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Democracy workshop

Aboriginal Treaties By J.R. Miller, University of Saskatchewan

J.R. (Jim) Miller is a Canada Research Chair and Professor of History at the University of Saskatchewan specializing in Native-newcomer history. He is the author of many books, most recently Lethal Legacy: Current Native Controversies in Canada (McClelland & Stewart, 2004), and (with Arthur J. Ray and Frank Tough), Bounty and Benevolence: A History of Saskatchewan Treaties (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2000). He is now completing a history of Aboriginal-Crown treaty-making in Canada since contact for the University of Toronto Press.

Treaties between Aboriginal peoples and the Crown are important building blocks of modern Canada. They legitimize the presence of non-Aboriginal newcomers through agreements to share territory. They encourage social cohesion by facilitating relations between Natives and newcomers. And since they gained constitutional protection under the constitution adopted in 1982, treaties become part of the country's foundational documents.

The earliest treaties emerged for economic reasons. The first Europeans to come to northerly North America, the fur-trading companies that enjoyed charter rights from the French or English Crowns, entered into commercial agreements to allow them to pursue the fur trade efficiently. Without the cooperation of indigenous peoples that such agreements secured, it would have proved impossible for French traders in the Company of One Hundred Associates, for example, or British traders of the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) to establish trading posts and obtain furs.

What Europeans did not understand initially was that the commercial compacts they entered into with the Innu, Dene, Huron, Iroquois, and others were built on pre-contact Aboriginal practices and customs. The trade networks that Europeans established with First Nations were elaborations of pre-existing commercial systems. Moreover, Europeans had to adopt and practise the indigenous protocols of First Nations to establish links with Natives. These protocols consisted of elaborate ceremonies involving welcomes and salutes, speeches, exchanges of gifts, smoking the pipe together, and eating communally. These customs would be repeated at intervals when the parties met after absences to renew the association they had created earlier. These customs were the means that First Nations used to create kinship links with other people, and European traders who engaged in such protocols were entering their social world at the same time they were becoming their commercial partners. The commercial compacts of the fur-trade era, with their elaborate First Nations protocols, were only the first example of the many ways in which indigenous peoples influenced newcomers' behaviour in a world of treaty relationships.

In the late seventeenth century and throughout the eighteenth century a second form of treaty-making gained prominence in the northeastern woodlands. These were treaties of peace and friendship that both France and England increasingly relied upon for diplomatic and military support as the two European countries headed towards a military showdown that would create a struggle for control of North America. From a First Nations perspective there was no distinction between commercial compacts and peace and friendship treaties because in the Aboriginal world commerce and political relations were two sides of the same coin. This was so because First Nations found it impossible to deal with other people commercially if they had not established a kin-like relationship with them first. As an Iroquois diplomat succinctly put it in 1735, "Trade and peace we take to be one thing." For Europeans, though, they were distinct. By the 1700s in eastern North America peace and friendship treaties were becoming more important to France and Britain because of the conflict between them.

Peace and friendship treaties involved complex, sophisticated diplomacy, and were enormously important to the Europeans who negotiated them. France, for example, constructed an elaborate and extensive network of trade partnerships and alliances with First Nations in the east in Acadia, to the north of the St. Lawrence River colony of Canada, in the pays d'en haut or Michigan-Wisconsin region, in the Ohio Valley, and down the Mississippi River system. For their part, the British created an alliance system of their own, known as the Covenant Chain, that focused on the Iroquois Confederacy in what is now New York State, and through the Iroquois with many other First Nations to the south and southwest. These alliance systems were held together with elaborate speech-making, pipe-smoking, feasts, and gifts to the First Nations. A large part of the military 'muscle' that European powers could flex in North America resided in these alliances, which were networks of treaties of peace and friendship.