Celebrate the 162nd anniversary of the Robinson-Superior Treaty

Lake Superior
Shoreline along Lake Superior - photo courtesy of Ministry of Natural Resources
Lake Superior
Shoreline along Lake Superior – photo courtesy of Ministry of Natural Resources

THUNDER BAY – Special to NNL – 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. 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 sovereignty, or our control over our citizenship and election customs.

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.

(see the complete treaty text here: http://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1100100028978 )

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.

Damien Lee
email: damien_lee@umanitoba.ca
twitter: @damienlee

Here is the text of the Robinson-Superior Treaty:

THIS AGREEMENT, made and entered into on the seventh day of September, in the year of Our Lord one thousand eight hundred and fifty, at Sault Ste. Marie, in the Province of Canada, between the Honorable WILLIAM BENJAMIN ROBINSON, of the one part, on behalf of HER MAJESTY THE QUEEN, and JOSEPH PEANDECHAT, JOHN IUINWAY, MISHE-MUCKQUA, TOTOMENCIE, Chiefs, and JACOB WARPELA, AHMUTCHIWAGABOU, MICHEL SHELAGESHICK, MANITSHAINSE, and CHIGINANS, principal men of the OJIBEWA Indians inhabiting the Northern Shore of Lake Superior, in the said Province of Canada, from Batchewana Bay to Pigeon River, at the western extremity of said Lake, and inland throughout that extent to the height of land which separates the territory covered by the charter of the Honorable the Hudson’s Bay Company from the said tract, and also the Islands in the said Lake within the boundaries of the British possessions therein, of the other part, witnesseth:

THAT for and in consideration of the sum of two thousand pounds of good and lawful money of Upper Canada, to them in hand paid, and for the further perpetual annuity of five hundred pounds, the same to be paid and delivered to the said Chiefs and their Tribes at a convenient season of each summer, not later than the first day of August at the Honorable the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Posts of Michipicoton and Fort William, they the said chiefs and principal men do freely, fully and voluntarily surrender, cede, grant and convey unto Her Majesty, Her heirs and successors forever, all their right, title and interest in the whole of the territory above described, save and except the reservations set forth in the schedule hereunto annexed, which reservations shall be held and occupied by the said Chiefs and their Tribes in common, for the purpose of residence and cultivation, and should the said Chiefs and their respective Tribes at any time desire to dispose of any mineral or other valuable productions upon the said reservations, the same will be at their request sold by order of the Superintendent General of the Indian Department for the time being, for their sole use and benefit, and to the best advantage.

And the said William Benjamin Robinson of the first part, on behalf of Her Majesty and the Government of this Province, hereby promises and agrees to make the payments as before mentioned; and further to allow the said chiefs and their tribes the full and free privilege to hunt over the territory now ceded by them, and to fish in the waters thereof as they have heretofore been in the habit of doing, saving and excepting only such portions of the said territory as may from time to time be sold or leased to individuals, or companies of individuals, and occupied by them with the consent of the Provincial Government. The parties of the second part further promise and agree that they will not sell, lease, or otherwise dispose of any portion of their reservations without the consent of the Superintendent General of Indian Affairs being first had and obtained; nor will they at any time hinder or prevent persons from exploring or searching for mineral or other valuable productions in any part of the territory hereby ceded to Her Majesty as before mentioned. The parties of the second part also agree that in case the Government of this Province should before the date of this agreement have sold, or bargained to sell, any mining locations or other property on the portions of the territory hereby reserved for their use and benefit, then and in that case such sale, or promise of sale, shall be forfeited, if the parties interested desire it, by the Government, and the amount accruing therefrom shall be paid to the tribe to whom the reservation belongs. The said William Benjamin Robinson on behalf of Her Majesty, who desires to deal liberally and justly with all Her subjects, further promises and agrees that in case the territory hereby ceded by the parties of the second part shall at any future period produce an amount which will enable the Government of this Province without incurring loss to increase the annuity hereby secured to them, then, and in that case, the same shall be augmented from time to time, provided that the amount paid to each individual shall not exceed the sum of one pound provincial currency in any one year, or such further sum as Her Majesty may be graciously pleased to order; and provided further that 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.

Schedule of Reservations made by the above named subscribing Chiefs and principal men.

FIRST – Joseph Pean-de-chat and his Tribe, the reserve to commence about two miles from Fort William (inland), on the right bank of the River Kiminitiquia thence westerly six miles, parallel to the shores of the lake; thence northerly five miles; thence easterly to the right bank of the said river, so as not to interfere with any acquired rights of the Honorable Hudson’s Bay Company.

SECOND – Four miles square at Gros Cap, being a valley near the Honorable Hudson’s Bay Company’s post of Michipicoton, for Totominai and Tribe.

THIRD – Four miles square on Gull River, near Lake Nipigon, on both sides of said river, for the Chief Mishimuckqua and Tribe.

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