Aboriginal Justice: Covenant, Not Surrender: the Church has a Role in Treaties

by Peter Haresnape, CPT Aboriginal Justice Project

wampum beltThree years ago an Algonquin elder of Barriere Lake taught me about the Three Figure Agreement wampum belt. It displays three human figures, French, English and Algonquin, standing hand-in-hand beside a cross. “Some folks get angry when they see that cross” said the elder through his translator. “But I tell them why it’s there: because the Church promised to make sure that the Europeans kept their promises.”

As a Christian aiming to live and work in solidarity with this land’s First Peoples, I find it hard to ignore the Church’s history of abuse and betrayal as it collaborated with the colonial project. Discerning how to be faithful given that knowledge is a challenge.

Recently I accompanied a delegation of First Nation chiefs, elders & veterans to London, capital of my UK homeland, a city built on the spoils of Empire and cluttered with colonial mementos and monuments. A number of other Christians of both native and non-native heritage joined the delegation to mark 250 years since the Royal Proclamation of 1763 that set the stage for treaty-making. In discussions, the role of the Church in these treaties became clearer to me.

Indigenous nations had long-established forms and traditions for international treaty-making, but the British government did not adopt a consistent policy regarding treaties until the Royal Proclamation.

The Church’s significance for Indigenous negotiators can be emphasised by considering different interpretations of “treaty”—the European understanding of them as surrender of land, and the Indigenous conception as a relationship for mutual sharing of lands, technology and gifts. If a treaty is covenant, not land surrender, the spiritual dimension is central, and the Church’s presence must have reassured negotiators that these newcomers understood what they were committing to.

Yet the dominant Euro-Canadian system continues to regard treaties as “surrender” documents. A little common sense and humility undermines this idea. Would nations sign agreements to extinguish their way of life? And what does it say about the arrogance of the colonial spirit that this racist myth —that Indigenous peoples were willing, even eager, to abandon their heritage and trade their entire landmass for the chance to join settler society—persists?

This willful ignorance is more than a cultural misunderstanding. The consequences are dire and direct. Consider the Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer yelling, “Crown land belongs to the government, not to f***ing natives”, as protectors of unsurrendered Mi’kmaq land and water were arrested at gunpoint during the recent confrontations over fracking in New Brunswick. 

As the Church decolonises itself and works towards reconciliation and justice, it will need to adopt the role Indigenous people allotted to it in the treaties: teach Canadian society its responsibility to treaty relationship, celebrate the exciting places of learning and sharing, and stand as a continuing witness to the incomplete fulfillment of treaty obligations by the Canadian state.

Perhaps followers of Christ can find our place on that wampum belt again.