Recently, I have heard news that greatly affects the First Nations of Nishnawbe-Aski Nation territory in northern Ontario. This news involves the discovery of a 100-plus year-old diary by Daniel MacMartin, a treaty commissioner who represented the government of Ontario. His diary is providing a new perspective on the signing of Treaty #9 in northern Ontario. Up to now, the only recorded and written account of the treaty signing was the treaty document itself.

Since Aboriginal culture is based on oral tradition, the only record of the treaty for my people has been in the stories and recollections of those who were present at the time of the treaty signings. These recollections are still remembered by our living Elders today who inherited these memories from their parents and grandparents. What was promised at the time of the signing of the treaty and what actually was put down in writing has always been a matter for debate. Remember, First Nation people back then did not speak the English language.

Treaty #9 or the James Bay Treaty was signed in 1905 and 1906 between the government of Canada, the province of Ontario and the Ojibway, Cree and Oji-Cree of northern Ontario. Treaty commissioners actually travelled mostly by canoe to various communities and settlements in northern Ontario to have the document signed. Additions to the treaty were made in 1929 and 1930 to encompass a land area from Timmins in the south, to Hudson Bay in the north and between the Quebec and Manitoba borders.

This document was produced by the government of Canada. At the time, very few Aboriginal people in northern Ontario spoke or understood the English language and so the treaty document was translated by Hudson Bay company representatives and church officials, who made themselves available in each location. So few Aboriginal people spoke English at the time that many of the Chief’s signatures were signed with a simple “X” beside their name or by using syllabics.

The discovery of MacMartin’s diary by historians in the archives of Queen’s University is shining new light on what took place and what was said during the signing of the treaty. Up to now, the governments of Ontario and Canada have followed the treaty document which includes a clause to allow the Crown to take away lands for mining, forestry or other purposes. First Nation Elders and representatives have argued for years that the written document is much different than the spoken promises made during the signing.
According to Murray Klippenstein, legal representative for Mushkegowuk Council, MacMartin’s diary has recorded oral promises made to Native representatives that Native lands would be preserved and that First Nation people would be able to continue to hunt where they pleased. Even though MacMartin’s diary provided plenty of details on regular meetings and conversations during the treaty signings, there is no mention made to Native representatives of the all-important clause to take away lands by the government for resource development. Somehow that just turned up in the written document but was forgotten in his own diary.

There have always been questions about what First Nation’s people understood and what was promised, concerning Treaty #9. The government’s treaty representatives were ill-suited for the negotiations. Duncan Campbell Scott and Samuel Stewart were the two treaty commissioners for the government of Canada. Scott, at the time, believed that Aboriginal people should be assimilated into Canadian society without special rights or recognition. This man of the crown later became the head of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932.

In 1920, Scott is noted in Canadian Aboriginal history for directing the process that made it mandatory for all Native children between the ages of seven to 15 to attend residential school. This plan was decided on in an effort to, in Scott’s own words in 1920, “… get rid of the Indian problem” and “… continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian department.” It is common knowledge that Scott believed Aboriginals would not survive as a people.

The discovery of MacMartin’s diary reaffirms the belief of First Nations leadership since the signing of Treaty #9 that the process was not clear and completely above board. Many people still believe today that Aboriginal people should be assimilated into society and with the discovery of many rich new natural resources on First Nations lands that view is being promoted by the powers that be.

Make no mistake about it, First Nation people are not standing in the way of careful resource development on Native lands as long as there is proper consultation, negotiation and a fair sharing of the wealth. First Nation people have a tradition as stewards of the land and with the right idea in development we can all benefit while making sure our mother planet is protected. This was the spirit of negotiations my ancestors brought to the table when Treaty #9 was signed. Thanks to MacMartin’s obsession with keeping a very detailed diary, the truth has finally emerged after more than 100 years.