Treaty People: Context Q&A with Terry Leblanc and John Stackhouse

Treaty People: Context Q&A with Terry Leblanc and John Stackhouse


Lorna: It’s clear our audience wants to better understand our differences that recent news events opened up. As protests are growing across Canada on both the Boushie and Fontaine cases, Context felt the disputes should be headlined as “Treaty People Pain.” So let’s start there – are all Canadians Treaty People?  

Terry LeBlanc: Inasmuch as people live in territories covered by specific treaties, yes they are all treaty people; inasmuch as Canada holds treaties today in right of the crown, yes they are all treaty people; inasmuch as the courts have upheld the need for the Canadian Government to observe/uphold the provisions of various treaties and, since the government ostensibly represents the peoples of Canada, yes.

John Stackhouse:  My basic understanding is simple: the political relationship between First Nations and subsequent settlers has been articulated in treaties authorized by recognized leaders of each constituent people. We are all bound by those treaties. In that sense, then, yes, we are all “treaty people.”

Lorna: Can you each summarize a significant misunderstanding in our relationship as Treaty People? 

Terry:  While there are several areas that we might explore that contribute to misunderstanding, several significant ones stand out for me: first, treaties are frequently conceived of as strictly contractual in nature – therefore provisions of the contract can be changed; second, there is a perception that the treaties ceded all lands formerly held by Indigenous people; third, overlapping boundaries of land-use covered by intertribal treaties, such as the agreements of the Wa’banaki Confederacy, or the Iroquois Confederacy, meant lands under British/Canadian treaty, that are mutually claimed, can be ignored or diminished.

John:  I agree with all of Terry’s listed here. I would also add these two misconceptions.
On one side, that First Nations have been recipients of massive amounts of government charity that they have simply wasted. They should be grateful, but instead they just complain and want more and more.

On another side (I do not say “the” other side because there are multiple sides to these issues), that First Nations have been subject to attempted genocide. (Genocide is a term with a clear meaning: the attempted eradication of a people.)

Both of these seem to me to be importantly wrong.

Lorna:  In both your original columns that caused controversy at Context, there was a focus on a “binary narrative of good vs bad.”   As I read the reader anger in both sides of this, I thought, “Blessed are the peacemakers”   …. So let’s explore that …. what do you suggest for peacemaking between us ? 

John:  1. We must do our homework and get it right. That means knowing what we need to know about history (and how to study history), political science, epidemiology, racism, Christianity, native cultures, educational theory, oral history, and so on.

2. We owe everyone involved that we will be scrupulous truth-tellers. Qualifications and nuance aren’t as exciting as slogans, and slogans have their place in political action. But everything we say must be, so far as we know, the truth.

3. We need to listen to each other to find out what’s right, not to prove who’s right.

Terry:  1. I agree – get it right.  But, we must not assume that the only ones who get it right are those representing the historic and dominant narrative – or that their qualifications are of a superior nature – something that has been and continues to be a problem.

2. In truth telling, we can assume a particular epistemology and worldview are the only ones capable of perceiving truth or telling it. We have struggled to assert an Indigenous one for many years.  This requires greater humility…

3. Agreed – but not with a premise that Western thought is paramount…

Lorna: Terry, there are so many reports of First Nation’s suffering, despite 2016 Federal Budget of “$8.4 Billion pledged for Indigenous Investment”  – what’s going wrong with this  financial arrangement? 

Terry:  Several auditors general in a row have identified federal government waste in the Department of Indian affairs (old terminology for the sake of the discussion). This waste had less to do with First Nations, Inuit, Métis communities than it did waste within the department itself. This does not account for all of it by any means, nor does it suggest that there is not waste in First Nations communities. There is. This is a human issue not simply an Indigenous one. However when the waste is of First Nations funds as over against government funds, we draw different lines and come to different conclusions. $2 billion of waste by a federal or provincial government is considered normal political nonsense –  $2 million in a First Nations context is handled differently. At best this is bigoted.

John:  May I chime in to agree with Terry on Question 4? I am not anything close to expert on this issue. What I think I know, then, is that all human governments are vulnerable to the stupidity and greed of the powerful. Some governmental administrators have been bad at their jobs, spending and saving where they shouldn’t have. Some policies have been simply wrong-headed. Some leaders of some First Nations have been convicted of corruption—just like leaders of Canadian and European leaders from time immemorial. And some deep social problems cannot be resolved by pouring in more money, as studies of troubled communities all over the world have shown: it’s just gas on the fire. The solution isn’t to turn off the money, but to use resources better. And to do that, governments need to hear better from people in FN as to what they think they need—not just chiefs, by the way, but especially mothers and young people.

Terry:  Let me suggest that money spent on Indigenous peoples ought not to be considered any differently than money spent within provincial settings on the residents of a given province. In significant measure the only differences are:
• Funding for on reserve Indigenous peoples is the responsibility of the federal government as opposed to the provincial;
• Money spent for infrastructure and programming for indigenous communities still lags very far behind funds spent on programs in the rest of nonindigenous Canada.

Further to this, Canadians need to know that Indigenous peoples pay taxes (not all of us, but then large numbers of the wealthy do not pay taxes either do they). We are not tax exempt for everything we do or buy. We pay income tax if employed off reserve – which is the vast majority of us.

Yes, all else being equal, Indigenous peoples should be the ones to determine how funds are spent for their services.

Lorna: Our history of genocide to First Nation’s is a tragic reality, can you both weigh in on can we ever be done paying for this grave sin? 

John:  As for genocide, I do not consent to the use of this term. The TRC Report speaks of physical, biological, and cultural genocide. I’m sorry, but all of these are wrong. First, no physical genocide was ever attempted. Nothing like the Nazi attempt to eradicate Jews, Hutu attempt to destroy Tutsis, Turkish attempts to obliterate Armenians, or Iroquois attempts to make the Huron vanish. Second, biological genocide seems not to have been either attempted or accomplished, since the 100,000 or so native people alive in the 19C are at 1.5M or so now. Third, no one can doubt that native culture was deemed inferior to western culture by the authorities in what was often a gross and violent way. But no policy of wiping out all traces of native culture was articulated or attempted.

Were terrible things done to native peoples? Yes. But let’s use the correct names for them. Otherwise, we fall into the “good vs. evil” and “human vs. demon” trap in which it is difficult to cooperate.

Terry:  John… This is absurd…

You need to read Duncan Campbell Scott in 1910 and then again in 1920 – never mind countless of other policies like the Gradual Civilizations Act of 1857, the gradual enfranchisement act of 1869 etc,…

Genocide is clearly documented – it is hard to refute. I am not sure why you would – if that is the meaning of this post you have made.

Prime Minister John A.McDonald (my paraphrase) said, “Indians are simply living on the benevolence of the Canadian Parliament and beggars should not be choosers.“ This still rings for many… It is the wrong answer though as it lacks sufficient understanding

John:  Terry makes crucial points here. There is more than one way to know things, and certainly more than one valuable vantage point. (I argue as much in my recent book on epistemology.) What’s happened now in more progressive circles, alas, is that only the voice of the oppressed is counted as valuable, and the hard-wrought disciplines of careful history are scorned as somehow “white” and “foreign.” We need to find ways to combine, not to oppose, the voices of participants and the voices of disciplined interpreters.

Terry:  When the dominant narrative has – and in many circles, continues to hold sway over a large number of people; and, when that narrative is clearly biased in favour of a Euro-Canadian telling of history, a corrective is not only inevitable, it is necessary.

As to the genocide conversation, if you are suggesting that there has not been genocide at work in Canada with respect to Indigenous peoples, then you have not read the history of Canada well John…or you find your own interpretation of it more compelling than people like Dickason, not to mention our judiciary

John:  I certainly do not privilege interpretations of Canadian culture by “our judiciary,” Terry. Surely you don’t, either! Our judges have made judgments from wonderful to terrible, right?

Terry:  I thought I was making a point… But, whether you and I feel that the judiciary gets it right all the time is not the point here – the point is they failed to uphold our rights for a century or more and successively removed them for almost as long – law and justice are not always minted on the same coin. But they have nonetheless made clear that genocide took place in Canada. And, since the UN definition of genocide that they used was framed immediately following an event that fits your definition – the holocaust of the Jews – it would seem to me that they have offered a carefully considered characterization.

“I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that this country ought to continually protect a class of people who are able to stand alone. That is my whole point. Our object is to 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, that is the whole object of this Bill” (D. C. Scott, 1920)

John:  This is a good place to park a moment longer, as Terry indicated. I do NOT want to be interpreted as excusing the abuses in the residential schools, or the underfunding of many of those schools, or the grossly unappreciative attitude toward native cultures manifest in those schools. Indeed, I have been pressing this point all along: Bad things have happened, are happening, and will continue to happen unless we can join together and work constructively. Using “genocide” incorrectly, I am saying, damages our common cause because it paints the history in terms of black and white—and when it manifestly isn’t just black and white, then people will be inclined to mistrust whatever else is said by those who use such a term in this way.

I do NOT want people to dismiss Dr Terry LeBlanc, or NAIITS, or other good folk who have vital things to say. I do NOT want the manifold weaknesses and biases of the TRC report to be an excuse to avoid its main finding: Terrible things were done, are still being done, and will keep being done until we work together to fix them.

Terry:  John, we will inevitably agree to disagree on the use of the term genocide. However, since no contemporary effort at its employ has led to the ultimate outcome of a complete eradication of the targeted peoples – at least not that I’m aware; and, given that many people made effort to assist the Jews in the mid-20th century and the Hutu and Tutsi in the later 20th century (and, given human nature, I’m sure in many other places) this does not diminish or moderate the intent of the effort. These things were not entirely black and white; so people helped despite the efforts being made to eradicate a particular people. This makes it difficult for me to see your reasoning for excluding clearly stated Canadian government policies as exemplars of presence of genocide here.

John:  For what it’s worth, and in the attempt to find all the common ground we can, I take your point, Terry, that the assimilationist attitude manifest in the Scott quotation is in the same neighbourhood as trying “to destroy the language, religion, or culture of a group.” But the temporary separation of some native children from their parents to attend residential schools, alongside schools on reserves, doesn’t show much of an attempt at eradication, does it? Yes, the failure to respect native traditions and languages was ugly and wrong. We agree on that, of course. But genocide is murder: “-icide.” Even Scott is not trying to destroy Indians, and even Indian culture—unless by definition that means “separation from white people on our own lands,” world without end—but to end Indian separation from the rest of Canadian society, however insensitively and heavy-handedly.

Terry, I’d be glad to continue our dialogue whenever and wherever we can make it work. Do, please, know that I appreciate what I take to be the thrust of what you do, and my criticism is that of a supportive friend who wants real change in Canada for the better regarding First Nations….

Terry:  John, the eradication of a people’s language and culture, by any definition, means eradicating them. Just because their physical bodies are still present does not mean they, as a distinct people are. Consider the lesson of Ezekiel 37.

Lorna: Interesting that despite our differences, we have common ground on the spiritual path.   Can you each define your path for us ?  

John:  I try to follow Jesus, a first-century Jew who was given up as a annoyance by his own people’s leaders to die by the hands of their Gentile occupiers. I try to follow the Bible, a book compiled of fascinating and difficult documents written by people in times of cultural and political success and confidence, and in times of terrible weakness and doubt. I try to follow in the company of the Church, that global community of disparate people who form yet One People in allegiance to Jesus and his way. And I do all that in the folkways I have been taught, however critical I might be of them and however much I have yet to learn from others in other traditions.

Terry:  From the point in time where I responded to Christ as restorer of the breech between God and humanity, human beings with one another, and human beings with the rest of creation of which we are a part, I have sought to live as a follower of the Jesus’ way in life and teaching as recorded in the scriptures and the narrative traditions of the universal church expressed in its many histories; to do so in my own cultural skin and context.

Lorna: Across the universe, in so many histories, people have tried to follow Jesus, Jesus was the Creator’s gift to repair our broken lives.  How do we keep that important peace making gift an offer amid the deep disagreement we have about our histories ? 

Terry:  All in favour of that Lorna…as we do so, we need to be sure that ownership of the peace making process is jointly held.

John:  We do what you’re helping Terry and I to do: Keep talking and keep listening. I also think we need more than that, however. We need historically informed empathy. Until we can see why that person would think that, we lack understanding. And then we will lack the solidarity necessary for cooperation.

Lorna: Thank you Terry LeBlanc and John Stackhouse for your patience over this printed discussion.  We will now work to bring you together with us, face to face, and keep learning together.  

I’m going to close with prayer …..  “Oh Creator, thank you for stirring us up to be discontent with sin.  We sense your Spirit pulling us to healing, and we say yes.  Take us to healing, take us to Your best for our lives, take our sin and replace it with your love.”    Amen.  

Meegwitch (thank you in Algonquin – written from the Territory of the Mississauga Nation, very near where Joseph Brant, aka Thayendaneagea, a great peace maker died with a broken heart for reconciliation in 1807)  

John:  Thanks for your prayer, Lorna. I appreciate the effort all ‘round.

Terry:  Thanks for navigating this rather awkward conversation – awkward not just because of the tensions over differences of opinion and perspective, but also a less than ideal medium 🙂

John, I too would be more than happy to have an ongoing conversation – one that is out of the public eye during the more heated parts of it as I’m sure there will be 🙂

Blessings all. Journey well.

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