New Democrat MP Charlie Angus’ new book Children of the Broken Treaty is a history of Treaty 9, from its signing through the nightmare years of St. Anne’s Residential School in Fort Albany, past the ’60s Scoop, the crises in Attawapiskat and Kaschechewan, and the story of Attawapiskat student activist Shannen Koostachin. The book ends not long after Koostachin’s tragic death in a car accident at age 15.
Angus seemed on the edge of tears speaking to the Nation. “When Shannon died,” he said, “that day was just darkness. So many young people kill themselves. So many people give up hope. And here was the fire of hope, gone. People started calling me – national Aboriginal leaders, labour leaders, journalists, educators. They were crying. I saw how she’d touched so many people.”
The school crisis in Attawapiskat that Koostachin fought to resolve led Angus to an Access to Information request, which the government honoured by dumping 1,200 pages of historical documents on him. None of these were the documents he requested, but he found them valuable nonetheless.
“They were historical documents,” he said. “That’s when I knew the book had to be written. These are the letters of the department about St. Anne’s, and it goes back to the first documents from Duncan Campbell Scott’s report in 1907.”
Famed Canadian poet and former Indian Affairs Minister Campbell Scott negotiated Treaty 9 and was present at the signing. Scott, who believed oral traditions in Native culture were meaningless, made oral promises knowing full well he would never put them down on paper.
“He writes to the department after telling the Cree of Fort Albany and Moose Factory that he promised their children education if he signed the treaty,” Angus reported. “Then he turns around and says the Cree don’t need proper education, they just need rudimentary skills and hygiene. It’s such a dismissive attitude, and right there, that’s the breach of the treaty.”
It was also the beginning of a long and truly ugly history, including the use of an electric chair at St. Anne’s Residential School to torture children.
“What happened at St. Anne’s was absolutely a crime against humanity,” Angus stated. But in order to understand where it came from, he needed to understand the treaty first. Initially he had viewed it as a piece of ancient history, but former Mushkegowuk Grand Chief Stan Louttit insisted he learn more about it.
“Stan’s grandfather signed the treaty! Theresa Spence’s grandfather signed the treaty!” he recalled. “I’m thinking, okay – their grandfathers signed the treaty, while my grandfather came here as a Scottish immigrant to work the richest gold mine in the western world, which is right in the centre of Treaty 9.”
Attawapiskat was such a fertile ground for exploration, Angus suggested, because it embodied everything that was tragic about the relationship between the Canadian state and Indigenous people – beginning with the Canadians swindling Indigenous nations out of land worth billions.
“I really thought this was important just to place it so people could understand: Treaty 9 transferred some of the richest mineral, hydro and timber wealth in the world,” he said. “And the people who signed it are by and large living in some of the poorest, most underfunded communities in the country.”
Angus takes readers carefully through the crises that followed – the repeated flooding in Kaschechewan, the diesel spill that contaminated Attawapiskat’s J.R. Nakogee School and that community’s subsequent housing crisis that catapulted Chief Theresa Spence to national attention.
“What I’ve tried to establish in the book is that the language about ‘Ending the Indian Question’ may have changed, and some of the tactics may have changed, but the fundamental principles are still very much in place,” said Angus.