By B. Simm
CALGARY — When developing the production for Making Treaty 7, co-director Michelle Thrush said the creative team compiled a voice-over that runs at the beginning of the show in which they asked people of all ages what they knew about Treaty 7.
“Ninety percent of the people we approached over the years do not know a thing, or what they know is not correct information,” says Thrush. “A lot of people think it’s a treaty between the Native Nations of Southern Alberta, it’s not. And a lot of people think it has no relevance.”
Nothing could be further from the fact of the matter.
Treaty 7 was one of several treaties signed in the latter half of the 1800s between the Government of Canada and the Native tribes who rightfully occupied and owned the land. Signed in 1877, Treaty 7 was crucial to the government because it allowed the completion of the national railway along with fulfilling terms to bring British Columbia into the Confederation. To secure the agreement, the government promised Native people reserve lands based on one square mile for every for five persons, a $2,000 annual payment along with some minimal provisions for farming equipment, ammunition for hunting, clothing supplies as well as providing for education for children.
It wasn’t long before the terms of the treaty, as with other treaties, became a grim reality for the vast majority of Native people across the country. The government failed to make annual payments for decades, reserves became desolate landscapes where Native culture was contained while the country’s non-Aboriginal population both neglected and disrespected its inhabitants and their way of life. In addition to the isolation and rejection, children were forced under the Crown’s authority into an abusive residential school system that damaged and ruined generations of potential and possibility.
Even though most people don’t know about Treaty 7 or what it entails, many of us are aware of the neglect and suffering Native people in this country have experienced and continue to undergo. As such, it’s important to understand precisely what the agreement intended and the role it played in fostering those deplorable outcomes.
The word “misunderstood” is often used in discussions surrounding Treaty 7. That’s largely because an exact meaning of the agreement between the government and First Nations today is not mutually understood, even though a document of the original written agreement exists. A major contention is that what was verbally agreed upon and accepted by the elders of the tribes, and what was then written in the document by government officials is held to be widely varied and ambiguous. Simply put, something very significant in Treaty 7 was lost in translation either intentionally or through carelessness.
Researchers probing the circumstances surrounding Treaty 7 state that the elders’ oral account of the agreement, passed down from generation to generation, is that they opted in for a “peace treaty” and a sharing of the land not a “land surrender” and the negative repercussions that came with it. In a review of the book, The True Spirit and Intent of Treaty 7 (1997), Rob Nester notes that while the validity of the elders’ version carried over several decades might be questioned, the historical information gathered says otherwise – elders interviewed from the “19th century, 1920s, 1930s, 1960s or the 1990s” all held consistent interpretations.
Imagine if it was indeed a peace treaty as the elders proclaim, and the terms were to share rather than surrender the land. Imagine that the agreement was more open, tolerate, equitable and accommodating and not one that bound Native people to reserves forcing them to adapt to a different way of life that wasn’t an inherent part of who they were. Then imagine an education system that was nurturing and strove to develop young minds and fulfill aspirations instead of robbing their innocence. It’s not hard to imagine any of that; it’s the liberty and respect this country strives to promise its citizens all the time.
Perhaps Chief Crowfoot, who led and spoke for the dominant Blackfoot tribe and their allies, imagined the treaty to be equitable and held vast promises for the future. And when he signed and encouraged other chiefs to sign Treaty 7 at Blackfoot Crossing in 1877, perhaps their vision of how the future would unfold was far more promising than what was committed to paper and then enforced by law. In a legal study on treaty interpretation completed in 2011, Aimee Craft refers to the discrepancies as “a tale of two stories.”
Furthermore, the possibility that there existed two very different accounts and interpretations of Treaty 7 is a critical human rights issue — we are just starting to realize the miserable history when one of those accounts was implemented.
Michelle Thrush is a staunch advocate that education is the first step towards finding remedies and realigning the relationships between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals to create a more just society.
“My true mission as an artist throughout the years has been to create education. It’s only been in the last while we’ve been talking about residential schools. Generation after generation after generation you take the child from the parent. You break that bond and then raise children in cold, mainly abusive situations were they’re taught that they’re less than human. This is the stuff that needs to come out. We need to be educating about the true, real history of Canada… We’ve been taught for so long the romanticism of the Native people, but we’re not taught the true history of what went down in the last 150 years of this country. So, it’s time.”
Making Treaty 7 is a diverse and talented ensemble of First Nations and non-Aboriginal performers, musicians, dancers and poets who breathe life into a story everyone should know. Performances take place at Mount Royal University’s new Bella Concert Hall from Sept. 23-25. Go to makingtreaty7.com for more information. Tickets available via MRU’s website.AB, Alberta, Bella Concert Hall, Making Treaty 7, Michelle Thrush, Mount Royal University, Treaty 7