ongoing caring and sharing arrangements between the treaty parties, which included a sharing of the duties and responsibilities for land, shared for livelihood purposes with the newcomers.”[3]
  3. Wîtaskêwin (“living together on the land”). From my understanding, this encompasses a perspective of how through ceremony and relationship, peoples who were formerly strangers could come to live in harmony and live out the responsibilities that being on the land entailed, while still remaining distinct peoples.[4]

[1] Gary Potts, “Growing Together from the Earth” in Diane Engelstad & John Bird, eds, Nation to Nation: Aboriginal Sovereignty and the Future of Canada (Don Mills, Ont: House of Anansi Press, 1992) 199.

[2] See Harold Cardinal and Walter Hildrebrandt, Treaty Elders of Saskatchewan (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2000), 10-12.

[3] Ibid at 13.

[4] Ibid at 39.

Listening and Learning at the Indigenous Law Centre

By Bryce Lansdell

This summer I have been working remotely as an intern at the Indigenous Law Centre (ILC), based out of the University of Saskatchewan. My principal roles have been to work as a teaching assistant for the ILC’s summer program and to help with curriculum development for a certificate in Indigenous and Aboriginal law, the latter of which will be the subject of another blog post. The ILC summer program is offered to Indigenous law students who will be entering their first year of studies at a Canadian law school in September and allows these students to develop relationships with other future Indigenous legal professionals, gather valuable experience in developing the skills and habits necessary for law school, and lower the number of mandatory courses they will need to take in their first year. Students take two accredited courses: a class in Property law and a class called Kwayeskastasowin—a Cree phrase which roughly translates to “setting things right”—which serves as an introduction to Indigenous laws, worldviews, and how these laws are being revitalized in a colonial context.

Given that I have only completed one year of my law degree and that my studies have only been online, I was initially nervous that my lack of experience would make it difficult to work as a teaching assistant. Instead, I found that being able to clearly remember my first assignments, exams, and what it was like to develop studying techniques in law allowed me to give detailed feedback to students. I also found that having done my entire first year online, in which we learned to network and develop friendships exclusively virtually, gave me a helpful perspective in seeking to create contexts where students could connect both with the teaching assistants and with each other.

While I have enjoyed regularly meeting with students to help them prepare for assignments, midterms, and exams, one of the most meaningful experiences for me this summer started in the last week in May. I was in a morning call on Zoom with a student who was visibly distressed, and when I asked what was going on, she shared that many students in the program were upset about the “news in Kamloops.” This was the first I had heard about what turned into multiple findings of missing and unmarked graves across Canada this summer. I was uncertain of what to say to the student when presented with the news that 215 unmarked graves had been found at a residential school. Not being overly good at reacting well to the unexpected on the spot, I tried to express how horrible the situation was without much success before we continued our discussion of course material. However, I left the meeting with my heart feeling quite heavy. Although I was aware of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action regarding missing and unmarked graves at residential schools, hearing this news directly from an Indigenous student made the pain and suffering from residential schools feel far more real to me than it had been previously.[1]

In the coming week for both courses, we were sure to check in with how students were doing and made space for students to share with the class how they were processing the news. Though what was shared is confidential, I found it heartbreaking to hear about how personal and close to home the harm of residential schools is for so many of the students, their families, and their communities. Later, in a meeting with ILC Director Marilyn Poitras, Marilyn shared frustration and dismay that Indigenous people’s testimonies about residential schools were only being reckoned with now that bodies have been identified, despite there having long been various accounts of unmarked graves and higher than reported death rates at residential schools in Indigenous communities, despite the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 report on Missing Children and Unmarked Burials,[2] and despite reports even in the early 20th Century by Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce about the appalling conditions and high death rate in residential schools which were ignored by the government.[3]

Although hearing of the grief and frustration of the students was heartbreaking, I also felt very honoured and privileged to be in the classroom with them. While I am only in the early stages of learning what role I can play in reconciliation, I believe one thing I can personally do is to spend more time listening to and learning from the stories and experiences of Indigenous people. In turn, I am very grateful for the opportunity that my internship with the ILC has afforded me to do so this summer.

The first day of the ILC summer program held virtually.

[1] See Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action (Winnipeg: TRC, 2015) at Calls to Action 71-76 <http://trc.ca/assets/pdf/Calls_to_Action_English2.pdf>.

[2] See Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Missing Children and Unmarked Burials in Canada’s Residential Schools: The Final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, vol 4 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015) <http://www.trc.ca/assets/pdf/Volume_4_Missing_Children_English_Web.pdf>.

[3] See P.H. Bryce, The Story of a National Crime: An Appeal for Justice to the Indians of Canada (Ottawa: James Hope & Sons, 1922).

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