The Great Spirit has made all things-the sun, the moon, and the stars, the earth, the forests, and the swift running rivers. It is by the Great Spirit that the Queen rules over this great country and other great countries. The Great Spirit has made the white man and the red man brothers, and we should take each other by the hand (David Laird, Government Treaty Commissioner).
To Indigenous peoples whose culture did not have written language, the visual image portrayed in the medallions given to their headmen communicated the real meaning of Treaty No. 8. It was a peace and friendship treaty between two nations, an agreement to share lands. The exact nature of this sharing was to be determined with the passage of time. As the 100th anniversary of this historic agreement approaches, the First Peoples of the Athabasca wait for their leadership to assert the true meaning of Treaty No. 8.
In the previous chapter, it was shown that the Black Robes, having worked to extinguish the fires of Aboriginal rebellion, formed a close association with the government authorities to begin working towards a “satisfactory” conclusion to Aboriginal land claims. Unknown to Dene peoples of the Athabasca, the Treaty No. 8 process was substantially orchestrated by the Catholic church. This deal would win the federal government legal title to Aboriginal people’s oil, mineral, and other resource riches in exchange for a social “safety net” administered by the Black Robes. In essence the treaty process was a means for the Christian churches to secure funding for their health, education, and social welfare programs.
All through Northern Canada, church officials prepared Aboriginal peoples for Treaty No. 8. Like lambs to the slaughter, the obedient flock was led along the treacherous path of cultural assimilation:
If in 1899, we had not prepared the Lesser Slave Lake people to accept a Treaty with the Government; if Bishop Grouard had not advised the Chiefs to sign the Treaty, telling them there was nothing which was not to their advantage; the treaty would still be waiting to be signed today-(Father Falhier to Bishop Breynat) (Fumoleau 67).
In addition, Father Lacombe, the highly respected Black Robe who had spent his life among Aboriginal peoples, was recruited by the Treaty Commissioner to bring credibility and an atmosphere of trust to the treaty proceedings. Later, many of these church officials would acknowledge that their years spent building trust with Indigenous peoples would effectively be used by government authorities. The historical account of Treaty No. 8, As Long As This Land Shall Last, by Rene Fumoleau, is a must read for all Dene peoples, especially young peoples and those in leadership roles seeking to gain a better understanding of this agreement. Fumoleau’s exhaustive research on the events surrounding the treaty signing has been heavily relied upon in this research.
A principal strategy adopted by government officials was to first disenfranchise future generations of Metis peoples by offering land scrips. This divide-and-conquer strategy would later contribute greatly to cultural disharmony, political disunity, and significantly accelerate the assimilation process. Portraying Metis peoples as troublemakers who would ferment discontent among First Nations people, a process of separating and “dog tagging” Aboriginal peoples was implemented. In other cases, deception or arbitrary decisions were made to separate Aboriginal families:
My husband, Gabriel, was considered Metis, because blood samples taken from his grandmother apparently proved to have white blood. At the time of the initial signing of the treaty, District of Indian Affairs told The People that no money would be given to the Metis. We were told that they could tell who was or was not Treaty; blood sampling was the way they determined who was Treaty [or full blooded] and who was not. They were not going to give us Treaty status. We did not accept this, and with the help of Chief Alexandre Laviolette we received Treaty status (Josephine Mercredi).
Though many Metis were given a choice to join treaty, they were not always accepted as leaders by the Treaty Commission. This would prove to be problematic in northern communities, where over 100 years of inter-racial marriage had significantly blurred racial boundaries. At Fort Resolution, Aboriginal people wisely chose Pierre Beaulieu to represent their interests, a man with the greatest understanding of the white people’s ways. Oral history records that when Beaulieu insisted on gaining a full understanding of the treaty’s ramifications, the Treaty Commission interrupted treaty negotiations:
They asked the priest [Father Dupire] “What is that guy anyway, (Pierre Beaulieu), an Indian or a Half-breed?” The priest said, “He is a Half-breed.” So the Treaty party didn’t want a Half-breed to be Chief, so they picked another guy, Louison Dosnoir, who was an Indian guy. No one could tell yet who was Treaty or who wasn’t because there was no treaty yet. But the priest could tell who was a Half Breed and who wasn’t (Fumoleau 92-93).
The pattern of the church and government officials working together, selecting some Aboriginal leaders and rejecting others, would reach unacceptable proportions in the Athabasca. The official representatives’ of the “great white father” (Pope) and the “great white mother” (Queen) rush to gain treaty compliance would invalidate the treaty agreement signed by Chipewyan people of the Athabasca. At Fort Chipewyan, unprepared to wait for a necessary legal process of Chipewyan people’s selecting their own leader, the commissioners simply nominated Alexandre Laviolette. “The Treaty Commissioners nominated a chief for the Chipewyans who had no chief until then”(Fumoleau 77). Traditional knowledge from Felix Gibot, a Fort Chipewyan Elder, confirms this reality (Price, 1979: 158). Laviolette would sign the agreement on behalf of 410 Chipewyan people:
Alexandre Laviolette signed the Treaty No. 8, but I do not understand the Treaty; nothing was said in front of me, I was only told about the signing of Treaty No. 8. The Queen’s representatives (the red coats) came in full dress; they had guns and shells strapped around their attire. A week before the signing of the Treaty, [the commissioners] made Alexandre the chief. He was a smart man. Alexandre thought the men in red with the guns were there to slaughter them. This is what he told The People; he also told The People, the day before the Treaty was to be signed that he was still not in agreement, and did not want the Treaty. The next day they all met outside. The RCMP removed the shells and guns from their attire, as Alexandre had told them, and moneys was passed out over the next few days to the Cree and Chipewyan (Josephine Mercredi).
Traditional knowledge from William McDonald of Fort McKay in 1974 confirmed The People’s fears and mistrust, and further relates: “The priest then spoke to the Indians telling them to accept the money, that there was no danger and that they were being assisted (Price 91). The oral history from Josephine Mercredi and William McDonald is important as it suggests that Chipewyan people of the Athabasca, unlike Cree peoples, were not fully informed regarding the coming treaty process, and thus were confused, uncertain, and fearful. As a consequence, even today, Chipewyan Elders, the true ancestral title holders, are far more likely to dispute the document’s original intent. In contrast, the Cree peoples appear more inclined to view the treaty as sacred. However, it must be emphasized that this research, based substantially on interviews with Athabascan Elders and reinforced by ethnohistorical accounts, has concluded that the treaty process did not result in a “meeting of minds,” a necessary component in a legal agreement. The following comment by Alice Boucher perhaps best summarizes the Chipewyan Elders’ point of view:
The Treaty was not signed right away because The People did not want to sign the paper; they were offered money and they did not want what was offered; it took three days before the Treaty was signed. They did not want the white people to be boss (Alice Boucher).
Chief Justin Marten (Mekitin), an elected representative, would sign on behalf of 186 Cree people in Fort Chipewyan. The different manner by which the Cree and Chipewyan leadership approached the treaty is likely due to the different degrees of advanced knowledge and preparation afforded these linguistic groups. Perhaps as a consequence of Keenooshayoo’s (the Cree chief of Lesser Slave Lake) early involvement in the treaty process, the Cree leadership were better prepared for treaty negotiations than their Chipewyan brothers. The official government report of the proceedings record the Chipewyan people’s lack of political preparation and notes the Christianizing influence of the missionaries:
There was a marked absence of the old Indian style of oratory. Only among the Wood Crees were any formal speeches made, and these were brief. The Beaver Indians are taciturn. The Chipewyans confined themselves to asking questions and making brief arguments. They appeared to be more adept at cross-examination than at speech-making, and the Chief at Fort Chipewyan displayed considerable keenness of intellect and much practical sense in pressing the claims of his band….[The commission further observes:] The Indians with whom we treated differ in many respects from the Indians of the organized territories. They indulge in neither paint nor feathers, and never clothe themselves in blankets. Their dress is of the ordinary style and many of them were well clothed. In the summer they live in teepees, but many of them have log houses in which they live in winter. The Cree language is the chief language of trade, and some of the Beavers and Chipewyans speak it in addition to their own tongues. All the Indians we met were with rare exceptions professing Christians, and showed evidences of the work which missionaries have carried on among them for many years. A few of them have had their children avail themselves of the advantages afforded by boarding schools established at different missions. None of the tribes appear to have any very definite organization. They are held together mainly by the language bond. The chiefs and headmen are simply the most efficient hunters and trappers. They are not law-makers and leaders in the sense that the chiefs and headmen of the plains and of old Canada were (Treaty No. 8: 5, 8).
Though out-manned and unprepared, Marten and Laviolette did their best to represent their people’s interest. Church and government officials arrived with previously prepared proposals based on the desperate circumstances of the Plains Indians, whose very existence had been threatened by the disappearance of the buffalo. Aboriginal peoples of the boreal forest insisted that their circumstances were different(2). There was no need for provisions in the agreement for government assistance to Athabascan people considering a transition to farming. Indeed, even on the prairies where climate conditions were favorable, the Black Robes’ attempt to convert Indigenous peoples into farmers had failed. In the North, it took several generations before the church recognized that such notions were simply impractical.
Indigenous peoples, having lived for thousands of years in their homeland, recognized this reality and wisely pressed for a strong commitment from government negotiators to preserve and protect their hunting, fishing and trapping way of life. Before signing the written agreement, an oral agreement was negotiated. Aboriginal leaders, emphasizing their different circumstances, pointed out that the average plains Indian would quickly become lost in the boreal forest of their territory. Father Breynat, a central figure in treaty negotiations at Fort Chipewyan, remembers:
Crees and Chipewyans refused to be treated like Prairie Indians, and to be parked on reserves….It was essential to them to retain complete freedom to move around (Fumoleau 78).
The written text of the Treaty No. 8 agreement makes little reference to the inclusion of the oral agreement. However, the Treaty No. 8 document does acknowledge: “Our chief difficulty was the apprehension that the hunting and fishing privileges were to be curtailed” (Treaty No. 8: 6) and further acknowledges having given solemn promises to Indigenous peoples that their freedom to hunt, fish, and trap would not be hindered. These promises were given based on the following false assumption contained in the government’s report on treaty negotiations:
It does not appear likely that the conditions of the country on either side of the Athabasca and Slave Rivers or about Athabasca Lake will be so changed as to affect hunting or trapping, and it is safe to say that so long as the fur-bearing animals remain, the great bulk of the Indians will continue to hunt and to trap (Treaty No. 8: 7).
Today, the Bennett Dam and oil sands industrial activity have permanently altered the boreal forest on either side of these great rivers. In the process, they are assisting in rendering central and substantive elements of Treaty No. 8 agreement invalid. Mary Rose Waquan of Fort Chipewyan strongly validates this version of historic events:
My dad was there when they first signed the treaty. It took 2 days for the whitemen to convince Mikisew (Mekitin [Cree chief]) to take the treaty money. The whitemen were the Queen’s workers, government people. On the third day a priest went with the whitemen to see Mikisew. He told Mikisew to “take the money and nothing would be taken away from your people, for example, hunting and trapping rights.” Mikisew took the money which was $25.00 then. The whiteman told Mikisew nothing would be taken away (their rights) as long as the sun rises and sets, the river flows, as long as the grass grows: they will always have their rights for their way of life. The way I see things now everything has changed…From what the Natives had been promised, [to today’s situation] there is a big difference from what had been promised (Mary Rose Waquan).
To the dismay of church officials, such as Bishop Breynat, the government would later simply ignore these oral commitments. Acting on behalf of the Catholic church, Breynat gave assurance to Indigenous peoples that “the Great White Mother’s” words would be honoured. Therefore, Bishop Breynat would spend the remainder of his life attempting to right this wrong perpetuated upon Indigenous peoples:
I was present at nearly all places in the north when the treaties were signed. In many places it was my influence which resulted in the Indians signing these documents. I assured them repeatedly that whatever the government commissioners promised in the name of the Great White Mother and Great White Father would be done. The Indians believe me. It has been a great personal disappointment to see my word broken by the thoughtlessness of a nation (Breynat, 1938).
From a legal perspective, Bishop Breynat’s statement is strong evidence that both the Pope and Queen guaranteed that the treaty would be upheld. The terms “Great White Mother” and “Great White Father” had important symbolic meaning for Aboriginal peoples immersed in mythological traditions. It was an effective means of connecting with Indigenous people’s traditions and thus instantly communicating the depth of this commitment. In 1937, Bishop Breynat was instrumental in obtaining 46 signed legal affidavits from witnesses of the northern treaties, affirming that an oral agreement existed. At Fort Chipewyan, the following witnesses to the Treaty No. 8 agreement signed this legal affidavit: Wayakis Martin (Ex chief), Thomas Gibotte (Councillor), Jonas Lavoilette, Colin Fraser, Severin Tsintchoudhe, Pierre Mecredi (Treaty Interpreter), and John Wylie (Fumoleau 339). In an article printed in the Toronto Star Weekly, May 28 1938, entitled “Canada’s Blackest Blot,” Breynat asserts the contexts of the real treaty negotiations and outcome. The highlighted portion represents the essential elements of the legal affidavit:
I was, personally, present at the treaty of Fort Chipewyan, which I signed as a witness. As interpreter, I took part in the discussion of the treaty with Caribou Eaters at Fond du Lac, Athabasca. I was begged by the Superintendent of Indian Affairs himself, as bishop having under his jurisdiction the greatest number of Indians, to join myself to the Royal Commission charged with negotiating-that was the expression employed in the Letters Patent-the treaty with the Indians who lived along the banks of the Mackenzie River to the Sea. The report of the Royal Commission makes mention of the services which I was able to render. I know whereof I speak and I weigh the value of my words when I affirm and declare publicly as bishop, just as though under oath, that our Indians would never-no never-have consented to sign any treaty if they had not received the solemn guarantee, given in the name of the Crown, not to be molested in their habits of life as woodsmen, living through hunting and fishing, and that they would be protected against competition by the Whites and their methods of exterminating fish and game (Breynat 1938).
Almost immediately, the Government of Canada used the text of the written agreement to impose restrictions on Indigenous people’s rights and freedom to maintain their traditional way of life. Pierre Mercredi, the man who had interpreted the treaty to Chipewyan people, would later relate the following relevant oral history in the Winnipeg Tribune, July 19, 1934:
I interpreted the words of Queen Victoria to Alexandre Laviolette, Chief of the Chipewyans and his band… I know, because I read the Treaty to them, that there was no clause in it which said they might have to obey regulations about hunting. They left us no copy of the Treaty we signed, saying that they would have it printed and send a copy to us. When the copy came back, that second clause (that they shall promise to obey whatever hunting regulations the Dominion Government shall set) was in it. It was not there before. I never read it to the Chipewyans or explained it to them. I have no doubt that the new regulation breaks that old treaty. It makes me feel bad altogether because it makes lies of the words I spoke then for Queen Victoria.
Just after the treaty was signed, and the new copy came here, the Indian Agent said that the Chipewyan people could not kill beaver because of a new law. The old Chief came to me and told me that I had spoken the words for Queen Victoria and they were lies. He said that if she had come and said those words herself, then, and broken them, she would have been an awful liar (Fumoleau 79).
In the past, Indigenous peoples were powerless in the face of the above dishonourable tactics perpetrated by federal authorities. However, with the concept of aboriginal title gradually evolving in Constitutional law, Athabascan First People’s struggle for justice is now receiving the help of powerful legal allies. In particular, the Supreme Court of Canada in the Delgamuukw decision (1998) has ruled that the provinces cannot arbitrarily extinguish Aboriginal title and has strongly validated oral history as a key ingredient in proving land claims (Copley 6). The highest court’s recognition that Aboriginal oral history occupies equal importance to documents written by government officials appears especially relevant in the above circumstances. Given the powerful oral histories compiled and recorded by Bishop Breynat, the legal precedent provided by the Delgamuukw could have a profound impact on this already questionable agreement.
Fond du Lac
As many Athabascan First Peoples are descendants of the Caribou Eaters who took Treaty at Fond du Lac, it is necessary to continue our historical journey at this location. At Fond du Lac, in sharp contrast to Fort Chipewyan, the traditional ways of Dene peoples were still largely intact. Though the Black Robes were a respected influence, Aboriginal Medicine People had remained recognized and valued. Most importantly, the structure of leadership remained, and Maurice Piche, “Chief Moberley,” was chosen by The People to represent their interests. The Caribou Eaters, unlike the unenviable position of their Plains brothers, continued to have comparative wealth and stable food resources afforded them by the great caribou migrations. Bishop Breynat himself recorded the remarkable sight of these early migrations:
These summer and winter migrations take six, eight or even ten hours to pass a given point. At Fort Rae they could remember one that took a fortnight. My successor at Fond du Lac, Father Charles Gamache, happened to witness one of these fabulous movements in the autumn of 1943, when hordes of caribou passed within a few yards of the mission garden. For ten days their flood, fifty miles wide, continued without pause. From the density of this tremendous herd, the speed at which it moved and the time it took to pass, he estimated that it numbered at least two million caribou (Breynat, 1955: 48).
Interestingly, in 1899, Bishop Breynat also recalls being harshly scolded by Chief Moberley, for killing a caribou with the butt of his rifle, a violation of The People’s sacred traditions: “The Big Praying Man ought to send you away from here” (Breynat, 1955: 50). Although Bishop Breynat dismissed the Dene people’s fears that this action would bring future scarcity, in retrospect, both their wealth and the great caribou migrations have declined since The People of the Athabasca have let go of these ancient beliefs.
Chief Moberley, a true representative of Dene peoples who had lived on these lands since time immemorial, was surprised and outraged by the government’s meager offerings in exchange for The People’s lands, heritage, and freedom. He recognized the annual $5.00 Treaty annuity for what it was-bait set in a trap. He walked away from this meeting fully prepared to lead his people immediately to their sacred caribou grounds. To church and government officials, this was an unhappy turn of events which jeopardized the success of the whole treaty mission. Intervention was required, and Father Breynat would overstep his boundaries as mediator and priest. His actions would almost certainly, under laws of contractual agreements, invalidate the agreement. Bishop Breynat later confessed his involvement:
Chief Moberley was the very best hunter of the entire tribe. How many times his gun had saved indigent people who without him would have died of starvation. He was also very conscious of his superiority and his pride would not tolerate any opposition. He feared that the treaty might restrain his freedom. His pride could only despise the yearly five-dollar bait offered to each of his tribesmen in return for the surrender of their rights, until then undisputed, and which, one must admit, rightly so-he held as incontestable.
Robillard tried to placate him by explaining this and that-he only made him angrier. Thus the fight!
I called for one of the elected councillors, Dzieddin (“The Deaf”)(3) known for his good character, his great heart and his good judgement. I explained to him: “If Chief Moberley, a great hunter and very proud man, can despise and reject the help offered by the government, many old people without any income and many orphans, will appreciate receiving a five dollar annuity along with free powder, bullets, fishnets etc.” I added, “Accept and sign the treaty on behalf of all those poor people. Anyway, even all of you together, all the Caribou Eaters, you cannot help it. You may accept the Treaty or not, but in either way the Queen’s Government will come, and set up its own organization in your country. The compensation offered by the Government may be quite small, but to refuse it would only deprive the poor people of much-needed help.”
Dzieddin was convinced by this argument and he signed the treaty (Fumoleau 80).
The original treaty document records the signatures of Dzieddin and Toussaint representing 383 Chipewyan who took treaty of Fond du Lac. After Moberley’s leadership had been sabotaged by Father Breynat, Chief Moberley, the true representative of the Caribou Eaters, later signed the Treaty (Fumoleau 81). Bishop Breynat’s defeatist logic and interference with Aboriginal people’s rights to self-determination in the Athabasca was reminiscent of the Black Robes’ intervention in the Metis Rebellion. Though well intentioned, it would be another case of church officials killing Aboriginal people’s aspirations with kindness. The process of assimilation which had been initiated years earlier could now proceed in earnest.
The Process Of Assimilation
1. The process of assimilation had begun with the demonizing of Medicine Peoples and the discrediting of Aboriginal leadership.
2. Stage two of the “de-culturation” process had progressed under the guise of gaining the trust of Native peoples and had culminated in the Black Robes’ assuming the traditional roles of Medicine People.
3. Stage three of the assimilation process would feature a paternalistic attitude towards Native peoples and fostering of dependence. The Black Robes’ full assumption of political leadership roles is marked by the pre-treaty years of petitioning the government on behalf Native peoples.
4. The role the Black Robes played in dividing Aboriginal peoples, disenfranchising Metis peoples, and orchestrating a peaceful acquiescence to the dominant culture via the treaty process completes stage four of the initial assimilation process.
The Treaty No. 8 agreement would legitimize and formalize a coordinated effort on behalf of representatives of the Queen and Pope to gradually separate Aboriginal peoples from their lands and their culture. From a historical perspective, Treaty No. 8 was a church and state initiated legal process which culminated in a commitment to provide a social “safety net” in return for Aboriginal land title. The Black Roves secured a financial arrangement to fund their Mission schools and other social services, which ultimately institutionalized a process of “systematic deculturation”.
Aboriginal children were removed from their communities and placed in institutions which would transform them from “uncivilized heathens”. The Mission schools were cold, lonely places for Native children accustomed to the warmth of a communal fire and the atmosphere of caring and sharing it fostered. Instead, the Black Roves and Grey nuns insisted that Native children forget the traditional ways of their people. Their language was forbidden, hairstyles changed, and the uniform clothing of the Mission schools was adopted.
The religious ceremonies and other cultural expressions of Aboriginal peoples were simply not tolerated. A central aspect of this intense indoctrination program was the concept that white Christian ways were good and that Aboriginal ways were dark, evil, and wrong. This attack at the heart of these children’s self esteem would reverberate through the society for successive generations. The underlying message that First Nations people’s thoughts, feelings, and actions were inherently BAD would be imprinted on these innocent children’s psyche and later in life be constantly replayed. Many Native children would spend their entire childhood in these strict regimental institutions which often punished and degraded their very origin. These children would return to their families, only shells of their once vibrant personalities. It was as if the Mission schools removed the fun-loving spirit which had lived in their hearts and had been the essence of Aboriginal culture. Elder Yvonne Hoffman (Mercredi) provides the following oral history:
My brother Wilfred (1948-1993) was the joker of the community, he was never shy about expressing his thoughts, always cracking jokes to make people laugh. When he came out of the mission he was a changed man; the light in his eyes disappeared (Yvonne Hoffman).
The Mission school’s colossal failing was ultimately its failure to acknowledge the beauty, value, and sanctity of Indigenous people’s traditions. In doing so, the missionaries failed to nourish the soul – or for that matter the body and mind. Stripping Indigenous peoples of their language, culture and traditions, the Mission schools became breeding grounds for emotional abuse and physical assaults. In recent years, the severity of this assaultive environment has been demonstrated by a succession of twisted clergy, educators and helpers who have been charged with sexual misconduct. Even in Mission schools where the missionaries were essentially good and decent individuals, the institutions remained cold, unhealthy, under-funded environments extremely vulnerable to tuberculosis and other contagious diseases. Athabascan Elders’ memory of this harsh environment frequently emphasizes the attack on their language, the essential container of culture:
When I was in the Mission we were not treated very good. I did not understand anything but Cree and if we could not speak English the nuns would hit us. I learned to speak English the hard way. Every day we had porridge in the morning and fish the rest of the day. No butter or lard just black molasses on one slice of bread. That is for all day. Diner time we had boiled buffalo meat with flour soup. We were treated pretty rough. I was 13 years old when I left the mission – the old one- It was hard. You were not allowed to speak Cree only French, and in school we only spoke English. Nuns were pretty rough on the children. My grandfather put me in the mission. I should not have gone in the mission; I should have gone on my own. . . .You could not even look at someone at church because you would get a licken after church. You have to sing, too. A lot of people, Elders now, they all talk about the way they were mis-treated in the mission (Peter Arnold).
I stayed in the mission for 2 months and did not like it, so I left. I put all my children in the mission, except for 3. I was told by Jack Stewart (Indian Affairs Agent) my children would be better off in the mission because I had so many children. He said that they would get educated. All this time they were mistreated. But the children did not say anything because they were scared (Mary Rose Waquan).
The people lost their language as a result of the mission. Children would be physically disciplined for speaking their language; the nuns called it savage language. That is not right! Once this priest told me, if you keep on speaking your Cree language, when you die, you will go straight to hell! Why did they say that to the people? That is what I do not understand. The people believed that because they did not want to go to hell! The priests are not God to tell the people where they are going to go when they die! They should not have done that. My mom was also in the mission and she had to learn French or she would also go to hell. . . .The priest used to visit people once a month to pray with them. When I was 18 years old I went to Fort Smith; at that time I used to drink; I want to pawn my watch but I had to confess my sins to the priest first. He asked me if I drank. I said yes. Then he asked me if I still spoke my language, and I said yes. I will never forget it; he said, George, you keep speaking your language, you will go straight to hell and get out of here! But I can not remember the Priest’s name (George Wandering Spirit).
The mission schools represent an assault on Aboriginal culture and significantly altered Indigenous people’s pride in their heritage. Rather than assist Native children in entering the world of work dominated by white culture, children who emerged from these Mission schools were almost completely unprepared to manage their adult lives. Many young men, having lost the traditional knowledge required to live successfully in their homeland, departed to live in the turmoil of inner cities or withdrew to the reserves to live a hopeless existence dominated by Indian agents. Without the necessary tools of survival, many of these men struggled to establish their independence and would later be unable or unwilling to provide for their families. Young women, without the teachings and values of their traditions, were left extremely vulnerable in the predatory world of the dominant culture. The Grey nun’s insistence that their sexual feelings were BAD and dirty would only succeed in intensifying guilty feelings and lower self-esteem. Their failure to provide sound guidance in the area of sexual education and birth control contributed substantially to a pattern of early pregnancies after the women left the controlled environments of the Mission schools.
Many Aboriginal people who experienced the trauma of this institutionalized environment would never fully recover the internal control required to govern their own lives. They would struggle with the meaning of their existence, and many descended into self-destructive patterns of alcoholism, promiscuity, and violence. The Mission schools left both men and women equally unprepared to manage the responsibilities of marriage and family. Later, the church would recognize its failings and the era of Mission schools would quietly end. Government officials and social workers would attempt to repair the social damage in this now deeply fragmented society but would simply replay mistakes made by their predecessors.
Though often well-intended, these social workers’ committed belief in the superiority of European culture would destine their efforts to failure. Their interventions ignored or failed to recognize the central importance of extended families and often dismissed the communal attributes of sharing and caring as disorganized and disruptive to the well being of Native children. The involvement of grandparents in child rearing and the ease by which extended family members assumed “custody” of their nieces and nephews were perceived as evidence of family dysfunction or, more seriously, as evidence of the parents’ incapacity to raise their children. The failure of these parents to “be responsible” or “provide a disciplined home environment” became the legal grounds for apprehension of Native children by these well-intentioned, but ill informed helpers. This initiated a process in which for successive generations Aboriginal children were apprehended by foster homes, group homes, detention centres, and later, prisons. Institutionalizing of Aboriginal children by government authorities simply repeated the destructive process of the Mission schools. By 1960, a succession of generations of Aboriginal peoples had spent their childhoods shuffled from one cold and distant foster home or government facility to another. Knowing nothing else, they viewed juvenile detention centres and jails as their accustomed environments.
For many Aboriginal peoples, the education system was the starting place for the destructive journey through assimilation. Schools came to symbolize white domination and the external controls exerted on Aboriginal culture. Though many Aboriginal parents adopted strategies of passive resistance to attempts by social workers and school teachers to educate and socialize their children, this strategy did not alleviate their children’s underlying feelings of resentment toward and mistrust of these systems of indoctrination. Unfortunately, this process has assisted in the proliferation of anti-education feelings among Aboriginal peoples, which is counter-productive to the evolution of the culture’s true destiny. Aboriginal-based education systems which integrate and honour the traditional ways of the past remain a goal to be strived for by our future generations. In 1899, enlightened men such as Keenooshayoo had the vision to recognize the value of education in this world of ever increasing complexity. It is for this reason that Keenooshayoo, the Cree Chief of Lesser Slave Lake, stressed education in his treaty negotiations with government officials: “Are you willing to give means to instruct children as long as the sun shines and water flows, so that our children will grow up ever increasing in knowledge?” (Price 27).
Lessons Of The Treaty
While their children struggled in unhappy school environments, Aboriginal peoples of the Athabasca were confronted with changes which threatened to forever alter their traditional way of life. Treaty No. 8, rather than preserving their right to hunt, fish and trap, legitimized government intervention, which began to strictly control every aspect of Aboriginal peoples’ existence. The Indian Act of 1876 was retroactively applied to western treaties and empowered Indian agents to implement the treaty in a manner which best represented the interests of the ruling government party. As Native peoples were not allowed to vote in democratic elections, they were powerless to defend their political interests. This disenfranchisement would remain in force, astonishingly, well into the 1960’s and into the traditional memories of the current generation. Under most definitions, these circumstances, had they occurred to other peoples in other parts of the world, would have easily been termed political oppression and territorial occupation.
Utilizing the powers of Indian Act legislation, the Canadian Government banned Native dances, Sweat Lodges, Potlatches, and other spiritual and cultural ceremonies which conflicted with their programs of assimilation. Aboriginal people’s culture was forced underground and remained hidden until 1951, when government legislation allowed for the re-emergence of Aboriginal culture. However, federal officials maintained strict controls over where Aboriginal peoples would live. The reserve system, combined with legal differentiations of Treaty, Non-Status and Metis, negatively impacted Native people’s freedoms of choice, movement, and capacity to earn a living. It shielded a hidden segregationist policies inflicted upon Black peoples of the Southern United States. In 1998, in Canada’s Statement of Reconciliation, the Canadian Government apologized for the “repression of Aboriginal religious freedoms and out-lawing of their spiritual practices”. David Merrill Smith’s insightful analysis of the decline of Chipewyan culture concludes that it is rooted in the loss of The People’s magical-spiritual beliefs in Inkonze. Writing in 1972, Smith describes the process of political and cultural disintegration and suggests that the re-emergence of Inkonze is key to the culture’s survival:
The control of the political, economic, and religious means is today largely in the hands of white personnel and institutions. There exists an understandable lack of native leadership and lack of cooperative person-to-person ethnic group interaction. Clearly, the decline of the individual with inkonze and his roles is a part of the total process of cultural change.
Yet, the old ones still believe. So do many of the young people. Chipewyan and many Chipewyan Metis are still very Indian in the cognitive sense. They have always been socially and culturally flexible as a people. . . I doubt that Chipewyan will cease being identifiable as Chipewyan, and I would not be surprised if beliefs in Inkonze continue or even become stronger among the young as recent efforts to revivify Indian culture in other areas of Canada spread to Fort Resolution (D. M. Smith, 1972: 20).
At a local level, the Treaty No. 8 document has destined Aboriginal leaders to an endless series of frustrations. Even though the government honoured its commitment to establish the Black Robe’s social safety net, verbal promises to preserve their traditional way of life have been ignored. As a consequence, the early decades of the twentieth century were marked by another influx of white trappers whose use of poisonous baits, airplanes, numerous steel traps, and other exploitive harvesting practices again decimated Athabascan fur resources. In 1922, Chief Jonas Lavoilette of Fort Chipewyan became a central figure in a joint Aboriginal effort in 1922 to establish a hunting preserve and reserves for their people:
For a long time now I try to get a reserve for me and my people. . .The White men and half-breeds come down here and ruin my country with poison and early trapping. . .Every winter it gets worse and worse and we are all miserable now, and lots of times nearly starving. Mr. Card [Indian Agent] residing at McMurray supposed to be our Boss, but we never see him, only when he pays Treaty – he is here for about four hours in a year, so how can he know we suffer. .
Plenty men look after the Buffalo, not one seems to care about us, we can starve and nobody cares. . . .Jackfish Lake has been my people’s home for 200 years and more. If this country is given us for a reserve, and we get some help, the fur will come back again and me and my people will be happy again. We are so poor and miserable now that we are ashamed. Won’t you, please, help us get our Reserve? (Fumoleau 252-53).
Chief Lavoilette was speaking for the lands and the concept of Aboriginal peoples’ assuming a shared responsibility to manage renewable and non-renewable resources. Instead of welcoming Aboriginal people’s involvement, the government created the 10,500 square mile Wood Buffalo National Park and utilized its strict regulations to suppress and control Aboriginal people’s hunting, fishing, and trapping activities. In 1930, the federal transfer of natural resources to the provinces further eroded Treaty No. 8s leaders’ ability to hold governments accountable. Later, Dene peoples, the original inhabitants of these park lands, would have their rights to traditional pursuits completely eliminated. Today, more progressive comprehensive land claim settlements include provisions for Aboriginal peoples to co-manage their lands. The time for Aboriginal peoples to assume their full responsibilities for managing the Athabasca’s resources, a heritage of Dene peoples since time immemorial, is rapidly approaching.
Dene peoples were given the job and the responsibility by the Creator to look after the lands of the Athabasca. The animals of the boreal forest can’t speak; they look to us to speak for their home. The Chiefs must speak for the land, listen to our Elders and look after the interest of all Aboriginal peoples (Harvey Scanie).
In 1931, after 10 years of struggling with federal government bureaucracy, Chief Jonas Lavoilette was successful in obtaining seven small reserves on the south shores of Lake Athabasca and along the Athabasca River near Point Brule and Poplar Point. In 1935, the eighth and largest reserve was negotiated on the Athabasca Delta, then described by the government official, Mr. Fairchild, as a hunter’s paradise (Indian Claims Commission 21-22). It would be the Chipewyan people’s last desperate attempt to maintain their beloved hunting, fishing and trapping pursuits. In 1954, the federal and provincial government, well aware of the potentially devastating ecological impacts of the Bennett Dam on the Athabasca Delta, failed to intervene on behalf of Aboriginal peoples of the Athabasca. Shortly after the construction of the dam was completed in 1969, water levels declined or fluctuated so erratically that The People’s way of life was again threatened. The federal government’s failure to uphold its fiduciary responsibility in the Bennett Dam fiasco is simply another example of the need for Aboriginal people to assume management responsibilities for their natural environment. Aboriginal peoples can continue to seek compensation through the cumbersome land claims process, but doing so does not address the fundamental underlying problems:
In 1947, the mission was still open, the water was high, boats would come up; right up to Mah’s Café. Even the barge would go to the mission. Only last year when the Dam was opened did the water start rising, but the water is not the same; there is so much weeds, as a result of everything going dry. The Dam in Peace River allowed 9 ft of water through (winter, 1997/98); now, the lake does not freeze, and everything is flooding (Daniel Marcel).
I started trapping in the park in the 1950’s and 1960’s and early 1970’s. We ceased our whole culture, our whole lifestyle when we moved to Fort Chipewyan. We were poor people out there. We used to do our own trapping. In the good years, if you look at the records, 250 000 muskrats were taken out of Fort Chipewyan. That is just for one year. Our young children go out there trapping and making a livelihood out of it, and, all of a sudden, the Peace River put their dam in, and dried up the Delta for 20 years. In a 20 year span, our young children that were my age lost their culture because we started to go to school, so they lost the livelihood of being out in the bush and lost the whole culture. Younger people go on welfare and live on government handouts. No more trying to go on their own. That really affected our community. When they did a study nobody did a social income impact study on the human aspect side of it. Our community lost a lot there (William Courtoreille).
It would take several generations, for the Cree Band (1986) to negotiate for their promised reserve lands. The Mikisew Cree Band, approximately one third the size of the Jackfish Lake Chipewyan band in 1899, would negotiate based on current population figures and thus be more successful within the negotiation process. Regardless, neither agreements represent fair compensation when one considers the continuing ecological damage being initiated by unrestrained industrial development in the Athabasca region.
The Treaty No. 8 agreement continues to be a mind-boggling composition of oral and written statements which puzzles even the most expert legal mind. Therefore, it is not surprising that a succession Aboriginal leaders in the Athabasca have received little satisfaction in attempting to assert its meaning. Instead, the Treaty has destined Aboriginal peoples to confront an endless series of triads. The first triad of church, government, and Indigenous peoples would be as hopeless as the latest one: industry, government and Indigenous peoples. Unlike the unifying egalitarian council fires, these triads always create two against one scenarios, with Aboriginal peoples frequently outnumbered. These divisive situations will continue to frustrate, humiliate, and disillusion a succession of Aboriginal leaders. The uselessness of action has been impressed upon these headmen of Aboriginal communities at a time when decisive action and legal challenges are required.
It is the conclusion of this research project that Treaty No. 8 was a fraudulent document which was orchestrated by church officials and motivated substantially by self-interests. Aboriginal people’s misplaced trust in church and state officials has led to a century of assimilation, hardship, and political inaction. A careful look at the treaty process exposes fundamental flaws in this contractual agreement. A strong case can be made that the descendants of the Caribou Eaters, the original peoples of the Athabasca, did not consent to the extinguishing of Aboriginal title to their lands. Chief Moberley, the chosen headman of the Caribou Eaters, in fact, refused to sign such an agreement. Chief Lavoilette was chosen by the government commissioner and the Black Robes, not by The People. The well respected Dene leader Georges Erasmus describes a similar pattern of deception across Northern Canada, emphasizing the Dene people would have never given up their rights to self-determination. He notes that some signatures on the Treaty No. 8 and 11 documents were forged or obtained by government officials based on assurances from Bishops (Watkins 178). Peter H. Russell summarizes these treaties’ tenuous legal merit:
Canadian law, at least since the Calder case, has recognized the existence of aboriginal rights to lands held and occupied since time immemorial until such rights are extinguished by the sovereign Parliament. In the case of the Dene’s aboriginal right to their homeland, there is great doubt as to whether that right has been extinguished. Although a literal reading of Treaties 8 and 11 indicates that the Indians did ‘cede, release, surrender and yield up, to the government of Canada ‘all their rights, titles and privileges whatsoever, to their lands, a great deal of evidence has been amassed to support the contention that these treaties were, in effect, fraudulent and that they cannot be taken seriously as an expression of agreement between two parties. Justice Marrow’s finding in the caveat [Re: Paulette] case that the facts cast sufficient doubt on whether aboriginal title was extinguished by treaty to justify a claim for title by the Indian as caveators was based on such evidence, and this aspect of his judgment has not been overruled by the Court of Appeal (Watkins 171).
Indeed, in the legal case Re: Paulette, the caveat, which is a claim of prior interest on development lands, was extremely effective in bringing about a timely resolution of Dene comprehensive land claims. In Canada, the use of the court system continues to be a far more effective means of advancing Aboriginal rights of self-determination. However, Dene leadership fears the uncertainty which disavowing Treaty No. 8 would bring to The People. In addition, they have grown comfortable with a band system which lacks accountability, is ineffectual, but provides good salaries and benefits to their chiefs and administrators.
One legal expert in the field of Aboriginal law suggested that without Treaty No. 8 “a Delgamuukw case” would result. Though the prospect of repaying years of benefits from government authorities exists, it would also necessitate lucrative compensation for resource developments (i.e. Athabasca Tar Sands) on Dene lands. The Delgamuukw case suggests that oral history, including The People’s mythical interpretation of their history, would be important determinants in establishing the Caribou Eater’s traditional territory. In addition, Dene artifacts, the Taltheilei signatures of land title, which are found extensively in approximately a 30km radius of their great gathering places, would become important legal evidence. In essence, the lands surrounding the gathering place of Ena K’ering K’a, in the heart of the Athabasca Tar Sands, would become the principal source of contention. Indeed, Ttha’naltther’s homeland, with its rich resource wealth, is arguably one of the richest places on earth. In addition, based on the Delgamuukw ruling, lands surrounding the gathering places of Peace Point in Wood Buffalo National Park, the marten grounds of Jack Fish Lake, and the Old Fort area near Fort Chipewyan, are other areas in which descendants of the Caribou Eaters might establish long-term traditional use and occupation.
Recent comprehensive land claim settlements have reaffirmed legal title to traditional lands since time immemorial, emphasized shared decision-making and recognized the need for resource sharing. These settlements, negotiated by enlightened Aboriginal leaders, are truly equitable resolutions to long-standing land claims. This is in sharp contrast to the Treaty No. 8 circumstances which exist in the Athabasca. It makes little sense to honour this agreement, which, when carefully analyzed from a historical perspective, was unfairly negotiated, fraudulently imposed, consistently disputed, and dishonoured by Provincial or Federal authorities. Victoria Mercredi best enunciates the true circumstances of Treaty No. 8, The People’s disillusionment, and the difficult decisions which lie ahead:
The government is selling our land to other people. We no longer own the land. The People believed that they were partners after the treaty. The Treaty No. 8 is no longer honoured.
We need to ask the government about these things but we do not ask the right questions, and we do not ask enough questions. If there is money they will not give it to us;we have to ask for it. This is what we lack, the way to ask. The government is not altogether bad; if we want something, we should ask, and, then, we will receive. If we must beg;we have to fight or everything will be taken away.
You are not supposed to hate the chief; you are supposed to help him, if he does not know any better then tell him what to do or say. This is what makes a good chief. Even grown adults do not listen or try to help.
The chiefs asked to have our houses built in Fort Chipewyan but they made a mistake. The People should have stayed in Old Fort and Jack Fish Lake. We made the mistake of moving to Fort Chipewyan. It is not too late; we still have our Treaty rights and we can still move back (Victoria Mercredi).
From a legal perspective, Treaty No. 8 was at the very most a peace and friendship treaty which acknowledged a sharing of lands and resources in return for a government-funded, church-implemented social “safety net”. How lands and resources would be shared was never clearly enunciated. As a contractual agreement to preserve The People’s of the boreal forest traditional rights to hunt, fish and trap, this oral commitment has never been honoured and today may be outdated:
The one thing we have to be sure of is, our people have always lived off the land. Now define living off the land in today’s terms. Today’s terms would mean that if we are entitled to live off the land, as per agreement with Treaty No. 8 in this area, the definition has to change, today, because we cannot survive on the trapping and hunting economy. What else does the land provide: It provides trees, which should belong to the Native people not to Japanese companies. The Athabasca District, this area has more stuff, minerals, oil and gas than the rest of the world. There are only 4000 of us Indians, maybe, in this whole area. They could pay us off a million dollars a day, a month and still have a lot of profits for themselves. So that is what we have to push for. If people have to live off the land, we have to have some control of surface and sub-surface rights (Roland Woodward).
In summation, rather than extinguishing Aboriginal title, it is the treaty itself which requires extinguishment. This is a battle which descendants of the Caribou Eaters must eventually face under a united Dene leadership. The lesson of Treaty No. 8 is to never place Aboriginal people’s inherent rights to self-determination in the hands of trusted clergy, Indian agents, government politicians, lawyers, or constitutional experts. Listening carefully to the wisdom of Elders and joining a consensus-building process of united Aboriginal peoples is the only reasonable course of action. The strength and consensus of the circle has served Aboriginal peoples well since time immemorial. Though the expert guidance of professionals in these times of economic complexity and rapid technological advancement is essential, the rights and traditions of Aboriginal people must be honoured and preserved. In the final analysis, the headmen of Aboriginal people must speak for the land, work toward the unity of Aboriginal peoples, and listen to the Elders. This chapter concludes with an excerpt from the “Dënesuliné Declaration of Self Determination”:
The Dënesuliné Nations of Dëne Néné nene have declared through this document (?ërihtl’is nëdhé) their intentions to achieve an autonomous state of self-government (tthën í nákóghiladé) for the Dënesuliné by the Dënesuliné.
Our vast homeland stretches from the Coast of Hudson’s Bay (tthëyéh) through northern Manitoba (Sayísí néné), northern Saskatchewan (yutthén néné), Cold Lake (luéchó túé), and the Athabasca and Slave Rivers systems (dësnédhe k’eyaghe), Great Slave Lake (yudá néné) and out onto our most sacred homelands, the Barren Lands (hotél néné). It is from this land that we have always maintained and derived our culture, language, identity and distinct form of government. The land is who we are.
The Creator (Yedaríyé) put us on this land to take care of it for all future generations; we have done this “since time immemorial”. We have always maintained our sovereignty over our homelands: Our artifacts and burial sites cover this vast domain, our caribou shoots still exist on the Barren Lands, our trails lead people from one end of our territory to the other. The sun has risen and set on our people for countless generations, we have tasted the water all over this vast territory of ours, the land is still the way it has always been. The Dëne names still exist on our prominent land features, our lakes and rivers. This is Dëne Nené.
Our grandparents knew that the Whiteman would come onto the land to try and take it over; they had the wisdom and vision to make “PEACE” treaties with them. Our oral understanding of the Treaty is still our POSITION today; we still live peacefully along side the white governments and their laws, we respect their rights to provide a good life for themselves and their families. It’s now time for them to give us that respect in return.
1. *The Fraudulent Treaty is a modestly revised version of CHAPTER X from Inkonze: The Stones of Traditional Knowledge, a comprehensive history of Northeastern Alberta. The book’s unique research model integrates Aboriginal oral history with written historical records to relate Dene people’s ancient connection with the Athabasca. The Chipewyan people’s mythology and traditions confirm that they are the First People of the Athabasca; and therefore, the co-authors contend that it is in this historical context which Treaty No. 8 must be understood.