Two Reasons to Celebrate the Robinson-Superior Treaty Today

(Originally posted to Facebook, September 7, 2012)

Today, we celebrate the 162nd anniversary of the Robinson-Superior Treaty. On September 7, 1850, before Canada was even a country, Anishinabek leaders from across the northern shores of Lake Superior met with representatives of the Imperial British Crown in Sault Ste. Marie. It was a time that our nation-to-nation relationship was not in question. However, more than a century and a half later, some people ask what our treaty is good for; others ask whether the treaty is even still alive. Due to such doubts, the best way to celebrate our treaty might be to show how it continues to be useful today.

Many people have become skeptical about the importance of, and even the validity of the Robinson-Superior Treaty. I think some skepticism is a good thing: it allows us to question the things that we’ve been told are true. For example, the Canadian government and most settlers like to re-cast our treaty as a “business contract” instead of a solemn treaty. They’ve told us that the Crown didn’t have to enter into the treaty; they’ve told us that they were doing us a favour by making this agreement, and that therefore they can disregard it any time they like. But is this true?

Elsewhere, there are people even within the Anishinabek community who question the usefulness of the treaty, saying, for example, that it has failed miserably in protecting our community. But was it the treaty that failed, or the settlers who sought to disregard their promises?

Just as these critiques are skeptical about the usefulness of the Robinson-Superior Treaty, I am skeptical about the assumptions they are built on. They assume that a) the treaty is dead, b) that the treaty, if alive, is useless today; and, if we take such skepticism to its logical conclusion, c) they assume that Anishinabek are not really in a nation-to-nation relationship with the Crown, because, if we believe Canada, a “business contract” is a one-time thing of the past. So, if we’re to properly celebrate today, we’ve gotta clear a few things up.

A Living Agreement

Today, Fort William First Nation is engaged in the early stages of constitutional development. A constitution refers to the most basic laws of a nation, that its people agree to live by. Two of the most important elements of a constitution is defining who a nation’s citizens are, and defining how leaders will be selected and how they should lead. In Anishinabek constitutions, these elements take their form from our interrelatedness with Creation and are focused on maintaining balance.

The FWFN constitution is being developed in stages. It is addressing the two most important issues first: the Band is considering how to renew its existing Membership Code, while also developing a new Custom Election Code. How can the Robison-Superior Treaty help us today in achieving these tasks?

To answer that question, we first have to prove that the treaty still exists. And, thats easy to do: just drive across the bridge into town. So long as we go across the river and find settler-Canadians living in Anishinabek territory, the Robinson-Superior Treaty is alive and well. The City of Thunder Bay only exists because we made a treaty that is about sharing the land. Because of this, as my colleague Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair said last year, our treaties are happening right now, evidenced by the fact that we’re still sharing with the settlers.

This is also what proves our treaty is a treaty and not a “business contract”: a treaty passes rights/responsibilities on to future generations of both settlers and Anishinabek. If it were merely a contract, it would have become void when its original signatories died. And then where would all those settlers go?

But our treaty is more useful than simply allowing other people to live with us. It would be a pretty raw deal if we only gave and got nothing in return. While the Robinson-Superior Treaty states that we will be given an annuity of up to one pound sterling per person, per year (or about $4 each), since 1874 the Crown has chosen not to keep up with inflation rates. In 1850, $4 was the equivalent to a half-year’s pay for what would amount today to a city worker’s salary, which in today’s currency could easily mean half of $40,000-50,000 for each person who belongs with FWFN. Paying such an annuity today would still be nothing for the Crown, for it has taken, and taken, and taken from our territory and gotten rich in doing so. Quite simply, the Crown has no excuse for not paying our annuities as promised.

However, annuities aren’t the only way to look at how the treaty can benefit us today. Embedded within it are teachings about our sovereignty. In a time of reclaiming our self-determination in areas such as taking back control over our band membership and our selection of leaders, the sovereignty embedded in our treaty is worth another look.

Putting the Treaty to Work

To fully understand how the Robinson-Superior Treaty can work for us today, it is first important to understand exactly what the treaty did and, just as importantly, what it didn’t do.

The treaty is a specific agreement about sharing land. The text version of the treaty says that Anishinabek leaders permit settlers to live within our territory. Thats all. We never said anything about giving up our sovereignty; we never said anything about giving up our rights to determine our citizenship; we never agreed to give up our traditions for how we appoint our leaders. (It was the Indian Act that attempted to take all these things away from us without our permission)

Treaties must be understood for the specific things the parties agreed to. One cannot presume something is included in the treaty if it was not explicitly discussed in the treaty negotiations. For example, just because we agreed to share the land does not mean we gave up our sovereignty over other aspects of our lives. That would be the same as saying just because I said you could sleep on my couch, you think its ok to tell me what shirt to wear and who else can come over for supper. Leanne Simpson, a Nishnaabekwe, has written that Anishinabek treaty making traditions protect our sovereignty because when we enter a treaty, we do so as a sovereign people, a nation. It would be absurd to say that by agreeing to share the land, we’ve somehow given up our control over our citizenship and election customs (or our shirts and dinner invitations for that matter).

And so, in understanding how the Robinson-Superior Treaty can help Fort William First Nation at this moment, it makes sense to consider what it did not do, opposed to focusing solely on what it did do. And so here are two suggestions:

1. The Treaty Protects our Responsibility to Discern Citizenship

No where in the Robinson-Superior Treaty does it say that Anishinabek relinquish control over belonging (band membership/citizenship) to the Imperial or Canadian Crown. Anishinabek leaders at the time would have thought it crazy to accept the idea that an emerging nation (Canada) could tell them who belongs with Anishinabek families and communities. On the contrary, the treaty actually upholds our jurisdiction to discern belonging, and therefore protects all of our customs to do so. The treaty is very clear that “the Indians” will receive annuities only so long as

the number of Indians entitled to the benefit of this Treaty shall amount to two thirds of their present numbers (which is twelve hundred and forty) to entitle them to claim the full benefit thereof, and should their numbers at any future period not amount to two thirds of twelve hundred and forty, the annuity shall be diminished in proportion to their actual numbers.

In other words, if we do not use our traditions to maintain our population of “citizens,” the treaty will become null and void.

Thus, our treaty helps us today because it protects our right to discern who belongs. Had we given up that right/responsibility, the treaty would have said so. This means that all the inherent traditions we’ve used for millennia are also protected. How else were we discerning belonging in 1850 other than through our family-based customs? It means there is no reason not to unhook ourselves from Indian Act thinking when discerning who belongs with our community. It means we don’t need to discern belonging based solely on “blood quantum,” as we’ve been taught to do after generations of dealing with the Indian Act.

2. The Treaty Protects our Responsibility to Determine our Leaders

In addition to attacking how we control citizenship, the Indian Act also attacks how we appoint our leadership. The Chief and Council system is an invention by Canada; it is a municipal-style governance system that favours European principles of governance. Make no mistake, the Chief and Council system was forced on Indigenous communities, sometimes at gun point. While we came to use the Chief and Council system as a matter of survival, and while people of our community are trying to use this system for good, the Robinson-Superior Treaty did not give up our responsibility to determine our leaders in our own way.

As Fort William First Nation embarks on creating a Custom Election Code, the Robinson-Superior Treaty is important because it protects our right to appoint our leaders in ways not dictated to us by the Canadian government. For example, whereas today we have only one chief under the Indian Act system, in September 1850 we used our ways of appointing leaders to send two chiefs to Sault Ste. Marie. Chiefs Peau de Chat and I’Illinois (John Innunway) signed the treaty on our behalf. And while the Crown tried to undermine our leadership traditions in 1849 by saying it would only recognize the chieftainship of the “fur trading post chief” (I’Illinois), the fact remains that our treaty bears both men’s names, and thus bears our customary codes for appointing leadership.

Since we never gave up our leadership traditions, they continue to exist and can be drawn on in the present. This means that we are not restricted to the municipal style governance system we’ve been forced to adopt. It means that Anishinabek teachings such as Mino-Bimaadiziwin and the Seven Grandmother Teachings can provide the framework for an Election Code. There is nothing stopping us from re-rooting our leadership back into our traditions.

A Reason to Celebrate

Thus, the Robinson-Superior Treaty is anything but dead. This is clear despite the fact that Canada continues to enforce its Indian Act; Canada uses the Act as a means to separate itself from the promises the British Crown made to us on its behalf. Canada’s fear of the Robinson-Superior Treaty in and of itself makes it abundantly clear that the treaty still holds power as a nation-to-nation agreement. Otherwise, why would Canada still use the Indian Act to avoid its treaty responsibilities?

So, we have a lot to celebrate today. We continue to live as Anishinabek despite more than a century of attacks on our citizenship and leadership traditions. And, regardless of what Canada has to say, our treaty continues to support our nationhood by showing us that we’ve kept the most important thing for ourselves: our responsibility to be a self-determining nation in all aspects of life.

October 20, 2012 update: An edited version of this post appeared on page 10 in the October 2012 edition of Anishinabek News, available here.

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