How to be a better treaty person

No two treaty agreements are alike, but all of them offer a lot to the people who reside on treaty territory

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Most Indigenous people know that their ancestors envisioned a strong future for them through treaty negotiations, says Chelsea Vowel, an assistant lecturer at the U of A’s Faculty of Native Studies. And many Indigenous people have signed treaties, which describe how they can live together in a good way with settler society (descendants of European settlers) and new immigrants.

Chelsea Vowel
Chelsea Vowel

That explanation of treaties might sound simple but, from there, it gets more complicated. Vowel says treaties aren’t just for Indigenous people. They are for everyone who lives on these lands, and everyone can benefit from them.

So here’s a guide to treaties, what they were meant to do, who they benefit and how we can all become better treaty people.

What are treaties?

If this seems like a big question, it’s because it is a big question.

“There’s a series of legislations and case law that you have to look at to figure that out, and it varies by location,” says Vowel. “For hundreds of years, treaty-making throughout North America was about Europeans securing allies in their warfare with other Europeans. There were non-aggression treaties, the Peace and Friendship Treaties, agreeing not to war with one another and to come to mutual aid when necessary,” she says.

Treaty agreements are different across Canada and were signed for different reasons depending on the region. Treaties address land sharing, health concerns and relationship building.

In Canada, we have the Numbered Treaties 1-11, negotiated and signed between 1871-1921, that were based mainly on the Robinson Treaties (1850). The Peace and Friendship Treaties in the Maritimes ended hostilities between the British and First Nations to create alliances against the French.

There are also unceded territories, which have never been formally negotiated between First Nations and the government of Canada. And there are urban treaties, newer negotiations in places that didn’t have long-standing treaty agreements in place. Treaties, land agreements and unceded territories vary by location – it’s not a one-size-fits-all model.

What were the agreements supposed to do?

Vowel says First Nations expected the treaties to be living documents that could be revisited to address new circumstances. The signed treaties were not meant to be a standalone document with a few signatures. They were meant to do something for people who were arriving in an area or already living there. Treaties provide a framework for Indigenous folks and settlers to live in a good way as community partners and neighbours. They were supposed to be lasting documents that signatories could revisit, Vowel says, not agreements to surrender land titles.

“Our ancestors imagined lives for us that are contained in the treaty and provide guidance about how to live with these new relatives in our territory,” says Emily Riddle, Senior Advisor for Indigenous Relations with the Edmonton Public Library.

Treaties can protect us all

Treaties provided a framework and a way for people to live together on Turtle Island, the term for North America found in many First Nations creation stories, such as Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee.

Emily Riddle
Emily Riddle

The agreements hold Indigenous people accountable to share the territory with non-Indigenous people and were intended to be mutually beneficial, providing opportunities for Indigenous people to engage equally with settler society. They’re also meant for immigrants, migrants and European settlers. Vowel and Riddle agree that following the framework that treaties provide offers the possibility of living in more equitable conditions. But the mutually beneficial opportunities in treaty agreements haven’t always been upheld, they add.

Take Canada’s response to COVID-19, for example. Riddle says pandemic aid was part of the numbered treaties through oral negotiations undertaken by first Nations representatives who negotiated the terms of these agreements on behalf of the nations. Riddle adds that while traditional medicines are an inherent right, folks in Treaty 6 (and other Prairie numbered treaties) also negotiated access to Western medicine.

“We negotiated for a medicine chest for Western types of medicine because we saw pandemics like we have right now come along,” Riddle says. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, she says there was little pandemic aid from the Government of Canada — “a breach of that treaty agreement,” she says. She’s referring to the early stages of vaccination rollout for Indigenous communities, some of which experienced severe outbreaks. But governments, including Alberta and the federal government, later corrected course and included Indigenous communities early in the phased vaccination rollout.

COVID-19 is just one example of health disparities. According to a fact sheet provided by the National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health, indigenous people face significant physical and mental health concerns such as suicide, diabetes, and other serious illnesses at higher rates than non-Indigenous people in Canada. There is also a lack of health-related policies that directly target the health and well-being of all Indigenous people, according to Mike Gouldhawke, writing for the research centre, the Yellowhead Institute.

Who benefits from treaties?

Treaties are meant to protect all people, regardless of Indigeneity. There shouldn’t be a reason for anyone to live without the resources they need to survive, Riddle says, because Treaty 6 ancestors agreed that migrants and immigrants could live on the territory peacefully and in prosperity.

“People think treaty rights are only for Indigenous people. But other people that live on these territories have rights through the agreements,” Riddle says. “Treaties should and can be a way to make sure that we have enough for future generations. They should be so forward-thinking that the decisions we make will impact generations we never meet.”

Treaties could also empower people to speak up about, for example, their freedom of religion, which the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms upholds. Riddle believes that Treaty 6 encompasses a framework for empowering immigrants, migrants and people of colour in Canada to speak up against religious discrimination.

“The people who are being harassed for wearing a hijab should be able to say, ‘No, we have this treaty agreement and a right to religion within this,’ ” she says.

Treaties prescribe how people can live together in a “good way,” which Riddle defines as respectful and reciprocal relationality — a non-hierarchical interdependence, which includes non-human relationships. It encompasses contributing mutual aid, land sharing and the dissemination of Indigenous knowledge. All of us could be working together to live up to and benefit from the treaty agreements, she says.

How to be a better treaty person

Being a better treaty person starts by learning. Often people don’t know whose land they are on or what their local treaty agreement is. Vowel says learning about the treaties and upholding them can provide a new way of doing things instead of “extractive capitalism and oppressive hierarchies.” The starting point is asking questions and using resources created by Indigenous folks, she says.

“That’s when the real action begins, when you start to ask questions,” Vowel says. She suggests learning Indigenous people’s names in their language and doing your best to pronounce them properly, or learning about the territory you’re in and how to find local communities on the map. “You can’t be in a relationship with somebody if you don’t even know their names.”

To get started, Vowel suggests a few questions to ask yourself: What did the treaties mean? How have they benefited you? What are some of the ways that treaties have been broken? Once you start asking these questions, she says the next step is to ask yourself what you can do about it. And then take steps to do that.

“It’s not enough to be like, ‘Well, injustice happened and continues to happen. And gosh, now I realize that I benefit from it, but I’m just not going to do anything about it because it’s not my job,’ ” says Vowel.

“Treaties are not simply between the heads of governments. They involve all people, whether or not they were descendants of the signatories.”

Once you’ve learned some of these things, you’re in a good position to dig deeper. What is the Indigenous interpretation of this treaty agreement? Is there more to the story than the written agreement? Who can I share my newfound knowledge with? Vowel says when we start to know the treaties, we start to act differently.

Riddle adds that the treaties provide us with a structure to think about our institutions. How can we implement them into our professional and personal lives? What does this mean for our everyday lives? “Then we can start to think of what needs to be rebuilt in order to live that way collectively,” says Riddle.

She also believes that implementing treaty frameworks calls for living with the land in a better way. It encourages us to think about things like resource extraction and to address the ways the Earth has been harmed and destroyed because, as she puts it, “If you want to continue to have clean water and live on this planet, then it is something we have to address within the next 10 years.”

Forward, together

Learning to live with each other in a good way, in kinship – respecting relationships with each other and with non-human relations — means respecting Indigenous people and their rights to self-determination and territorial title, says Vowel.

“When we talk about nations, then we’re not just talking about a single community. We’re talking about the wider political existence of many communities that share a particular culture and a particular history,” says Vowel. “Indigenous Peoples should be able to discuss with their treaty partners, the Canadian state, the issues that arise instead of the way Canadian courts narrowly construe things such as duty to consult.”

Treaty agreements weren’t meant to be static, she says. Rather, they were widely believed to be living documents, something to be revisited over time as our world changes.

People who are living on these lands need to understand, renew and insist on having better relationships with one another,” says Vowel. “I really do believe that we can do that through renewal of treaties with Indigenous Peoples, because treaty-making is for the mutual benefit.”

Our treaty ancestors negotiated for the tools and frameworks for us to be able to live in an ethical and equitable way with each other and our non-human relations. Now it’s up to us to learn them, implement them and adhere to tâpwêwin Cree for the truth.


This article was submitted by the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine. The University of Alberta is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.

© Troy Media
Troy Media is an editorial content provider to media outlets and its own hosted community news outlets across Canada.

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