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Polishing the Covenant Chain and renewing treaty relationships

Polishing the Covenant Chain and renewing treaty relationships

Martha Stiegman

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) called for the renewal of treaty relationships  and the development of curriculum on treaties. Both the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and the Ontario-based Ipperwash Inquiry identified treaty education as key in creating  just and equitable relations.  

Five years after, Professor Martha Stiegman decided to further take up this challenge, in collaboration with Ange Loft, Victoria Freeman, Jill Carter and Al Corbiere. The team of academic and non-academic researchers identified the Covenant Chain relationship and its extension through the 1764 Treaty of Niagara as central to their SSHRC project on “Polishing the Chain”. Negotiated according to Indigenous protocols, the alliance linked both Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe peoples with the British Crown in a nation-to-nation agreement based on respect and reciprocity; it also ratified the 1763 Royal Proclamation on Indigenous terms. 

The overarching goal is to activate a long-neglected treaty obligation to "polish the Covenant Chain" (an Indigenous metaphor for renewing treaty relationships). By helping Indigenous and non-Indigenous Torontonians learn the history of local agreements between Indigenous and settler peoples and with the Land, an important first step is made towards rectifying and renewing these relationships. Careful attention is given to both Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee perspectives and to how diverse settler and non-Indigenous (including Black and im/migrant) communities relate to this history and the structures of power it has created. 

Drawing on research into wampum diplomacy, the project explores the Covenant Chain’s origins in the Guswentah/Two-Row Wampum -- still considered a model for respectful mutual coexistence to  this day -- and its metaphorical evolution from a rope to an iron chain to the silver Covenant Chain between the British and Haudenosaunee Confederacy. 

The project will bring history into the present by tracing more than three centuries of Indigenous activism and calling to honor the agreements -- from Pontiac’s uprising in the 1760s and  the Grand General Indian Council of the 1870s to the Constitution Express of the 1980s and Idle No More. By revisiting the formerly shared world of treaty diplomacy, the team will draw attention to the historical injustices and its legacies, identify and renew the core principles by which to assume people’s responsibilities, and clarify the rules of engagement between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Torontonians and between Indigenous Peoples and Canada. 

Leveraging on the community and arts-based research of the Indigenous-led Talking Treaties project of Jumblies Theatre, a Toronto-based community arts organization, to instigate, amplify, and enrich public discussion of  treaty responsibilities as settler and Indigenous residents of Tkaron:to, the project will examine the historical significance and contemporary relevance of three key intercultural agreements that underpin relations in the city today. Using a unique transdisciplinary approach, the project will combine Talking Treaties' five years of community-engaged research involving over 3000 participants (Indigenous knowledge-keepers, Indigenous community members, settler residents) with robust historical and treaty scholarship and Indigenous artistic practice.  

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Project outputs include a suite of three arts-informed educational resources (geared to Indigenous and settler audiences) that will be prominently launched and disseminated through the 2021 Toronto Biennial of Art. Attracting almost 300,000 visitors in its 2019 iteration, this international event offers an unparalleled opportunity to mobilize Indigenous knowledge and to engage diverse audiences who might not otherwise seek out treaty information. Partnership with the Mississaugas of the Credit's Moccasin Identifier Curriculum Project and the Urban Indigenous Education Centre of the Toronto District School Board will help ensure future uptake by Toronto area teachers, regional First Nations, and relevancy to Indigenous and diverse non-Indigenous students. 

Martha Stiegman is assistant professor at the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change and is a documentary filmmaker. She holds a joint doctorate in communications studies and political science from Concordia University examining Mi’kmaq treaty and inherent rights. Her scholarship examines Indigenous/ settler relations in Canada, with a particular focus on treaties in their historical and contemporary manifestations. Over the last 15 years she has led, in close collaboration with Indigenous scholars, artists, and community leaders, numerous participatory action research projects investigating these themes. Her work has screened in festivals around the world from Tunisia and New Zealand to Brazil. Her debut documentary, In the Same Boat? explores alliances between Mi’kmaq and non-Indigenous fishing communities in Eastern Canada. Honour Your Word is an intimate, behind the barricades portrait of the Barriere Lake Algonquins and their compelling struggle to protect their traditional territory. She was recently a guest speaker in an ecopolitics podcast episode on treaty relations and environmental politics in Canada.