Reaffirming the Treaty Relationship

Renewing the Treaty relationship is part of Wabanaki law. Reaffirmation is not new. It is restorative. After a century and more of neglect, it is also healing. The 2016 reaffirmation is only the latest in a long chain of renewals.

The 1725 Treaty established the principles of the formal political relationship between the Peskotomuhkati, Maliseet and Mi’kmaq Nations and the Crown. British colonies used written documents as evidence of their agreements. The Wabanaki nations used memory, wampum, and annual councils to keep the relationship alive in their minds and hearts. Sir William Johnson, the Imperial Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, explained in 1763:

I have observed to the Government that as it is the way of keeping peace made use of by the Indians to meet frequently, so we can never expect a continuance of peace with them unless we have annual meetings with the Confederacies, or at least as often as may be for repeating past transactions and renewing treaties which is the way they preserve these things in remembrance.1

The historian Ken Coates explains:

… The 1725 treaty served as the model for all subsequent treaties so that in later reaffirming their friendship and peace with the English Crown in 1749 and 1761, Indian delegates were actually re-establishing the laws which would govern their relations ...2

The Treaties are part of a complex legal system. More than that: they are the hinge between two equally respectable, complex legal and political systems. Reaffirming Treaty relations is regular maintenance for the relationships and the commitments that accompany them. The reaffirmations have sometimes been treated as separate Treaties, because they included adjustments for political, economic or social change. However, the records of the councils themselves show that the main purpose was to confirm the faithfulness of both sides to the basic principles of their existing relationship, not to do something radically new.

In late August, 1749, delegates from the Wabanaki nations met with the Governor of Nova Scotia. The express purpose of the council was to reaffirm the 1725 Treaty.

Governor: I have instructions from His Majesty to maintain amity and friendship with the Indians and to grant those in these provinces all manner of protection….I ask if you are impowered from your chiefs to make a particular treaty with me.

Indians: Yes, we come on purpose…

Governor: Do you remember the treaty made with your tribes in 1726?

Indians: Yes, some of us were present when it was made.

Governor: Will you have it read to you?

Indians: We have a copy ourselves, and we are come to renew it.

Governor: Have you instructions from your tribes to renew the same treaty?

Indians: Yes.

Governor: Then ‘tis necessary that the treaty be read (Accordingly, it was read in French and interpreted from French into their language by Martin, the Indian, and André, the interpreter from Minas). Do you agree to renew every article of the treaty now read to you?

Indians: Yes. 3

In 1760, after the capitulation of New France, the Peskotomuhkati and Maliseet Nations met with the British and again reaffirmed their relationship. William Wicken, in his essay on the Maritime Treaties, published on the website of the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, explains:

The Maliseet-Peskotomuhkati treaty of 1760 formed the basis on which later treaties were signed with individual Mi’kmaq communities in 1760 and 1761…

There are both similarities and differences between the treaty signed with the Maliseet-Peskotomuhkati in February 1760 and those treaties signed later with Mi’kmaq communities. The most important difference was that the February treaty specifically reaffirmed earlier treaties made with the Maliseet-Peskotomuhkati. In this case, the texts of both the 1726 and 1749 treaties were included. At the same time, the treaty also introduced several new agreements and so modified the British relationship with the Maliseet-Peskotomuhkati. The most important addition was the truck house clause. 4

When Joseph Goreham was appointed Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs in 1766, based in Halifax, his instructions from Sir William Johnson were to tell the Wabanaki nations:

… that we are now at Peace with all nations of Indians, and expect that they will be careful in preserving the Covenant Chain of Friendship on their Parts, to which end you will occasionally meet them to repeat former Treaties, and Engagements … And you are annually to visit the Tribes, and hold a Congress at which all past Engagements are to be repeated, and ratified ...” 5

People who use their minds rather than paper to “preserve things in remembrance” tend to focus on principles rather than details. The annual cycle of ceremonies of thanksgiving re-minds people of their relationship with the natural world. In the same way, regular reaffirmation of the Treaty relationship both re-minds and renews the bond between the nations.

After 1725, the councils between the Peskotomuhkati Nation and the Crown reaffirm earlier agreements and relationships. To those who think in terms of linear time, the councils of 1749, 1752, 1760, 1766 and 1779 can be seen as separate treaties. In Wabanaki law, the relationship is like the rivers the people see every day: the treaty councils are like stones along its course, but what is most important is the flow of the river itself through time. Throughout the colonial period, people on both sides of the Council fire – the Crown’s representatives and the Chiefs of the Indigenous nations – used metaphors that expressed their desire that the relationship should be constant and lasting. As long as the sun and moon shall endure, they said. As long as the grasses grow and the rivers flow. Hands clasped in perpetual friendship. The Mi’kmaq people compare the sequence of treaty councils to a chain.7 The Peskotomuhkati Council views the Covenant Chain as a distinct symbol of the relationship itself: it binds the nations’ arms together in brotherhood, as long as they hold fast to it.

In May, 2016, at Qonaskamkuk (St. Andrews), the ancient fireplace of the Peskotomuhkati Nation, representatives of the Governments of Canada and New Brunswick met with the Peskotomuhkati Council.

The three sides agreed that the principles of the existing Treaties between the Peskotomuhkati Nation and the Crown – respect, trust and friendship – would continue to guide and govern their relationship. They also agreed to reaffirm the Treaty.

  1. Papers of Sir William Johnson, State University of New York, Albany 1951, 7:208, Oct. 7, 1769
  2. Ken Coates, The Marshall Decision and Native Rights, 2000, McGill- Queens University Press, p. 34
  3. Thomas Akins, Ed. Selections from the Public Documents of the Province of Nova Scotia, 1869, Nova Scotia Archives, Halifax, p. 573.
    William Wicken, Fact Sheet, Treaty of Peace and Friendship 1760, p.7. The truck (or trade) houses were a means of ensuring trade at reasonable prices under Crown supervision. These provisions were taken by the Supreme Court of Canada in the Donald Marshall decision in 1999 as evidence of an intention to recognize and protect Wabanaki commercial shing.
  4. Papers of Sir William Johnson, 7:196.