Recently, I took part in Treaty #9 commemoration ceremonies at Matachewan First Nation. I met with Barney Batise, an Elder and political figure in the community who has done much for his First Nation over the years. Barney is a kind and patient person who enjoys sharing his knowledge about his people and Matachewan First Nation. He always manages to educate his audience with the wonderful way he can tell a story and he has a great sense of humour.
Barney showcased an historic flag at the ceremony, an original Union Jack of the British Crown that was presented to the people of Matachewan First Nation in 1906. It is a full sized flag that looks its years, a bit tattered and patched in places. The amazing thing was that it is intact after 100 years.
Barney related to me that during the signing of the treaty documents between the Government of Canada and the Nishnawbe-Aski Nation people 100 years ago, the custom at every community was to present the treaty to the leaders and the people. This document was translated into the different dialects of the region through a local interpreter. Then the people decided whether or not they agreed to the treaty.
Once it was agreed upon, the treaty was signed by a Chief and his councillors and the commissioners. A feast was then held by the government for the people and a flag of the crown was presented to the Chief by the commissioners. I should mention that there is much controversy surrounding these original treaty signings with the Government of Canada.
Barney explained that the story of the flag has been handed down through his family for many generations. He said that once the treaty was signed in 1906 and the reserve lands set out by the commissioners, the flag was then presented to his uncle Michel Batise, who had been elected Chief of the community. Michel Batise had been elected by his people at Old Fort Matachewan during a gathering of people that was held at this Hudson Bay Company post. At the ceremony everyone gave a show of hands to accept or reject the candidates for Chief.
When the flag was first presented to Michel Batise, it was wrapped around him before it was raised on a pole. It was during this period that a new custom during the election of the Chief for the community was born. Once a new Chief was elected the full-sized British Union Jack was wrapped around the new Chief in a symbolic ceremony representing the relationship to the British Crown. The flag was later raised on a pole to be seen by the community.
However, there was some confusion surrounding the flag. Many people believed that part of the treaty promise included a new flag to be presented each time a Chief was elected. In fact no more flags ever made it to the community. The Chief and Council decided that the original flag would be passed down to each succeeding Chief after every election. Barney explained that back then there was great respect and honour held for anything associated with the Crown and the flag that was presented was very symbolic to the people. It symbolized trust.
The flag continued to be handed down from Chief to Chief until sadly it disappeared at one point. In the 1950s, the flag resurfaced again when it was presented to Chief George Batise, Barney’s brother. The flag had made it back to George Batise through their father Harry Batise. George Batise then kept the flag in his possession for safekeeping. At that point, so much time had passed that the original tradition involving the flag had been more or less forgotten.
In the mid 1970s, Barney then became Chief of Matachewan for several terms. During his third term he was presented with the flag that had been kept by the Batise family. From that point on Barney became the protector of the flag.
Barney explained that the flag is still very meaningful to him and his people. He commented that the condition of the flag was very symbolic to the current relationship the Nishnawbe-Aski Nation people have with the government of Canada. It may be tattered and patched but it still has a place with the people of Matachewan First Nation and points to historic promises and trust. He explained that the leadership of Matachewan First Nation and the people will continue to honour the spirit of Treaty #9. The flag will be protected and patched and repaired as time goes on. He likened that process to the ongoing relationship between First Nations and the Government of Canada in that future development will be negotiated in good faith to ensure that the lives of First Nation people are healthy and prosperous.
Barney sees the flag as a very special historic artefact. In fact, it is believed that it is the only flag from the original Treaty #9 signings to have survived. His intention is to see the flag used as a teaching tool and a real historic link to the promises made 100 years ago by the Government of Canada.
Matachewan First Nation leadership and the people will decide on where and how the flag will be stored and exhibited. Barney explained that his ancestors and his people were very spiritual and that they still are. He believes that the flag has survived with his people all these years for a reason. Thanks to Barney and the Batise family the promises and trust initiated by the Government of Canada with First Nations are as real as this tattered and patched flag in Matachewan First Nation. Let’s see what the next 100 years will bring.