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Transcription How PEI Joined Canada
Kate Jaimet: Welcome to Canada’s History’s “Stories behind the history” podcast. I’m Kate Jaimet, senior editor of Canada’s History magazine and in this podcast, we take a deeper look at some of the stories in our award-winning print publication. In our June-July 2023 issue, Christopher Moore writes about the decision by the British colony of Prince Edward Island to join Canada in 1870 after they had first decided against it. Chris Moore is a contributing editor with Canada’s History magazine and a Governor General’s award-winning writer who has been presenting Canadian history to a non-specialist audience for many years. Chris, welcome to the podcast!
Christopher Moore: Pleasure to be here.
Kate: And to give us a Mi’kmaw perspective on Confederation, I’m pleased to welcome Cheryl Simon. Cheryl Simon is a proud Mi’kmaw woman from Epekwitk and an assistant professor at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University. She has extensive experience in community-based policy development and has worked with First Nation communities in developing governance models based on traditional systems. Cheryl’s area of research is Indigenous identity law and she teaches Aboriginal and Indigenous law and Indigenous governance. Cheryl, welcome to the podcast!
Cheryl Simon: Hi Kate, thank you for having me.
Kate: I am really happy to have both of you here today especially because questions of Indigenous rights and Indigenous governance are so topical in Canada right now and so since we’re a history podcast, we get to go right back to Confederation, even back further before Confederation and look at the history behind some of this. So, I’m really excited about that.
So, confederation, we think 1867, right? But actually the whole history of governance. If you want to look at governance in general on this continent, goes back way further than that. I’m hoping Cheryl you can give us a bit of perspective on the Mi’kmaw before the Europeans ever showed up. Can you give us an idea of what sort of systems of governance and social organization the Mi’kmaw had even before the Europeans ever arrived?
Cheryl: Sure. Well, I think one of the founding principles to be aware of when it comes to Mi’kmaw governance is that it was kinship-based. People were always looking to see how they were related to each other, how they were related to the land and so our system of governance really reflects that.
Within Mi’kma’ki, we have seven traditional districts and those districts were basically governed by groups of people that were living together, that were related to each other and the communities would select people to lead them that they had confidence in, [people] that they respected and that would put the community’s interest first, the village’s interest first. And so when you look at the role of chief or saqamaw in the Mi’kma’ki language, it was really somebody that embodied characteristics that the people whom they were leading really valued and they only followed people that they had respect for.
Within those seven districts, the saqamaws would come together to deal with broader issues that would affect the entire Mi’kmaw nation but it was not a top-down system. In fact, it was the opposite. And people today always talk about the saqamaws were the people that were the poorest in the village because they were really well off, that meant that those that they were leading were really thriving so there’s a very different worldview when it comes to governance.
It was about trust, respect, reciprocity, kinship, ties and basically not imposing your will on a group of people. In fact, the focus is on getting mandates from people, to act on their behalf and they would only follow you if they trusted you.
Kate: So did each village have its own saqamaw or chief and then you had sort of higher-up chiefs for each of the seven districts or how did that work?
Cheryl: Yes, you can look at it that way like there were always people at different levels. But again, it’s important to know that if we had like the grand chief of the Mi’kmaw nation or the grand council or these saqamaws or district captains, that they weren’t people that were imposing their will on people, they were people that were chosen to bring issues forward on their behalf.
So, sometimes I hesitate when to kind of lay it out that way because people will apply a more Eurocentric view as to what a grand chief would have meant or a captain that was responsible for a district because of that difference in worldview. But yes, that is what happened, but it’s just key to remember that it was from the bottom up when it comes to how our leadership was viewed and how they operated.
Kate: That’s really interesting. So then when — let’s say, for example, France and England — when those people started showing up and as you say, especially at that time it was pretty much an absolute monarchy, right? You know, the king of France was the king and you did what the king said, that kind of thing. When the Europeans came over and they were ruled by these kings and nobles and so forth. How did the interactions happen on the level of people but also on the level of deciding what rules were going to govern the relationships between the Europeans, who were arriving, and then the Mi’kmaw who obviously, that was their land.
Cheryl: Well, when we’re talking about our history of interaction between Mi’kmaw people and Europeans, it’s important to go back further than just the British and the French. We had long trade relationships with people like the Basque, there was Dutch presence — you know, people that were coming over to trade. And in fact, when Cartier arrived — when he first pulled up to shore — there was Mi’kmaw people that actually paddled out in their canoes to trade with him because there already was a familiarity that European arrival meant trade opportunities and so when the British and the French came, there already was quite a lot of period of time when there had been interaction and there were expectations with respect to how relationships would be carried out.
But, when the French arrived and later the British with their absolute monarchies, it’s interesting because they saw what they wanted to see with respect to our systems of governance. So, if there was a saqamaw or a chief that represented a district and their minds, they would have attributed the same degree of power that their own colonial authorities would have had which wasn’t the case. But what people don’t, I think, commonly understand is that when Europeans first arrived, that the jurisdiction and the authority and the laws that were in place were very firmly under Mi’kmaw control.
You know, Europeans were interacting with Mi’kmaw people, they were learning their language, especially with the French there was this expectation of reciprocity with respect to how the relationships would carry out and so the protocols in the governance systems of the Mi’kmaw were really what held sway and it wasn’t until many years and many centuries later that that started to shift.
Kate: That’s really interesting. When the Mi’kmaw had agreements, what we might in European terms call a treaty or an agreement or something between say maybe another group another Indigenous group or so forth, did they have a way of sealing that? Were the Mik’maw one of the people who used Wampum or what way did they have to sort of formalizing agreements?
Cheryl: Yes, Mi’kmaw people did have wampum belts and they were made of quahog shells and they depicted the terms that had been agreed upon. So these belts were made out of beads that were kind of like a blue-purplish colour and white beads and they would be woven together to represent symbols that were the terms and conditions of the agreement and so that was definitely a way that Mi’kmaw people and the allies and other nations that they were working with would document those relationships that they were establishing.
Kate: I don’t want to jump ahead too much or even lead the conversation too much because I think you know a lot more than I do about all of this. But, I have read about the Peace and Friendship Treaties. Were those the first, in the sense of written down in the English or French language treaties, that existed between the Mi’kmaw and then the Europeans?
Cheryl: Yes, because it’s important to understand that we had a long relationship with the French that didn’t require treaties in the same way that it did with the British. The treaties that were entered into with the British were unique because they were codified — if you will, they were written down on parchment — and one of the things that really needs to be understood when you start talking about the treaty relationship is that only nations can enter into treaties. So, in a contemporary context, for instance, the province of Nova Scotia or PEI, they can’t enter into treaties on behalf of Canada. It has to be the federal government as Canada enters into a treaty and those components of international law applied back historically as well. So the Mi’kmaw people entered into treaties with the British government and they did so as a sovereign nation.
Kate: I think that’s a really important point because it shows that the British at that point recognized the Mi’kmaw as being a sovereign nation. Otherwise, as you say they wouldn’t have signed a treaty with them.
Cheryl: That’s correct and it’s important too. I was realizing that to use, that even the phrase sovereign nation in English that has absolute monarchy kind of connotations behind it. So, very quickly you fall into this trap of the Eurocentric language. But yes, the British definitely recognized the Mi’kmaw as a nation with the capacity to enter into treaties.
Kate: And why did the British feel compelled or feel that it was a good idea to have this treaty and maybe you could also explain a little bit about what the treaty was about.
Cheryl: Well, the first treaty between the British and the French and the Mi’kmaw was entered into in 1725 and primarily it was about maintaining peace which is why today we call them the Peace and Friendship treaties and they really encompassed the entirety of the 1700s — 1725 all the way up until the 1780s. So, the first treaty that the Mi’kmaw entered into with the British in 1725 was about keeping the peace. Ah, wars are expensive. Nobody likes them. They disrupt trade. They cost a lot of money. Um, settlers do not want to come into territory that is actively in war and what happened was is that when the British and the French at the end of their war in terms of jurisdiction over Atlantic Canada the British then were the sovereign European nation that was at play in the Maritimes. But that did not mean that there had been an eradication of aboriginal title of aboriginal rights. Um and indigenous law was then subjugated. What that meant was is that the European nation that was at play in the Maritimes was the British crown and because they did not have a long ally allied relationship with the Mi’kmaw that was one of the reasons why a formalized treaty was required because the Mi’kmaw had been allied with the French. The French and the British were traditional enemies and so in order to establish peace that was in both nations best interest, a formal treaty was required.
Kate: And what did the peace and friendship treaties say? And you know what, I’m going to put a little addendum to that question because of something that I learned recently when I was reading a book about the Stone Fort Treaty which is out West and I think this was a really insight for me So I’ll just mention it for our listeners was that whereas the Europeans regard a treaty as what’s actually written on the piece of paper like that’s it. That’s the treaty. Um, what I think what was explained was that for Indigenous nations coming from a long oral history. It was also what was spoken, what was said verbally, what was maybe rituals or smoking of the peace pipe. Those were all part of the treaty so they had a sort of broader understanding of what treaty was, not just the words on the exact piece of paper So I don’t know if that also applies in the Mi’kmaw context. But, maybe you could explain what the treaty meant from a broad perspective.
Cheryl: Sure. So, You’re absolutely correct with that assessment of treaties encompassing more than just the written words and in order to understand that it’s important to realize because all of those other components that you’re talking about in terms of the feasting, the ceremonies that would have been undertaking, the verbal negotiations and agreement before things had gotten codified, a lot of those were again governed by Indigenous governance protocols. Our legal system required that type of activity in order to have a valid agreement. So for instance, when you have an oral society having a feast, the bigger the feast often really drove home the importance of the business that was being undertaken. So if you have a big feast, it’s important business and it creates living memories in people’s minds and so that is one of the mechanisms and the foundations of our governance systems and so all of that activity is critical to understand what was agreed to and what the common understandings were. So, when the Mi’kmaw treaties were entered into with the British, with the first one being in 1725, it was really about establishing a working relationship to figure out how the Mi’kmaw and their allies and the British were going to work out disputes. Whether or not consent was going to be required for settlement and to really protect and recognize the way of life of the Mi’kmaw people. Because again, it was our governance systems and our legal orders that were running the territory that the British found themselves on. And because this was a new working relationship, there were disputes that broke out in later years and so what happened was every time a dispute would break out and the working relationship wasn’t functioning properly, they would get back together again to work again and reaffirm their working relationship to resolve disputes and then they would continue moving forward. This is why they call it a covenant chain of treaties, the Peace and Friendship Treaties – plural. Because it covered off a lot of different agreements that built upon each other and built upon the working relationship as disputes came about and to try to settle things in a way that would avoid war. The Mi’kmaw treaties, unlike those that would come later in the West and not deal with land. There was no land surrender or anything like that. It was more about maintaining trade links, about containing settlements that required Mi’kmaw consent before more settlements could be created. And then again, the working to protect the activities that make my people – the harvesting, the fishing, everything that was taking place in the territory.
Kate: Okay, that’s really interesting! I’m going to bring Chris in. Hi, Chris! Share with us about the end of the war between Britain and France over which colonial power was going to be predominant in North America and you know the Brits won that one – that was the Seven Years War. Chris, you write in your story for us in Canada’s History something really fascinating about the history of Epekwitk which is the Mi’kmaw name for Prince Edward Island that when the British said, “Okay, great. We’ve just conquered the French, we’re going to come in and take over Prince Edward Island”, they basically carved it up. Can you explain that, Chris? What did they do?
Chris: Yeah. Prince Edward Island became unlike almost all the other colonial settlements in North America at least by the middle of the nineteenth century because when the British took over in the 1760s, they took the whole island as if it was a blank slate and nobody lived there and divided it up into 67 big chunks of land of about 80,000 acres each and doled them out to British military officers and lords and ladies living in England and friends of the king and members of the court and they became the landlords of each of these 67 slices of land in Prince Edward Island and it was decided that anyone who came from Europe to settle in Prince Edward Island would become a tenant of one of these 67 landlords who’d been effectively given the whole island. That continued down to the Confederation period, basically one hundred years later in the 1860s. And in fact, it became a really profound political issue among the settlers of Prince Edward Island for decades. It was definitely a burden on the economy of the colony because money was being sent off to these absentee landlords who lived high on the hog and in Britain or wherever and it meant that whereas most people who came to North America and opened up a farm somewhere assumed they were the owners of the land, leaving aside the question of who had the right to tell them they were entitled their own land. But, in Prince Edward Island if you were a farmer, you had a land lease that was going to bind you for nine hundred and ninety-nine years. You and all your descendants and would pay rent on your farm to these landlords for nine hundred and ninety-nine years. I was writing an article about why Prince Edward Island joined the Confederation in 1873 rather than in 1867 which we think of as the great big date of Confederation. It’s a complicated question but for Prince Edward Island, it wasn’t so much about who was going to pay for the hospitals and who is going to raise the taxes. It was very much about this land question. What were we going to do about the fact that most Prince Edward Islanders were tenants who had another 800-900 years to go on their leases before they’d ever get free of them? So, It becomes a kind of down-to-earth question rather than the abstracts of constitutional theory.
Kate: That’s really true. Where did the Mi’kmaw fit into this or did the British even consider that when they decided to do this thing?
Cheryl: No, the British did not consider the Mi’kmaq when they did this. I think this is a perfect example of the Europeans implementing the doctrine of terra nollius – this idea that the land was vacant and that they could just divide it up into 67 lots and carry on as if there was no other interest that needed to be considered. And it’s actually interesting that when those 67 lots were surveyed and recorded, the island of Lennox Island which on PEI is a reserve today and one of the larger Mi’kmaw communities, It was a clerical error that actually made that island not be part of one of those 67 grants and so there was somebody that once said that a lot of my families always came through Lennox Island and that was one of the reasons because due to human error, that island was not part of those crown grants.
Kate: That’s really amazing. Apart from that island though did the Mi’kmaw people just basically like just continue living their lives? You had this one system on the one hand that was carved up and there were these landlords and there were people starting to farm and then you have the Mi’kmaw who were just like, “Okay, well, we’re just living our lives here.”
Cheryl: Absolutely and you definitely see Mi’kmaw families because the settlement patterns (20: 30) really went from east to west. So, you see Mi’kmaw families being repeatedly removed and moved on and complaints from settlers to colonial authorities that the Mi’kmaw people were here on their heir land and were problematic but there was no land set-asides by the colonial authorities for Mi’kmaw people. So even though again on the ground, we were there, we were carrying out our activities, we were living our lives the way we always had, to the government, we were not.
Chris: I think you can see here that the conflict that goes way back and very deeply between the treaties – the Peace and Friendship Treaties – which guarantee the Mi’kmaw the right to hunt and fish and put together a livelihood right across their territory Against the British assumption that they could just divide up the land. So as Cheryl said, the Mi’kmaw on Epekwitk on Prince Edward Island were expecting to be able to continue to hunt where they needed to, fish where they needed to and simultaneously there’s this imposition of the boundary – the new boundaries of property that the colonial government’s putting up. And as I understand it, as my informants were telling me and I think as Cheryl’s making clear, the Mi’kmaw would expect to deal with that through the treaty relationship. They have a right to hunt and fish. How are we going to fit that in with your idea of letting these landlords own all the land and so you can’t separate the treaty history from the Confederation history if you like. They keep bumping into each other.
Cheryl: And the government actually – there were conditions on these grants, on the 67 lots that the settlers had to fulfill. They had to set aside so much land for greenlands,(22:10) for the churches. They had to bring over so many settlers that rubbed the Protestant faith. You know all these types of conditions. And the government definitely acted as if those conditions were fulfilled. There wasn’t any questioning whether or not one the French had titled to transfer to the British as the starting point because there was actually nothing under French law. That would extinguish the indigenous title to Epekwitk. So, that was the first assumption. The second assumption was that it was vacant and that they could divide it up into lots and then moving forward, there was the assumption that these lots with all these conditions attached had been fulfilled and were therefore valid. And none of that was actually accurate.
Kate: Chris, we’re going to jump ahead here just for a second to the 1860s. So, we’re getting close to the Canadian Confederation. Can you explain to me a little bit what was the situation on the North American continent with the British colonies and the United States of America? And what were the factors from the point of view of the premiers of these provinces or British colonies that were pushing them toward thinking about confederation?
Chris: Sure. There are a bunch of factors and usually, the landlord and tenants on Prince Edward Island is not one that the history books have emphasized though it is quite an interesting one. This is well after the American Revolution, the United States is a growing concern and getting bigger and bigger and has recently been involved in its civil war – this enormous conflict – and at the same time, there are these British colonies across the northern half of eastern North America. Separate colonies started up in their own way. What’s now Quebec, having won beginnings, various colonies having been founded in what’s now the Maritime provinces and they’re getting to the point that they’re big enough and prosperous enough that they want to run their own affairs and in fact, largely the little separate colonies do but they’re beginning to think that being a group of separate colonies isn’t very efficient, isn’t working very well for them. And so, the first impetus is why don’t these separate colonies – the ones that become the provinces like Ontario and Quebec and the Maritime provinces and Newfoundland as well – if they federated, if they joined together into a single government where there was one government for the big national concerns and their old colonial governments would become provincial governments, that that might be an efficient way to do it. Some concerns about the United States: the United States army had become enormous and very powerful and if these American ideas about manifest destiny in the United States should control the whole of North America started happening. The Canadians needed to think about how to stand up to that. There were economic ideas that they could trade together. They could afford to build things like railroads that connected them. So there’s a whole group of conditions that begin making people, making political leaders of the settler colonies in what’s now eastern Canada in effect or from Ontario east at least to say we could function better as one nation running our own affairs with provinces remaining to handle things of local concern and that are better handled locally. So that’s the big background and these meetings – that are the famous meeting in Charlottetown and the later one at Quebec City – are usually seen as drafting a number of clauses of what becomes our constitution, a legal document and squabbling over the legal terms and those are important. I’ve written about those kind of things sometimes but I think there are also many local concerns that needed to be worked out.. So, I think, once we begin opening up Confederation to think about its impact on Indigenous people and First Nations and where the treaties feeded into that we also can open it up to think about local issues for settlers like the farmers of PEI, the tenant farmers who were saying, “We’ve got to do something about this situation of ours and if we can’t do that, we’re not very interested in this idea of making a new capital up in Ottawa” and that kind of thing.
Kate: Yeah, if you look at the premier of PEI in the sense that Cheryl was talking about is maybe a representative of his people rather than someone who’s trying to represent the British Crown down to them but trying to bring the questions forward that were affecting the tenant-farmers. He was trying to say, “You know, if we’re going to confederate, I want you to help me solve this problem of these British landowners who are basically, you know, kind of parasites on PEI, right?”
Chris: And what I found most interesting with this domestic issue among the settlers of Prince Edward Island: they’d been struggling and fighting for decades to solve the tenant problem effectively. The tenants didn’t want to be tenants anymore. They thought they should have the right to be able to acquire their land and they’d had quite a lot of political success. They’d elected governments that kind of agreed with them. But, essentially, the landlords had property law on their side and they had the government back in Britain on their side and even if the landlords might have been willing to sell, little Prince Edward Island really didn’t have the money to be able to buy them all out at the value of what the landlords thought their lands were like. So, Prince Edward Island had kind of an insoluble problem before Confederation, you might say, expressing some willingness to kind of step between the Prince Edward Island and the British government which essentially backed the big landlords. That began to turn Prince Edward Island around and so Prince Edward Island joined Confederation in 1873 and in 1875 they were able to pass a bill for the mandatory purchase of the big estates and a process to in effect resell them to the tenants who would have a mortgage for a while to pay the cost of the land but would become landowners like people in all the other parts of Canada really, I would argue, had a big part of sealing the deal.
Kate: Chris I’m going to interrupt you for a second because I want to jump back to the Confederation conferences in the 1860s. The premiers all got together, Sir John A. Mcdonald and Cartier and everybody all got together. Now, did they invite any of the First Nations leaders to any of these conferences?
Chris: Well, I think you’ve got to ask what table they’re at and what table they’re being invited to and I think Sheryl’s description of the Mi’kmaw governments and the profound importance of the treaties they’d made in the Crown. The table that the First Nations of North America wanted to be at was always a treaty table. I think you could say they already had their governance in shape as as Sheryl described they saw themselves as self-governing sovereign peoples and nations and if the settlers governments were beginning to reorganize themselves, it wasn’t so much that they needed to be at that table. I think they should have been but that table was how the settlers were going to organize their affairs for the self-governing nations that were the First Nations of what is now Canada. Their perspective was well, what matters was the treaties the way we deal with the Crown or whether it was the crown of Britain or the crown of Canada or the sovereign of the governments of these provinces, we should be dealing with them through as sovereign nations – nation to nation – as Sarah Cheryl said earlier.
Kate: How do you see that, Cheryl? If you look back on the Confederation conferences where the premiers all decided to get together and talk about Confederation. When you look back at that, do you think, why weren’t the Mi’kmaw invited or were they working on a different track ? Where they were like: why should I talk to these provincials? I’m going to go talk to the King, how do you see that?
Cheryl: I think that the treaty implementation is really the crux of the question. Um, because really when you look at the late 1700s when the treaties were so like though the final treaties were being entered into the issue of implementation had already started to be an issue pretty much the moment the ink starts to dry, there started to be some violations and so you see Mi’kmaw people according to the treaty — as they were supposed to do — petitioning the colonial authorities. You know we need to resolve these issues. Settlements are going forward with that our consent. There are issues here and again this is why a lot of hostilities kept flaring up because the settlers were not implementing the treaties in the manner in which they were supposed to and they weren’t implementing them according to the law that they had agreed would be applying to the treaties so you see a lot of petitions to the colonial authorities, delegations being sent to England for implementation, recognition of these treaty rights and implementation. But, one of the biggest issues had to do was the idea of the military threat, right? The Mi’kmaw people and the Mi’kmaw nation were required to be allies to the military threat and they needed that peace so when the threat started to go down, the colonial authorities in the maritimes didn’t see that as something that was worth their bother anymore. It wasn’t an issue for them. I don’t think that they even would have contemplated the idea that there were Mi’kmaw issues that were outstanding, you know, as far as they were concerned. The land had been emptied out. British law had filled the void that was required to entrench property rights and so it was not something that would have ever been on their radar in terms of any kind of obligation under the treaties. And so, I don’t know whether or not Mi’kmaw people would have expected to be there because, as Chris was saying, the issue was the treaty implementation. The fact that nobody was considering Mi’kmaw interests, you know, really reflected a lot of notions regarding social Darwinism, all these ideas about hierarchies of man, all these other kinds of components with it and I just don’t think that the Mi’kmaw people would have expected to be there. But whether or not their issues should have been taken into consideration by the British Crown generally, they absolutely would have expected that obligation to be upheld because people have been fighting for treaty implementation ever since the treaties got signed.
Chris: There’s a story that I had never heard until I started writing this article about Prince Edward Island and it was told to me by the people I was interviewing – my Mi’kmaw informants in Prince Edward Island. And they put me onto one of the studies by Ruth Holmes Whitehead, the great, maybe the preeminent Mi’kmaw scholar and collector of information on all these matters and she has documented and Ruth Holmes Whitehead documented quite a while ago at the time that the makers of Confederation were having their conference and such, the Mi’kmaw of the maritimes became concerned about what the implications of this might be for them and they actually gathered money and these were not wealthy people, they gathered enough money to send one of their people send a delegate in effect to London, not to Charlottetown or Quebec City, to London to talk to the colonial office and what they said is, “The settlers are talking about with a new kind of government. We want to know what the impact on that is going to be on our treaties”. And the British government said, “There’s going to be no change in your treaties. Your treaties exist. And they’re going to have to continue.” And I think that this is really at the nut of a lot of Canadian history not just in the maritimes. But this is a very good example of it. You know when the British North America act was written down, there is one tiny line saying that Indians on lands belonging to Indians are going to be a federal responsibility and I would argue that that essentially acknowledges the treaty relationship has not ended. The lands belonging to Indians were governed by treaties when before confederation and I think that says the Canadian government took on that obligation and that responsibility and of course so the existing treaties continued and then Canada went on to make more treaties in other territories that it was expanding into. So on one hand, the Confederation goes with taking up of the treaty obligation by the emerging Canadian state and yet we all know that that state really defined these treaties not as ongoing relationships but as simply as land surrenders so that they became known as surrenders. And it was assuming that once the treaty is signed and made it’s all over. The land all belongs to Canada, the sovereignty belongs to Canada, Canada can do whatever it likes with the land and virtually with the Indigenous people who live on that land as well. So we have this weird two tracks and on one hand, they’re on the level of principle, the treaty obligation I think is built right into Confederation and yet, essentially, it was ignored or was just treated as land surrenderers and what we’re having right now I think is really a revolution in understanding that. The treaties didn’t go away once they were signed. They remain binding and they involve the use of land and control of land and Indigenous self-government just as they did in in 1725 or 1752 or whenever the Peace and Friendship treaties were being made. So, I think, what’s happening in Canada as a result of this claim or demand or proposition for reconciliation is we’re beginning to have to confront that treaty obligation that I think is embedded in the confederation settlement.
Kate: That’s really, really interesting and I never thought of it that way and it’s so fascinating and in a way that very first time when the Brits carved up PEI and at the same time like totally ignoring the Mi’kmaw but at the same time said, “Oh no, we respect your treaty rights like right from that moment.” That irreconcilable situation is still playing out today in some ways, right.
Cheryl: And especially with property rights being such a high issue and priority on PEI and Confederation because, like I said, there was no land set aside for the Mi’kmaw people on Epekwitk. The reason why our reserves I would argue are so beautiful and pretty is because they were purchased by private citizens for the Mi’kmaw. You know people came together, raised funds, they were concerned about the “plight” of the Mi’kmaw people and so they wanted action and um I guess resolution to this issue as well. It was only later in the 20th century when they were recognized as reserves but initially the land that Mi’kmaw people were occupying that they had some sense of title to was because of private citizens. So this idea that nobody recognized Mi’kmaw rights, that nobody was willing to work on behalf of the Mi’kmaw people or we’re concerned about the implementation of the treaties is just not correct. You know that these types of decisions and colonization were a series of decisions that individuals made and we cannot assume that all individuals had the same perspective with respect to Mi’kmaw rights.
Kate: It’s so good to have the discussion and I think we could probably talk for a few more hours but I’m just going to wrap up with a bit of a final question. We talk a lot about decolonization. I’m not sure I understand all the ramifications of what that word means. I think it’s interesting in the PEI context in the sense that when those tenant-farmers got rid of the landlords by having confederation by Canada, like you said the federal government stepping in, in a sense between the the British Crown and PEI and saying, you know, “Okay, we’re going to solve this. We’re a nation now, we’re going to solve this and got rid of these landlords.” In a sense that was a sense of decolonization for the people, for the tenants. They’re gonna be their own country in a way and now we talk much belatedly about decolonization regarding Indigenous people. I’m just gonna throw a question open-ended out to both of you with all that in mind and all we’ve talked about: Do you think that the place of First Nations within the constitution and within the governance of Canada is going to change and and how do you see that maybe playing out?
Chris: If I go first and give you the last words, Cheryl – I’ve been so impressed, I’ve written about different parts of Canada and so I’ve talked to various First Nations scholars or spokespeople in various places and this phrase keeps coming back. Well, two of them really: one is, ‘we’re all treaty people’ not just not just sort of the Indians are bound by treaty but white people are bound by treaty too which is a very useful thought to keep in mind but that other phrase ‘nothing about us without us’ that is also used by First Nations negotiators and First Nations people and I think more and more we’re starting to understand how that much applies to the way we should think and conceive of Canadian history. So, you start to understand Confederation differently when you become aware of this treaty aspect to it and its the same whether you talk about Prince Edward Island and the the local affairs in Prince Edward Island or whether you talk about the whole constitutional structure once you begin understanding that none of these things happened without Indigenous consequences and without Indigenous pushback. I think that’s an idea that’s percolating through a little bit into the Canadian consciousness side right now and I think it would be a good thing if it if that continues to happen.
Cheryl: When I think about decolonization and in terms of trying to reconcile some of these issues about you know Canada’s history and Indigenous rights and our treaty implementation. There’s a few things, like, we have to have the truth before we can have reconciliation like I mentioned earlier that you know the settlement of PEI was based on fiction, several fictions that were layered upon each other to justify the settlement and the way that people wanted it carried out. But I also would want to challenge islanders because their ancestors fought so long and hard to get rid of you know these aristocratic landlords that were having such a huge impact on their life that they had no say in the matter, t the level of frustration not being able to have autonomy, all of that fight. You know I understand because it was something that they had seen back home right? People were leaving Europe, that type of system of property ownership but we always had an overlord. But the problem was is that when they came to PEI, they fought so hard for property rights and they never stopped to think that it wasn’t their land to begin with. So if you take those legal fictions and you take that understanding of the fact that the the fight for for nationhood, the fight for autonomy, the fight for rights to be fully implemented – that is something that I think that all canadians and islanders should be able to understand and that is what is at issue today when we’re trying to reconcile those legal fictions with the continual existence of the Mi’kmaw nation in Canada. I don’t blame the Europeans for having fought so hard for their property, I Just don’t understand why they don’t understand our fight for our nation. I really don’t.
Kate: We talk about the constitution, the PNA act, the provinces have responsibility for natural resources and the federal government has responsibility for the army or whatever. Do you think it needs to be laid out in a constitution-type document like, “but the First Nations should have responsibility for x y z, whatever.” Like should that actually be written into the constitution itself in addition to what’s in the treaties.
Cheryl: I think that the text of the constitution needs to be reevaluated. So, instead of Indians and lands reserved for Indians meaning absolute jurisdiction and control that it turns to support for treaty implementation because it’s a federal responsibility. That is what needs to happen. They need to give up this idea of control and jurisdiction because there’s a different legal order, different governance systems and there’s a whole body of international law that supports the treaty implementation of people on PEI. So I think that if constitutional amendment is not possible and I would argue with our amendment formula, it’s extremely difficult, that we have to reimagine the interaction between the Canadian government and First Nations people. The tools are already there which we just need to get the political will to actually go back and implement the treaties that the government said that they were going to.
Kate: I think I will let you have the last word on that Cheryl. So I’m going to thank you both for joining me today and hope we can maybe meet again sometime and talk more.
Chris: Yes, it’s been a pleasure and then great to meet you.
Cheryl: Thank you so much Kate. it’s wonderful to be here.