About Treaties

The English word “treaty” comes from the Latin tractatus – handling, drawing or managing something. It also relates to discussing or bargaining a matter. In contrast, the Peskotomuhkati and Maliseet word used to describe a Treaty is lakatuwakon, which means “kinship.” 1 It means that the agreement makes family, extends family. It is that relationship that is being renewed.

Passamaquoddy Paddlers

Passamaquoddy Paddlers

(Passamaquoddy Cultural Museum)

Before the arrival of the French in Passamaquoddy Bay in 1603, the Wabanaki (Dawn Land) nations – Penobscot, Peskotomuhkati, Wolastoq (Maliseet) and Mi’kmaq – had their own laws. They had clear relations, both among themselves and with their neighbours. Wabanaki Treaties with the Crown stem from the earlier processes and principles of the relations between Indigenous nations. Within the Wabanaki Confederacy, for example, the Penobscot and Peskotomuhkati are the Elder Brothers, and the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet are the Younger Brothers. The relationship provides each side of the council fire with specific, family-based responsibilities.

Wabanaki law, emanating from the stories of Creation that prescribe, through example and advice: how the people are to behave together and with the other parts of the natural world; views people, land and other living beings in family terms. It considers the animals, birds and fish as our brothers and sisters. Modern genetics, which confirms how much of our DNA is shared with these creatures, acknowledges this. Wabanaki law also recognizes that the land itself is not only full of life: the land itself  is alive. Linda Hogan explains how many Indigenous traditions hold this in common:

… the ancient intellectual traditions are not merely about belief, as some would say. Belief is not a strong enough word. They are more than that: They are part of lived experience, the on-going experience of people rooted in centuries-old knowledge that is held deep and strong, knowledge about the natural laws of Earth, from the beginning of creation, and the magnificent terrestrial intelligence still at work, an intelligence now newly called ecology by the Western science that tells us what our oldest tribal stories maintain: the human animal is a relatively new creation here; animal and plant presences were here before us; and we are truly the younger sisters and brothers of the other animal species, not quite as well developed as we thought we were. It is through our relationships with animals and plants that we maintain a way of living, a cultural ethics shaped from an ancient understanding of the world, and this is remembered in stories that are the deepest reflections of our shared lives on Earth.

That we held, and still hold, treaties with the animals and plant species is a known part of tribal culture. The relationship between human people and animals is still alive and resonant in the world, the ancient tellings carried on by a constellation of stories, songs, and ceremonies, all shaped by lived knowledge of the world and its many interwoven, unending relationships. These stories and ceremonies keep open the bridge between one kind of intelligence and another, one species and another.  2 

In Northeastern North America, many treaty relations between Indigenous nations stem from Kaianerenkó:wa, the Great Law of Peace of the Haudenosaunee, the Iroquois Confederacy. At the core of the law is the idea that all nations should be related, for there must be no bloodshed within families.

As the Great White Roots of the Tree of Peace spread to the four directions, extending family relations created a landscape of peace. Sotsisowah John Mohawk explained the pragmatism involved:

Reason means that you’re going to do the rock hard things. You’re not going to settle them, really, but you’re going to do the best you can with them. You’re going to move them as far forward on as many points as possible.

The Iroquois law of peace assumes that you will not achieve peace. You will not achieve a perfect agreement between two warring sides about how the world ought to be in the future. But it also assumes that you can reach enough of it to have something to work on so that you can take the conflict from physical warfare over to a place where, as they used to say, thinking can replace violence.  3 

In many instances, Indigenous peoples used eternal symbols to show how strong and long the treaties were to last. But, as the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples stated in 1993:

Unfortunately, the Crown’s memory proved more fragile than that of the Aboriginal parties. The treaties were honoured by Canadian governments as much in the breach as in the observance, and, before 1982, Canadian courts upheld federal legislation imposing unilateral restrictions on treaty rights. At times, this holding was tinged with misgiving.  4 

Did this change with the amendments to the Canadian Constitution in 1982? Only somewhat: Treaty rights can still be “infringed” through a dance of justification, consultation and compensation. In the case of Peskotomuhkati Treaties with the Crown, it has taken twenty years of Peskotomuhkati effort for the Governments of Canada and New Brunswick to recognize that the Peskotomuhkati people actually still exist.

While we are renewing the relationship now, we recognize that it will take years to fill that vessel—the treaty–with practical meaning.

The Supreme Court of Canada in 2010 explicitly recognized that the Treaties between the Crown and Indigenous nations are about building relationships. In using the word “building,” in the present and future tenses, we believe the Court was saying that the work is ongoing, never truly completed. Reconciliation has become an express goal of the Constitution of Canada.

… the treaty will not accomplish its purpose if it is interpreted … in an ungenerous manner or as if it were an everyday commercial contract. The treaty is as much about building relationships as it is about the settlement of ancient grievances. The future is more important than the past. A canoeist who hopes to make progress faces forwards, not backwards.  5 

  1. Passamaquoddy-Maliseet Dictionary. The term for treaty derives from lakauwok, “they are related to each other by kinship.”
  2. Linda Hogan, “First People,” in Intimate Nature: The Bond Between Women and Animals
  3. Sotisowah John Mohawk, The Warriors Who Turned to Peace, Yes! Magazine, Nov. 2004.
  4. Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Partners in Confederation: Aboriginal Peoples, Self-government, and the Constitution, Ottawa, 1993, p. 26
  5. Beckman v. Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation, [2010] 3 SCR 103 at para. 10, see also paras 12, 67 and 71.