We are all treaty people + who the heck is Sir John A?

Confederation Park, city of Kingston, ON (Sept 14, 2019)

Couple days ago in class we talked about treaties.

Treaty means completely different things to the indigenous people and the British men. Indigenous peoples made treaties for thousand of years, not only with other nations but also with the water, the sky and the land. Treaty is a way they make agreement (usually oral) with others in relations, by wampum belts, renewal protocol and ceremony. In their worldview, treaty always based on kinship, which means it’s always relationship-based. They renew treaty in ceremony, and by doing so, both parties tend the relationship and agreement continuously. Whereas the British see treaty as contract, which also means it’s transactional . The deal is one-off. Once you sign, you’ve agreed to those words on that piece of paper.

The conversation went on to discuss: are we all treaty people? I would say yes, in two sense. First, although I am not of European descend, I grew up and am still living in a heavily colonized context. By saying that I am also treaty people, I am owning my accountability to do something with the colonial realities both in the Canadian context and in my own ancestral-cultural context (again, if I can’t recognize the people and the land here, how can I acknowledge them and me? see previous learning journal). Second, if treaty means making honorable agreement with other (human) beings to be in rightful interconnected relationships, yes, I am in.

We had two guests in class, elder Laurel and Armand G. Ruffo, the poet and author of Treaty # (Buckrider Books, April 2 2019). They both shared valuable insights with us. Couple things that I took away:

  • In one of the Coast Salish peoples’ language, the word “settler” means “Hungry people”. And in another indigenous language, “settler” means foam on the water, clinging on the land. Prof. Laura Murray mentioned that it is interesting to see how these term describe some indigenous groups’ view on non-indigenous peoples. Often the process of reconciliation requires the indigenous party to give more in teaching or sharing to the non-indigenous party.
  • The Haudenosaunee peoples have a protocol at the edge of the forest. when someone approach the edges of a nation, they stop, light a fire to make themselves known, and wait. Once the host comes to greet you, the host will always ask, 1. what’s your name? 2. who’re you representing or where are you from? 3. How will your time here benefit the land and the community? Laura summed it up as “Stop, Honk, Wait”. Elder grandmother Laurel shared with us that in her culture, she never send anybody back when they come to her door. They also try to receive and welcome others. Imagine that attitude was passed down to her from generations to generations. Perhaps that was how their ancestors received the European who came to purchase their land…

That same night, I went to a the public talk “Sir John A 360″ at the Grand Theater. The event was organized by the city of Kingston.

I first heard about Sir John A. in the “Secret Life of Canada” podcast last week, in an episode that mentioned about the early Chinese railway workers. (see my learning journal entry)

Sir John A. was the first prime minister of Canada, and at that time, the Canadian government absolutely couldn’t build a cross-Canada railway to British Columbia without the help of the Chinese workers. Sir John A. made sure that Chinese workers could come to work. Not only the Chinese men were underpaid, overworked and suffered from malnutrition and health issues; when they finished the Pacific railway, the Chinese Immigrant Act was enacted by Sir John A.’s government, applying heavy head tax for each immigrant from China. It was around the same time that the Indian Act was enacted.

The “indigenizing the academy” lecture earlier this week took place at Sir. John A Macdonald Hall. There’s a train engine stood at the Confederation Park in front of city hall, that has “The Spirit of Sir John A. Canadian Pacific” on it. (I saw it at the Saturday Public Market last week, my heart went, “holy smoke, my ancestors built that train track for you, and your name is on the engine sitting right on top of that track they paved for you!”)

I heard that he was a practicing lawyer in Kingston before he became Canada first prime minister. Other than that, I don’t know much about him.

I was excited that Lee Maracle joined the “Sir John A 360” panel discussion! I just found out about her on youtube the other night![I hoped she would speak about “Dish with One Spoon” treaty] Other panelists were historian Christopher Moore and Charlotte Gray, member of the Order of Canada. Bob Watts, Queen’s adjunct professor (Policy Studies) moderated the discussion.

The forum discussion topic was the controversies of Sir John A. legacies in Canada history. His statues and monument sand memorial buildings are everywhere. Should Canada erects more statues of him? Or should we take it down? One of the panelist said that John A. as a symbol is a profound part of Canadian reality, taking away his statues won’t erase what happened good and bad, but we have to ask how to look at these symbol considering all aspects and both sides of the treaties’ parties. The other panelist pretty much said the same thing: history is a ongoing process, how do we handle our past and personality that aren’t us now (us as in Canada today) and how do we reframe our nationality? Lee Maracle said that the only way out is commitment to hear each other out. She reminded us that Canada only have democracy of the white men; in the 1920s, democracy didn’t include any people of colours either, and we have to remember it. She suggested that let’s keep the statues, but change the plaques.

Again, for me, it’s about how do we tell the story. What the narrative? How do we restory/restore a collective story that has many different sides of the same story? What framework do we use to approach it together? Are we trying to fit a circle in a square, just like overlaying indigenous knowledges into the western colonial academic framework? And when “we” approach it together, what does it mean to do it together? How to involve and who should be involved?

All speakers seem to agreed that we need to hear each other out and commit to building nation to nation relationship in reconciliation. One of the panelists mentioned that it is important to have safe space like this for difficult conversation. I disagree with that. Of course having a space container for conversation is important. But relationships building take much more than conversations. Talking won’t deepen relationship. Plus, long-term committed relationship is a high risk investment. It isn’t safe at all, and the reward is immeasurable, like any intimate partnership. No one can stay in the safety zone, nice and clean, but want an intimate relationship. You have to risk to get deeper, knowing that no one can have full control. Can you really get to the core of a difficult conversation while wanting to be all lollipop and unicorn? I don’t think so. I kinda think that human species is running out of time to always be nice and polite to each other while standing up for one’s truth.

This public talk is part of a series under “Your Stories, Our Histories” project led by the city of Kingston. There are online and in person workshop/platform for public engagement.

One of the elders raised a question, “Who are the ‘we’”? Let’s make sure who’s involved? Lee Maracle responded let’s stop using the “we” until we find out who they are.

That’s true, and yet I couldn’t help but going back to OUR Ecovillage’s practice, which is also from Starhawk teaching, “There’s a place at our table for you, if you choose to join us.” Apparently it didn’t work, at least the intentional community movement has proved the challenges of being radically inclusive. So now what? I would say that those who want to be part of the conversation of restorying this collective story must follow an on-boarding process. Show your commitment in relationships rather than in conversation. Relationship matter much more than words and ideas.

Are we all treaty people? If you say yes to it, then own it, feel it deeply in your core, and show up in being in relationship.