As a regular attendee of the Winnipeg Folk Festival, I’ve had the good fortune to watch and hear a wide variety of interesting musicians over the years. One such performance was that of an Indigenous rapper. His main theme in a number of his songs was treaty rights.
Basically, he powerfully denounced the government and mainstream society for not living up to their treaty obligations and argued that Indigenous people were suffering because of these alleged treaty breaches.
Listening to this complaint got me thinking more about treaties. Were this fellow’s complaints justified?
I happened to know a bit about the First Nations community the singer came from. Typical of many such communities, it’s heavily dependent on the federal government for its survival. There are a large number of people on welfare there, and the people higher up on the economic ladder are basically dependent on federal transfer payments. The community has virtually no industry.
This singer’s complaint of the government treaty breach appeared to consist of not sending enough money into the community, despite the fact that the federal government now spends approximately $100,000 per year on each First Nations family.
Despite this already huge expenditure, if treaties were honoured in the way this singer thought they should be, everyone in the community should receive more money from the government simply by virtue of being born there. Essentially, every Indigenous person should be guaranteed a pension for life, from birth.
Where did such a preposterous and unrealistic interpretation come from?
The people who signed the treaties – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – would have been astounded to hear such an interpretation.
When the numbered treaties were signed after Confederation, compensation was given to and land was reserved for the Indigenous signatories who, in turn, surrendered the land they had used for hunting and fishing.
However, there was a clear expectation by all parties involved in the treaties that the Indigenous people would continue to provide for their own needs on their reserves. There were no such things as welfare cheques or transfer payments in those days. People saw to their own needs.
It’s true that the buffalo economy was coming to an end and modest assistance from the government would be necessary. But the Indigenous parties to the treaty signing would have been highly insulted to be thought of as government charges, unable to look after themselves.
The rapper’s interpretation of treaties would have been not only highly insulting but laughable to these people.
But the irony of what the rapper was advocating was lost on him.
He was loudly trumpeting the right of his community members to stay where they were and depend on the federal government for their every need.
And yet this performer was having none of that for himself. He was doing quite well. He was making a name for himself and supporting himself with his music in the city.
He was doing what more of the dependent young people from his community should do: get good at something and go where the jobs are.
This rapper was well on his way to financial independence and a good career. And treaties had nothing to do with it.
Brian Giesbrecht is a retired judge and senior fellow with Frontier Centre for Public Policy.