A Short Note To Correct Canadian Misconceptions About Indians Living Off “Taxpayer Monies”
Richard C. Powless, Mohawk Nation – Ogwaho (Wolf) Clan Six Nations of the Grand River
To understand that Indian are not living off taxpayers funds it is necessary to explain the Treaties between the Crown and First Nations. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact for a very long time the Canadian government directly lived off Indian monies – these were called Indian Trust Funds. The first Treaties to be negotiated were before Confederation and were peace and friendship (military alliance) and economic Treaties. Many of the early Treaties were recorded by First Nations on Wampum Belts. The Two Row Wampum (Guswenta) Treaty is probably the best known with its two parallel lines. There was no mention of land sales or sessions in these early treaties. In fact, the entire Treaty making process was an Indian process that occurred between our First Nations even before contact. This early Treaty making process was strictly followed by the settlers when they began to negotiate access to our territories.
It is important to note that the “Treaty” is about the relationship and not just a paper document, as it has wrongly come to be known today. The Treaty includes how the parties behaved toward each other leading up to and during the negotiations, and how they were to treat each other long after negotiations concluded. If they lived up to their word. Treaty making always involved ceremony. The Treaty ceremony often lasted weeks or sometimes a month. There was feasting and an exchange of gifts. The Crown often promised and provided “Annual Presents” to First Nations participants on the anniversary of the Treaty’s conclusion. These annual gifts were later transferred into cash payments.This is the first example of a debt undertaken by the Crown toward First Nations.The Iroquois often referred to the settlers as “Brothers” referring to a family relationship. And in the same way that the sibling relationship changes as brothers age from childhood, through adolescence and into adulthood, the Treaty relationship must also change and be updated from time to time as the parties evolve, and the relationship changes. The Silver Covenant Chain Treaty best reflects this. It shows people joined by a giant chain – signifying the relationship. In the same way that the silver chain must be polished or it will tarnish and weaken, so it is with the Treaty relationship. It must be polished or updated. The purpose of the Covenant Chain Treaty was to be “of one Mind, linked together in the Chain of Friendship.” But in order to maintain peace, the First Nations and the Europeans also understood that the chain was also based on mutual economic benefits and mutual support in times of crisis. The root Indian language (Onondaga) word of the Covenant Chain means -
“They Link Arms” — “Dehudadnetsháus”
To update the treaties or polish the Covenant Chain today means that for the numbered Treaties, the $5.00 promised during the 1800′s must be updated to contemporary equivalent value. Medicine chests and school commitments must be updated to include full health and education services. For the Iroquois, the pre-Confederation Treaties contain promises made by the Crown’s representatives to look after his Brothers and to provide for them when they were in need. This too can be updated to modern terms.
When many of the Treaties were negotiated pre and post Confederation promises of cash payment were made. First Nations did not have banks so the monies owed to First Nations were placed in Trust Accounts in banks in England and Scotland. After Confederation these funds were transferred from Britain to Canada and placed in the Consolidated Revenue Fund, which was the bank account the Canadian government used to run the day-to-day operations of Canada. There are many Specific Claims today against Canada for the misuse of First Nations Trust Funds. To this day there has never been a full accounting of Indian Trust Funds held by the Crown and transferred to Canada.
So we can see that the Crown owes a debt to First Nations of the value of the promised “Annual Presents” from before Confederation and the Crown owes First Nations the funds promised to them in the Treaties, including a full accounting of how First Nations Trust Funds were used without the consent of First Nations. It is clear that Canada used First Nations funds to run Canada in its early days and even up to the 1960s the “Indian Agents” were still largely in control of funds in relation to Band financial affairs.
The second part of this story is what was actually promised in the post-Confederation or the so-called numbered Treaties. Canada calls these “land session” treaties and claims that for some cash, twine, ammunition, a medicine chest and promises of schools, and a Chiefs coat they bought this country. It is on this basis they claim they obtained title to our lands. These are the Treaties that rest in the National Archives in Ottawa. This is known to First Nations as the BIG LIE in Canada.
There is a different First Nations understanding of the numbered Treaties. First Nations come from an oral tradition. At the time of Treaty negotiations most First Nations people did not speak English, let alone write English. The Treaties were written in English and the translators mostly worked for the Crown/Canada. In simple terms the descendents of the Treaty signators consistently maintain the Treaties in the National Archives are lies.
What was written down and what was promised was totally different. For example, the concept of land sales did not exist in most First Nations cultures. It was as foreign to First Nations as trying to sell a quantity of air or, a measured amount of water flowing in a river. What First Nations did understand is that they were agreeing to share the land and environment with the newcomers, as was their tradition. First Nations had taught the newcomers how to survive in their new lands. First Nations Chiefs, Elders and historians say they only agreed to give up some rights to the “depth of a plough blade” in the land. Subsurface rights were never discussed nor were they sold or transferred to the Crown.
This means that the Treaties are an unsettled matter. It means there is yet to be a reckoning. First Nations have still to be paid for the past use and exploitation of their lands and resources in their traditional territories since contact. There is also a need to conclude agreements for the ongoing use of their lands and resources (resource revenue sharing). There is quite simply an enormous debt owed First Nations that Canada refuses to acknowledge or accept. It is in the trillions of dollars!
Yet when First Nations attempt to pursue a just settlement they are told they have to launch a “land claim.” This very term is insulting! Since the newcomer Canadians brought no land with them, if there is any question as to who owns the land, it defaults to First Nations. First Nations are told they have to follow biased and unfair land claims processes that offer no return of their lands; offer 10 cents on the dollar of the value of their lands based on 19th century valuations; and that First Nations must”extinguish” all their rights and interests in their lands and resources for a limited and restrictive recognition of their rights and title. Now the federal government is prepared to out-wait First Nations by giving take it or leave it offers.
First Nations are ready to set the ledger straight. They would be prepared to end the $7 billion dollars that is supposedly provided to them annually, some of which is eaten up by the salaries of close to 5,000 bureaucrats of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, and much of which goes to severely under-funded programs and services that do not meet to the needs of First Nations. First Nations would be prepared to end the paltry $7 billion in exchange for a settlement of the trillions owed to them as back payment for the use and exploitation of their lands and resources since contact; and this does not include an ongoing arrangement for government-to-government transfer payments similar to what the existing provinces receive and agreements for resource revenue sharing.
This debt to First Nations by the Crown and now Canada is longstanding – its time to settle up