Response to Big Thunder Wind Park, EBR

Ontario Ministry of the Environment
Operations Division
Environmental Approvals Branch
2 St. Clair Avenue West, Floor 12A
Toronto Ontario M4V 1L5
Phone: (416) 325-3306

April 24, 2013

Re: Renewable Energy Approval (REA) by Horizon Wind Inc. for the Big Thunder Wind Park (EBR Registry Number 011-8937; Ministry Reference Number: 6763-8X2RE9)

To Whom it May Concern:

In response to Horizon Wind Inc.’s proposed Renewable Energy Approval request for the so-called “Big Thunder Wind Park” within the traditional territory of Fort William First Nation, I wish to make the following statement.

I am categorically opposed not only to Horizon Wind Inc.’s project proposal, but, more importantly, to the provincial application and review institution governing this (dis)approval process in and of itself. While I am opposed to Horizon’s project proposal because it will negatively affect my community’s ability to access and practice our culture, I cannot even begin to address these concerns when I consider the fact that the application, commenting provisions, and (dis)approval processes have been vested in your ministry at the expense of Anishinabek jurisdiction for discerning land use.

The land upon which the Big Thunder Wind Park is proposed is under jurisdiction of the Anishinabek (Ojibwe), particularly the Anishinabek community of Fort William First Nation; this is a jurisdiction we share with Ontarians and Canadians. We, like many other Anishinabek and Indigenous communities, find our spiritual, cultural, economic and political meaning through our relationship with our lands. Such meaning is not limited to the reservation boundary, and yet as a community we have endured more than a century of land loss in the name of settler society’s industrial development.

Indeed, the people of Fort William First Nation have lost over 8,630 acres of land through illegal expropriation since 1859. The land we lost was the best hunting and agricultural grounds we had; roughly half of it was used for industrial operations and subsequently severely polluted. This history has shown us that EuroCanadians do not respect our jurisdiction over our lands, nor our understandings about human-environment relationality.

Without such an understanding, this (dis)approval process cannot effectively be resolved. Your ministry cannot presume to be an arbiter of land-use decision making within Anishinabe Aki (Anishinabe Territory) without Anishinabek knowledge holders leading the process. Our knowledge holders are fully capable of using Anishinabe knowledge to make decisions about our territory – Western science is an embodiment of a Eurocentric worldview and should not be seen as the only valid perspective on the environment. However, paradoxically, including Anishinabe knowledge in this process, which would be exemplified by including Anishinabek leadership directly in the highest level of decision making, is preempted by your ministry’s assumed jurisdiction over our lands.

You will note that as a ministry within the Province of Ontario, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment gains its jurisdiction through the fiction of imperial sovereignty as asserted in the British North America Act, 1867. Sections 91 and 92 of that Act provide that provinces have jurisdiction over the management of public lands. Anishinabek, like other Indigenous peoples, were not consulted and did not consent to such assertion of sovereignty – it existed merely in the minds of colonialists interested in robbing Indigenous peoples of their lands and political autonomy. Against this backdrop, the jurisdiction of the Ontario Ministry of the Environment must be read as a corollary fiction: the provinces assumed the day to day operations of managing (i.e. occupying and exploiting) Indigenous lands. Your ministry, despite its best intentions, is thus complicit with that larger negation of Anishinabek sovereignty to the extent that it does not defer land-use decisions in our territory to Anishinabek knowledge holders.

Sections 91 and 92 of the Act defy our understanding of our nation-to-nation relationship with the Crown. It is our understanding that by entering into the Robinson-Superior Treaty of 1850, we were going to share the lands with settler Canadians in a manner that respected each party’s political sovereignty; the creation of Indian reservations as discussed in the Treaty does not negate Anishinabek jurisdiction beyond the reserve boundaries. Further, it should be noted that the Indian Act is not to be used in such a way as to shield the federal or provincial governments from the nation-to-nation relationship embodied in the Robinson-Superior Treaty.

Therefore, in refuting the basis of your authority – namely, sections 91 and 92 of the British North America Act, 1867 – I dispute the very grounds upon which Horizon Wind Inc.’s application for Renewal Energy Approval are founded. Addressing the Big Thunder Wind Park proposal through the Ontario Ministry of the Environment undermines our sovereignty and understanding that gave rise to the Robinson-Superior Treaty. (Because of this, this letter should not be seen as tacit acceptance of the EBR Registry as a legitimate institution in regards to supporting land-use (dis)approvals within Anishinabe Aki – I merely seek to make my thoughts known through all available channels)

As a proposed resolution, I urge the Ontario Ministry of the Environment to refer this matter to the Premier of Ontario, with the express recommendation that a political solution be found to Horizon Wind Inc.’s Big Thunder Wind Park proposal. Such a solution will be valid only to the extent to which the Premier recognizes Fort William First Nation’s responsibilities to decide what should happen within its traditional territory, including the right to refuse industrial projects that it decides will have a detrimental impact on our culture, community, identity, access to traditional foods, and so on. Anishinabek leadership must be directly involved in the highest level of decision making regarding this project.

Best regards,

Damien Lee

Peau de Chat’s Return


New Chief Elected at FWFN

April 7, 2013

Fort William First Nation, ON: Joseph Peau de Chat has been elected as the new Chief of Fort William First Nation.

Joseph brings with him a wealth of political experience.  A seasoned leader, he is famous for making nation-to-nation agreements with Canada, and for resisting Canada’s co-optation of Anishinaabek governance systems.

Joseph’s appointment was immediately denounced by Canadian representatives.  A Canadian treaty commissioner issued the following statement to the electors: “He owes his election to you, but he is not your chief.  I will not ratify the election.”

To this Joseph replied: “You wish to snatch away my power and give it to another, if you can – that is your purpose.  I tell you that you are usurping our authority.  Neither the queen nor the Government of Canada can ever alter what the Indians have enacted.”[1]

The people of Fort William First Nation elected Joseph within Anishinaabek political systems as a way to move away from the Indian Act.  Under section 82(2) of the Act, Chiefs and Councils are accountable to the federal government, not their communities.  Customary leaders operate outside of Canada’s colonial laws as a way to remain accountable to their own people.

When asked about his priorities as Chief, Peau de Chat said that holding Canada to its obligations under the Robinson-Superior Treaty is at the top of his list, as well as culturally-sensitive economic development and political self-determination.


Contact: Damien Lee

[1] Chief Joseph Peau de Chat, qtd. in Father Frémiot, “Chief Peau de Chat’s Report on His Interrogation by Visiting Indian Agents,” in Thunder Bay District 1821-1892: A Collection of Documents, ed. Elizabeth Arthur (Toronto: The Champlain Society for the Government of Ontario, University of Toronto Press, 1974), 17.  Liberty taken with quotes.

Thunderbeings In her Heart

I remember the first time I met Georjann Morriseau. She had responded to a call for help. In May 2008, more than 20 people from Grassy Narrows First Nation were walking from their reserve (near Kenora, Ontario), to Ottawa to protest logging in their territory. I invited the walkers to stay at my apartment in Thunder Bay to rest and prepare for the next part of their journey. I sent out a request for food and bedding to help me accommodate the walkers. Georjann was one of the first people to respond; she brought over enough food to feed every one of us that night. She didn’t ask for anything in return.

Today, Georjann is a candidate in the 2013 Fort William First Nation Chief and Council election. She has been nominated for the position of chief, as well as councillor. Georjann was first elected to the Chief and Council as a councillor in 2011. She has a solid grasp on how Anishinaabeg governance traditions can inform Band Office governance. She is an active member of several committees, has produced numerous governance materials and has been active in protests and other gatherings that focused on making Fort William First Nation the best community it can be. She has sacrificed her family time and her own interests for the people of my community.

But in the past several weeks, Georjann has come under attack. In running for chief, there have been people in our community who have taken it upon themselves to attack Georjann’s character through unfounded speculative claims. The attacks have taken place largely on Facebook; but, as of yesterday, the attacks have moved to the distribution of hard-copy materials, purportedly stolen from our Band Office, and purportedly demonstrating Georjann’s shady character.

Some have attempted to dismiss such attacks by saying that running for chief is dangerous business, and that turbulence is just part of the ride. Such a dismissal is a form of violence in and of itself, for it invisibilizes the actions of the attacker(s) while not recognizing that a young woman from our community is being hurt simply because she is active and committed. Attacking each other in the way demonstrated in Fort William First Nation during the past weeks is a form of cannibalism – we are eating each other alive from the inside out.

There are many stories about the dangers of cannibalism within Anishinaabeg intellectual and political traditions. The cannibal eats other humans. The more it eats, the more hungry it gets. Some have likened greed to cannibalism because the more someone feeds their greed, the more greedy they become – unable to fill the hole they’ve created within themselves. The result is that the hunger gets so great that eventually all that is good in the world is gone. Humans are inherently good, but the cannibal spirit has the ability to eat the best of us.

Anishinaabeg have named this spirit “Wiindigo.” Wiindigos are found in our aadizookaanan (sacred stories) and dibaajimowinan (personal experiences). They live within us and within our communities. Sometimes the Wiindigo spirit is strong enough to take over our thoughts, actions and bodies. It is said that a person who has been taken over by Wiindigo spirit will eat other people, and that their chest is full of ice.

John Borrows shared a story about a person who was taken over with Wiindigo spirit in the 1830s. The story is about a man who came back to his community in the winter after walking days without food or fire. The man would do strange things, like eat an entire deer in two sittings, or walk on top of soft snow without sinking. Soon after his return, the man’s face turned the colour of death. He drank his own blood and was saying threatening things, to the point that others in the group became scared for their safety. The community came together and decided the man must have become a Wiindigo. Finally, after discussing what to do amongst themselves, it was decided the man must die so that he would not eat their children. The man’s best friend was chosen to kill him, which he did so that it would be carried out with the utmost of kindness and love.

There is also a story about how a woman killed Wiindgos to save her community. Its a story told by Caroline Anderson and Roger Roulette from northern Manitoba. The woman’s name was Gezhizhwazh. The name was translated by Caroline as “…’to try to cut,’ and refers to her willingness to be snacked upon by cannibals while she is waiting to murder them.” Roger translates the story into English as follows:

The story goes … she sacrificed herself to be taken by the Wiindigo because they were going toward where the Ojibwe people were living. And there was a band of them. So she thought, if she sacrificed herself to be taken by the Wiindigo, in that way, she’d have an eye on them, of what they were going to do, what their plans were, even though during the time she was with them, they would cut pieces of her and eat parts of her. But in order to save her own people, the Anishinaabe, she would be taken as lunch. And then she knew their plan. So, when she had the chance to go to the Anishinaabe village, she told them what the Wiindigo’s plans were. She wanted to be the first one to strike, and she also showed the Anishinaabe how to kill the Wiindigo. And she’s seen as a hero because she was the main killer of Wiindigo. And that’s the story.[1]

What is clear in both of these stories is that while Wiindigo can threaten the survial of Anishinaabeg communities, the way they are fought is through love of one’s community and self sacrifice. In the story told by John, the Wiindigo man was killed by his best friend; and the best friend then offered himself as a new son to the father of his friend now killed. This demonstrates kindness and empathy towards his friend, but also shows that balance must be maintained in the community: the man took the place of his friend, so that the friend’s family would not have to lose a son (in effect, he took on double the responsibility). In the story told by Caroline and Roger, Gezhizhwazh sacrificed herself so that her community could live; and through her sacrifice she brought new knowledge to her community so that it could survive.

Georjann’s work in our community in the past years reminds me of such sacrifice. She has gone above and beyond the call of duty to give back to our community. She has done so in the face of the cannibalizing spirit thats reared its head this week. In no way should anyone be made to endure such cannibalism just to give their gifts to us. But things are changing. The winter of 2013 has seen unprecedented change for Anishinaabeg everywhere. We are witness to a collective political and intellectual awakening being led by the next generation of leaders. Idle No More is an example of this. And we have a sacred story about this time of change, known as the Seven Fires; it states that a New People will emerge after generations of our peoples being asleep. It is the job of the New People to bring about the changes that are needed in Fort William First Nation, and these changes can only come with the new thinking.

We have many stories about transformation in Fort William First Nation. One of our story tellers is Christian “Mick” Chapman, a visual artist. Mick tells stories through painting and imagery. His stories are about us, as a community. Given that some people in our community are cannibalizing Georjann simply because she has vision and is self-sacrificing, it makes sense to share a home-grown story about how change might come about within our community, and I look to Mick’s work to show us the way.

One of my favourite stories about transformation in Fort William First Nation is the story about the returning of the thunderbeings. Often, I forget that change comes only through the collective action of a community. While each of us might have a good idea that we think will “solve” our community’s problems, its important to remember that acting alone, while demonstrating leadership, might not lead to widespread transformation. The story of the return of the thunderbeings reminds us that for transformation to occur, it has to be in the hearts of the people.

Anemki. By Mick Chapman, 2010.

Mick’s 2010 piece entitled “Anemki” embodies the story about the return of the thunderbeings. It is said that someday the thunderbeings will return to nest on our mountain, anemki wadjiw. Our mountain is a sacred place. But it has been impacted by more than a century of colonialism; for example, though it is sacred for many Anishinaabeg, it has a christian cross on it symbolizing colonial domination of our people and our land. Sensing the dangers of this domination, the thunderbeings have gone to a safer place until it is safe again to come home. While it would be easy for a person acting alone to knock the cross off our mountain, this would not work because our community would only replace the cross, only in a more entrenched form and with more protection. “Anemki” is thus powerful medicine because it envisions an alternative future: the thunderbeings have knocked the cross off the mountain. What this tells me is that when that cross comes down, it will be the result of many people coming together to remove it as a collective, and that it is only through the return of the thunderbeings into our hearts that such transformation will occur.

To me, all of this speaks what is happening to Georjann today. Our election is two days away, and those people who have been attacking her are doing so from a place of mis-guided anger and a greed for power. Ice has filled their chests. Ironically, such attacks tacitly demonstrate that they see Georjann as a true, legitimate leader in our community. Otherwise, why would they be attacking her so vehemently?

To me, Georjann represents the emergence of the New People in our community who are going to bring about the transformation that we’ve been seeking for generations. Now is the time of the Seventh Fire – the New People are here and their spirit is embodied in Georjann’s tireless efforts to love our community. The thunderbings are in her heart.


[1] Anderson, Caroline and Roger Roulette qtd. in Margaret Noori, “Beshaabiiag G’gikenmaaigowag: Comets of Knowledge. In Centering Anishinaabeg Studies: Understanding the World through Stories, eds. Jill Doefler, Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair and Heidi Keewetinepinesiik Stark (East Lansing: Michigan State University, 2013), 45.


the lake makes this place humid. its humid all year round – its what makes the winters so deep and cold, and its the first thing i feel every time i walk off a plane in the summer time. its what taught me to avoid heat and hot places. its not like arizona-hot. heat in thunder bay comes with water in the air, a mobilization of the elements that makes me think of home every time i feel it in other parts of the world.

its like that now. my clothes are sticking to me. im reminded of my childhood, when my mom and dad would take us into the basement of our house to sleep at night, with the fans blasting over us just to make sleep a possibility. even then it was hard to pass out. it makes for these kinds of heavy nights, when the greens and blues that surround this place feel more like wet paint than a finished mural. the water animates this picture.

this humidity makes me remember. the house my dad lives in now, out in anishinaabekwe bay, is not the house we grew up in. the house standing there now, the standard contemporary INAC-issued shit box, was built behind the house that used to be there. that house, “the old house”, was built some time in the 50s. it had hard wood floors that were painted over with rusty-red exterior paint (it started as my brother spilling an entire can of paint in the kitchen, so we just kept going until the whole floor was done). the wood siding on the outside was painted white; i remember painting it once. the ‘foundation’ was actually a set of perfectly cut and set bucked logs, notched and stacked in place under the floor beams – going under the house to see why the plumbing was broke was always an adventure. but that was only after 1990 – before that we didnt have indoor plumbing. that house had been renovated so many times that by the time we tore it down in 1993, it was just a collection of half-finished walls, and the floor had a matrix of gaps mapping rooms from a different time.

i learned to not chew with my mouth open in that old house. my aunt and her two kids, jolene and jim-bob, often lived with us through the 80s. one morning, before the school bus, jolene told me to not eat with my mouth open. i was eating rice crispies.

jolene taught a lot of lessons – years later, in her teens, she would teach one of my fully-grown uncles a lesson about getting in her way, when she kicked the shit out of him in my drive way. i can still see both of them rolling down the rocky lane in a tussle of fists and screaming, ending with them rolling straight into my garbage box. at the time, i thought that that must have hurt, hitting the wooden garbage box like that. i figured they’d probably have slivers, but i never asked.

jim-bob and i used to rip around all over the bay. we started our own little gang, and we called ourselves the “beany brothers.” i think it had something to do with the fact that we both had shaved heads, or “bean shaves” as we used to call them. it might also have had something to do with the beatles… i dont know why, but i have a faint recollection of asking jim-bob whether we should spell it “beeny” or “beany”. whatever the case, we were brothers then, and we left our mark: there is a gigantic boulder on the shore of the bay, just a short distance across the water from my house. it rolled down from the mountain that overlooks the bay at some point, and is at least the size of my house. that rock became known as “the beany rock” because its where jim-bob and i, as beany brothers, would go to play. it was our hangout, and its still called the beany rock today by everyone in my family.

the summers then, like now, were humid. the old house was built to accommodate this. my earliest memory of that house is of me and my mom and dad standing out on an large deck that was attached to the front. i was drinking tea with milk and sugar. my dad called me a “tea granny” because i liked tea. i was young. maybe 6. but i dont remember when they tore the deck down. the house had a screen door though. and that helped in the summer humidity.

and in the summers, the thunders come. they come from the west, the storm fronts always seem to squeeze through the narrow alleyway between the mountain and my house – a distance of only a kilometre. i remember the skies turning bright green, and within 10 minutes there would be a massive cloud, like a million stories tall, ripping over our house in a warm gust of wind, picking up my tent and toys from the yard.

but sometimes the thunders came at night. and when its dark and humid and stormy, no kid wants to go to sleep. i love those nights. and always have. jim-bob must have too, because we were both at the screen door the night we saw those blue eggs falling from the mountain. i remember it clearly. it was that kind of rain that comes in swaths, not steady, but light and then heavy, light then heavy. the rhythm is refreshing now that i think about it.

we had our faces up against the screen of the front door, and those blue eggs were tumbling down. they looked like blue fire balls. they left streaks as they fell, leaving marks that were brighter and lasted longer on the sites where the egg must have hit a rock jutting out of the face of the mountain. i dont know how many there were, but i remember seeing more than three, and probably less than 10. i dont remember talking to jim-bob about it, but i know he saw it with me. i tried to tell my mom, but she didnt believe me. i was 8, after all.

the humidity makes me remember that. and so does the mountain. this place does. and i remember remembering this a bunch of other times, but i never told any one about it, mostly out of thinking it was insignificant. but maybe its not so insignificant. maybe its a part of this place, and all the relationships that make it so important.

there are many stories about thunder and lightning in thunder bay. but this one is mine.

(the above was written a few summers ago)

Tsawalk: A Review

A couple months ago, a journal out of the University of British Columbia, BC Studies, asked me to review Richard Atleo’s book, The Principles of Tsawalk: An Indigenous Approach to Global Crisis.  Here’s a little bit of what I came up with:

… The Principles of Tsawalk is both timely and timeless. It is timely in the sense that its underpinning principles can be used at this moment to rethink how settler governments are, for example, ramming the Enbridge oil pipeline down the throats of Indigenous nations on the British Columbia coast. …

The book is timeless not only because the principles of Tsawalk are part of a Nuu-chah-nulth way of being, but also because settler disrespect for Indigenous constitutional orders has only deepened since the early nineteenth century. In challenging the basis of the colonizer-colonized relationship, Umeek’s protocols of Hahuulism would have had analytical application 200 years ago; they apply with equal traction today (the federal government has, as recently as January 2012, re-committed itself to upholding the Indian Act); and they will apply for the next 200 years (the Alberta Oil Sands demonstrate that colonialism in Canada will not end overnight). …

I thank the folks at BC Studies for the opportunity.

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.

Yours, Truly

Dear First Nation Indian Band,

I saw you the other day, and I can’t tell you how good it made me feel. I miss you a lot, and I think about you everyday. It can get lonely out here in the world, but it always helps to think about our times together, and the thought of seeing you again usually makes me feel better when times are tough.

But lately these feelings are soon tempered by the realization that things between us aren’t what they used to be. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but you’ve been slowly drifting away from me. And in the process, you’ve been making me feel bad about myself, insecure about my foundations, and worried that you’re leaving me for ever. I’m sad that you’ve put me in the position to have to explain this to you, but I feel that I must. I want you to know that what I have to say is being said with our relationship’s best interest in mind.

Do you remember when we met? It was more than 30 years ago. You took me in, you gave me shelter, you gave me love. You cared for me, and I cared for you back. Do you remember it? I was only a baby, and I had nowhere else to go. You brought me into your family, and we lived in the bay together. I remember those winters when we had to chop holes through the ice to get water for tea and oatmeal.

You raised me up and taught me how to give back to you. And I always took that responsibility seriously. We shared with each other like any good family members should. When I was 10, you needed a goalie for the rez team. I was in my glory. I played for you with all my heart. I was proud to be a part of you. I was proud to fight when those white kids would attack us in parking lots because they didn’t like losing hockey games to Indians. Later on, I would continue to fight for you, against them big industries across the river that saw you as a dumping ground for their toxic waste. Day and night I fought with them, and I did it because our relationship was important to me. In many ways I continue to fight for us, only these days its mainly with words; but though the Canadian government is a lot bigger than anyone I fought in the past, its still mostly just a bunch of white people who don’t like Indians.

But you seem to be forgetting about me and our relationship. Instead of welcoming me in when I knock on your door, you look at me with distrust. You stand there in the light, confused about how to treat me. The last time I looked you in the eyes, the look you gave me back was similar to that of a carny who is protecting the little bits of change falling out of the fair rides: threatened, territorial and dispossessed all at the same time. What has happened? When did I ever take anything from you to deserve this look? I’ve always brought you my best gifts. I need you to know that I’ve never been interested in stealing from you.

What caused this change? I first noticed it when I was about 20, when I went off to college. Over the next decade, I noticed that you would recoil from me every time I asked you for help. Has someone been whispering into your ear? Whatever they’re saying, its not true! I bet INAC’s been whispering, eh? Saying things like “He doesn’t have status, so don’t open the door.” I hate that I have to tell you this, but INAC is not your friend, he is hurting you from the inside out. He keeps you confused and bleary eyed. He makes you mistake me for a thief. Through seducing you with little bits of money, he is making you forget everything we’ve done together.

Ok, look… I need you to get this: I am not going away. I will always give my gifts to you. And, like everyone else in this world, I am constantly growing and learning. So when I ask you for support from time to time, you need to understand that what I’m really asking for is the opportunity to contribute. Yes, it seems like its the opposite, but its not. When you support me, you’re really just helping me become stronger so I can carry my end of our relationship. So take that distrust out of your eyes, and push that INAC away from your ears.

We belong together; and I need you to say it back to me someday.

Yours, truly,