Breathing Life into Historic Treaties

Living Treaties: Narrating Mi’kmaw Treaty Relations

Marie Battiste, Editor

Published by Cape Breton University Press, 2016

Review by Jamie Simpson originally published in Rural Delivery, March 2017

Breathing Life into Historic Treaties

I have two piles of books: those I ought to read and those I want to read.  Once I cracked the cover of Living Treaties, it quickly moved from the former pile to the latter.  I expected a wealth of information presented in dry academic prose.  What I found was a wealth of information presented through diverse, engaging and personal stories of indigenous people and a few of their allies with ties to eastern Canada (and particularly Nova Scotia).

In the pages of these 17 stories, the authors explain and celebrate the legacy of the treaties negotiated between the Mi’kmaw people and Great Britain in the 1700s.  They pull passages of historical texts from dusty archives, draw our attention to key legal decisions affirming indigenous rights, and reminisce about their personal work to breathe renewed life into the treaties.  Stories of rights-affirming fishing trips slide seamlessly into stories of courtroom battles.  Yes, a few overly academic passages made their way into Living Treaties.  But what University Press publication doesn’t stray into deep waters?

Among many engaging stories, I was drawn to one about Mi’kmaw Grand Chief Gabriel Sylliboy, as told by Jaime Battiste.  In 1928, Grand Chief Sylliboy was charged with illegal trapping.  Sylliboy grew up in Whycocomagh, Cape Breton, and spoke little English.  Despite the language barrier, and in the face of pervasive racism and ignorance of aboriginal rights, Sylliboy decided to defend his and his people’s rights flowing from the 1752 peace and friendship treaty made with Great Britain.  How did he know of his rights, originating from treaties negotiated in the 1700s?  Although he was born more than one-hundred years later, since childhood he had been told the stories of the treaties made between his people and the King of England.  These stories were passed from generation to generation, through the oral tradition, and Sylliboy and other Mi’kmaw continued to live by the provisions of the treaties.

The judge found Sylliboy guilty as charged, claiming that the treaties were invalid.  Unfortunately, Sylliboy would not live to see the courts finally reverse the judge’s decision in his case.  In 1985, as Battiste explains, the Supreme Court of Canada noted that the language and reasoning used in the 1928 Sylliboy case “reflects the biases and prejudices of another era.”

As I read Living Treaties, I recalled a conference I attended once in Eskasoni, Cape Breton, where I listened, for the first time in my life, to someone speaking Mi’kmaq.  In an epiphany of the obvious, it struck me that the words spoken by that woman were the words that had been spoken for thousands of years on this very land.  These were words passed down from mouth to ear to the present day, not functionally extinct as many of us might assume, yet how fragile they had become.

In Living Treaties, the authors demonstrate that Mi’kmaw identity today is not a last gasp, but rather a force patiently gaining momentum.  And the treaties are central to this struggle.  The book quotes Keptin Alex Denny of the Mi’kmaw Grand Council, who stated in 1976:

Our history and our allegiance are to this land and to no other. … Before the English and French came, we were here.  We are a pre-Confederation nation of peoples. … our ancestors exercised all the prerogatives of nationhood.  … We have paid a very grave and exorbitant price. … Our entire way of life, based on the land, was endangered and weakened by deliberate acts of destruction of the animals which sustained us and our movements were restricted so that our survival was made perilous and precarious.  Yet, we have survived. … our aboriginal rights … [are] the only avenue through which [we] can achieve social and economic justice.

The writers featured in Living Treaties include Stephen Augustine, dean at Cape Breton University; lawyer and professor Pam Palmater; Fred Metallic, a fisherman from Listuguj (in Quebec’s Gaspé); and Victor Carter Julian, a Mi’kmaw lawyer from Pictou Landing (and a former classmate of mine).  Editor and contributor Marie Battiste, a Mi’kmaw from Potlotek First Nation, Nova Scotia, and is currently a professor at the University of Saskatchewan.

Pick up this book and give it a read.  The stories of the Mi’kmaw peoples’ resilience and continued positive attitude in the face of such long-term adversity is both captivating and inspiring.

  1. David Blackwell said:

    Interesting and easy writing that draws further needed and rewarding attention to a central aspect of Nova Scotia’s cultural heritage. Thanks Jamie for circulating this. Incidentally, liked that phrase “an epiphany of the obvious.”

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