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Understanding the historical, cultural, and political relevance of Indigenous Treaty Rights

Understanding the historical, cultural, and political relevance of Indigenous Treaty Rights

by Trevor Doe

Trevor Doe

This summer I was honoured to be one of four undergraduate students within the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change to receive an inaugural EUC Undergraduate Research Award (EUCURA). This award allowed me to work directly with Professor Martha Stiegman on her “Polishing the Chain: Treaty Relations in Toronto” seminar series, as well as her book A Treaty Guide For Torontonians and it’s complimentary website.

I began my research by joining Martha and her fellow collaborators in the Talking Treaties Collective at the launch for their highly anticipated interactive book called “A Treaty Guide For Torontonians”. The launch was hosted by the Toronto Biennial of Art as a closing celebration of the 2022 exhibition and it included a brief explanation of the book as well as a live reading featuring actors from Jumblies Theatre. This performance allowed me to connect to the content of the guide, and exposed me to the passion and importance of understanding the historical, cultural, and political relevance of the Treaties made on the land we now call Toronto – it was a truly moving experience that really had me inspired and motivated for the research that lay ahead.

A Treaty Guide for Torontonians live reading at the Toronto Biennial of Art closing ceremony (Photo credit: Trevor Doe).

Over the summer I was tasked with creating edited transcripts of the 2021-2022 EUC seminar series Polishing the Chain. The six-part series was hosted by Dr. Stiegman and features 20 presentations from prominent Indigenous figures such as historians, artists, policy makers, professors, former Chiefs, and consultants. The theme of the presentations was a focus on the metaphor of polishing or preserving the Covenant Chain, or literally, remembering and upholding Wampum Belt diplomacy and Treaty rights between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

As I started on this project in the spring, I couldn’t wait to get these transcriptions out of the way so that I could move on to what I thought would be more useful, and beneficial work for Martha – they were just transcripts after all, right? Well, Looking back on that now I understand just how important reflection on new knowledge can be in understanding our world. At first, I found that using transcription software was helpful, but nowhere close to the accuracy needed for such complex material. Meticulously transcribing the series was required so that the power of the oral knowledge from the seminars could be reproduced to text. By imposing this strict attention to detail in the transcripts I discovered that by doing this work I was contributing to polishing the chain. With this discovery I let go of the idea that this was not valuable work, and I leaned into it.

The depth of knowledge I was gaining from every speaker of the series – as well as the checking of Indigenous language translations, and spell-checking historical names, Wampum Belts, and Treaty names – is what Hayden King (Executive Director of the Yellowhead Institute and Assistant Professor at Toronto Metropolitan University) refers to in Seminar Part 4: The Forgotten Promise of Niagara as “radical remembering.” For me this act of remembering became endless hours of reflection on the transcripts and what my obligations are as a settler in Toronto. For other non-Indigenous people radical remembering is anything from taking online classes or Googling local Treaties and their obligations within them – radical remembering is learning about the history of colonialism, and your role in it; for non-Indigenous people it involves understanding what it means to be a guest here. For generations, powerful settlers have passed down myths of fair Treaties, misconstrued Indigenous courtesies, and abandoned Wampum Belt diplomacy. This has created a Canada where non-Indigenous people have the luxury of forgetting they are guests on this land (Eva Jewell, Seminar Part 4: The Forgotten Promise of Niagara).

My EUCURA research investigated the ways in which Indigenous people do not have the same ability to forget, and it found that polishing the chain could be used pedagogically to expose non-Indigenous Canadians to their luxury of forgetting and it may create daily “radical reminders” of the ongoing colonization of this land.