I’ve been paying attention to public event openings announcing that we’re now on treaty land. Perhaps the most unusual is the one advising people that they’re now on the home land of the Metis Nation.
Does an acknowledgement that one is on Metis treaty land not imply that the Metis were the first people to occupy the land in question? Or at least that they acquired it lawfully from the previous owners?
If so, this is clearly not the case.
The Metis are descended from the conjugal unions of Indigenous women and non-Indigenous men.
Indigenous people were obviously here long before anyone else arrived. When the Metis began coalescing as a distinct people, they simply took control of territory that had previously been used by other Indigenous tribes. There were no treaties or compensation involved.
For example, we know that much of what’s now said to be Metis treaty land was formerly occupied by Ojibway people. Many of the Ojibway arrived in Manitoba from western Ontario at roughly the same time as Lord Selkirk’s settlers. (In that respect, both of those groups were settlers.) But some had been in this area for many years.
The Ojibway, in turn, took control of land that had been used by other enemy tribes, such as the Woodland Cree, as hunting territories. Those people had, in turn, been constantly challenged for the same hunting territories by the Lakota, ever since the Lakota had mastered horsemanship as a result of the Spanish introduction of horses to the Americas. Control of hunting territories passed back and forth between tribes, depending on which tribe was stronger at a particular time.
Before that, for thousands of years, countless tribes continually displaced weaker tribes – right back to the time when the glaciers melted and Siberian tribes gradually crossed the land bridge that connected Asia to North America, thinly populating this cold part of North America.
In this respect, the history of the peoples who inhabited what we now call North America was no different from the history of other groups in any other part of the world – that is, a constant movement back and forth, with stronger groups displacing weaker groups. For that’s what history is, in its essence.
So if we’re to acknowledge previous people who have occupied this part of the world, we would certainly not start with the Metis. They were here very late in the game.
We would have to acknowledge every group that was driven away by tribal enemies, right back to the days when people first came to this land thousands of years ago.
Each succeeding group would have to acknowledge the previous rights of occupation of the enemies they just displaced – displaced without treaties or compensation.
But does this make sense? Would it make sense, for instance, to expect the Mohawks to politely acknowledge the property rights of the previous occupants – the very Hurons they had successfully displaced by mass slaughter?
If we want to be consistent about acknowledging the groups that conquered one another, this means that not only would Metis acknowledge that they’re on Ojibway land – and on and on – but today’s Indigenous people should probably acknowledge the enemies they displaced, right back to their Siberian ancestors. After all, if not for those enterprising Siberian migrants, they wouldn’t be here.
If we take this to its logical extreme, after we acknowledge all the peoples who came before us, we should all acknowledge our African ancestors. All homo sapiens originally came from what’s now called Africa, so perhaps it would be fitting if we began public events with an acknowledgement that the fact that we are here at all is thanks to the Africans.
Or we could simply commence public events in the old way – by singing O Canada.
Brian Giesbrecht is a retired judge and senior fellow with Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
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