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Happy Canada Day? Learning about Treaties in tar sands territory

Emma Pullman is writing stories from impacted communities on the front lines of the tar sands in the lead up to the 4th Annual Healing Walk, a spiritual gathering and 14 km walk to pray for the healing of the land and people at the front lines of tar sands expansion. The Healing Walk is July 5-6, 2013 in Fort McMurray, Alberta. You can follow her work here and on

While many Canadians are celebrating the 146th anniversary of this country, I don’t much feel like celebrating today. Right now, I am at the Beaver Lake Cree Nation, a community whose traditional territory is on both the Athabasca and Cold Lake tar sands projects.

It’s hard to take part in the festivities when you understand the colonialism, genocide, theft of land and resources and broken treaties that are part of the history of this country.

Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation activist and educator Susana Deranger wrote in Briarpatch magazine:

“This Canada Day, I reach out to you all and appeal to your consciousness and ask you to reflect on what you are celebrating. I ask you to reflect on what this day means to Indigenous Peoples on the territory you are living on that has given you so much.

"I ask you to dig deep inside of yourself and think about how we can work together to rectify the colonial legacy of Canada. I ask you to walk with me and others to truly create a place that is worth celebrating. I ask you to stand up to create a Canada that acknowledges the wrongs of yesterday and today, and paves the way for dignity and respect for all peoples tomorrow and all the tomorrows that follow.”

My own reflection of her words has led me to think about treaty rights, and how few Canadians understand the treaties or what it means to be Treaty Peoples. So today, I sat down with Tantoo Cardinal, Crystal Lameman, Maria Laboucan-Massimo and Melina Laboucan-Massimo, all members of Treaty 6 and Treaty 8 territory. And I did what feels like the most patriotic thing I’ve ever done on Canada Day -- I learned about Treaty 6 and Treaty 8, the treaties of the lands most impacted by the tar sands.

10 things Canadians should know about the Treaties upon which the tar sands are being developed

  1. If you are a Canadian, know you are a signatory to a Treaty. If you are a settler (i.e. non-Indigenous), know you are a benefaciary of the Treaty. 
  2. Read the Treaty. Know which Treaty territory you are on. You can read Treaty 6 and Treaty 8, the two treaty territories that sit in the tar sands. 
  3. Know that the Treaty its not just an Indigenous peoples agreement. We are all Treaty peoples. Know that treaties are the foundation of Canada. 
  4. The Treaty is a reciprocal treaty, an equal treaty for co-existence. 
    It was an agreement between the British Crown and Indigenous peoples. First Nations leaders believed they were entering into a trust relationship with the representative of the British Crown. They considered the Treaty a mutual trust agreement to live in peace.
  5. Non-native people are benefactors of those treaties because they are receiving the benefits and profits of the resources from native land. There are billions of dollars coming out of traditional territories, and it never stays in the territory. These real costs of resource extraction, in turn, are borne by the people and communities who have lived here all along. 
  6. First Nations never violated the treaty.
  7. First Nations have never surrendered their land. 
  8. The federal government has a fiduciary responsibility with First Nations who entered into Treaty. In plain terms, it's similar to the responsibility that a corporation has to its shareholders. The Canadian government’s shareholders are First Nations and it has a duty, a legal responsibility to them. 
  9. When reading the Treaty, you’ll never come across the word “ownership”, because no one can own the land. The land owns its inhabitants
  10. According to the Treaty, as long as the grass grows, the rivers flow and the sun shines, First Nations will always have a right to the land to hunt and fish and forage. As long as industrial development continues to take place on these lands without consent, these Constitutional rights are being violated.

“It says in the Treaty that we will share this land with you to the depth of a plough,” Crystal said to me. 

Senator Allan Bird, Montreal Lake Cree Nation, is directly quoted on Treaty 6: “the government said that we would live together, that I am not here to take away what you have now…I am here to borrow the land…to the depth of a plough…that is how much I want.”

That’s why according to Treaty law, anything that comes out of the ground that creates revenue belongs to First Nations.

Crystal adds, “As per the Treaty, anything that comes out of the territory is supposed to go to those people. The federal government has a fiduciary responsibility with the First Nations who entered into Treaty.”

But for Maria Laboucan-Massimo, the Lubicon territory where she is from has seen $14 billion in resource dollars leave her territory. That money goes to federal government, and into a kind of bank. While the rest of the country uses this money, her community doesn’t see much of it.

“The revenue from the resources that are taken from our traditional territories rarely go back into the communities they come from. It’s like a trickle-down effect. That’s why First Nations communities still live in poverty,” says Melina Laboucan-Massimo.

“We should have more of a say in how the land is being utilized. We should have free, prior and informed consent and the ability to say ‘no’, especially when there are viable alternatives to the tar sands.”

Crystal explains, “It says in the Treaty that we will share this land with you to the depth of a plough.”

The Treaty effectively says that the government cannot own the products of tar sands mining. Crystal goes on to say, "any of the resources beyond the depth of the plough belong to us.”

After my conversation with Tantoo, Crystal, Melina and Maria ended, I reflected that I still know so little about the histories that connect this country. 

I have much to learn, and will always be learning and understanding Canada’s colonial history.

But tonight, on this Canada Day 2013, I’m going to start by reading the treaties.

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