This summer I had the opportunity to participate in events surrounding the Treaty #9 Centennial Commemorations with communities in the Wabun Tribal Council area. I had the chance to meet many people and to listen to what our First Nation leaders are saying about the past 100 years of the treaty between our people and the government of Canada.
When I listened to our leaders and our Elders at these events I was really happy and surprised in a way to find that their words were not bitter or angry about this history. I was proud of the fact that our people are capable of moving forward through hard times and difficulties without being brought down by negative feelings about the past.
As our leaders pointed out, there has been great disappointment since the Treaty #9 document was signed 100 years ago. This treaty and others like it across Canada were initiated by the federal government, not First Nations people. We were pretty much forced to accept these treaties and as a result we ended up living on remote and isolated reserves. The treaty signing turned First Nation people into wards of the crown and to a great degree it took away our way of life. In addition, our culture and identity were systematically taken away from us. A new religion was imposed on us and we were not allowed to practice our traditions. Our children were taken away to residential schools where they were abused in many ways. However, even after the process of being converted, we were still recognized as visible minorities and we had a hard time living in this new world. There was racism and bigotry just about everywhere in those early times.
As a result of the coming of the Europeans and all of these changes my people had many hard years and our First Nations became sad places, with much alcoholism and dysfunction. You would think our leaders would be angry.
First Nation political representatives such as Shawn Batise, Executive Director of Wabun Tribal Council; his father Barney Batise, an Elder and Grand Chief Stan Beardy, Nishnawbe-Aski Nation (NAN) see the past as something we can’t change. Their message is that we have to put those years behind us and move ahead. They suggest that we must not forget the past but we should look to the future with some hope. We must renew our original friendship based on trust with the idea that the government of Canada will live up to their promises made in so many treaties.
Many people don’t understand the fact that these treaties were established on the idea that we would share the land and its resources in a good and fair way. It wasn’t supposed to be about First Nation people being locked up on small pieces of land where there would be no opportunity to grow and develop. For most of the past 100 years we have been out of the loop while all of the resource development on or around our traditional lands took place. Lots of people made a lot of money but in general First Nations did not benefit. The fact is that the Treaty # 9 was supposed to be about fairness and sharing and that just never happened.
The world we live in is different these days. The kind of racism and bigotry that was prevalent only 40 years ago has dissipated to a great degree. However, it has not gone completely. Life is a little better for my people but that hasn’t come without us fighting for our lives. First we had to survive the arrival of the European people and the new world they introduced. Secondly we had to grow to the point where we could educate ourselves so that we would be able to continue to survive in this world.
Now we have many First Nation people who have grown to become lawyers, business people, political leaders and administrators. There are also many First Nation organizations that are staffed with bright and dedicated First Nation people. They are all working to take the government to task to fight for our communities and our people. We can’t just be cast aside anymore or be ignored and that makes me feel good about our future.
The sharing of the land and its resources does not mean that First Nation people want more than anyone else. All we want is the fairness that was promised 100 years ago. That means that as we become more open to resource developments on our lands we expect to benefit by these initiatives. This also means there is a lot of work ahead. Our people have to acquire the training and education to take advantage of opportunities that are coming our way in this new millennium. It is time to develop our own economies so that we can become self-sufficient and rely less on outside sources or the government for assistance.
It is important that people try to understand that when First Nations benefit from developments on their lands it is a good thing. It is only fair. We can’t cry about the past but we can strive to make it right for the next 100 years.