The Treaties of Today
The difference between the Mi’kmaq protecting their rights and settlers attempting to stop them is that only one group knows their history. The Mi’kmaq and their allies have always made it clear that they controlled their land and had the right to use it. Canadians—as treaty people—should understand the origins of this conflict and what is at stake.
Shortly after the British captured Fort Royal (now Annapolis Royal) in 1710, officials at the fort sent a delegation to inform members of the Wabanaki confederacy (a loose coalition of Indigenous nations in what is now northern Maine, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia) that a new imperial force controlled the region. The Indigenous response was predictable and firm. A Penobscot sachem stated “I am the only master of this land given me by God, and I depend on no one.”
Inside the crumbling sodden walls of Annapolis Royal, the British knew they had no control over Mi’kma’ki. In 1720, a full decade after capturing the fort, Nova Scotia’s governor complained that his authority did not extend “beyond cannon reach of this fort.” Five years later, the British negotiated their first treaty with the Mi’kmaq and other members of the Wabanaki. At a 1725 conference between English administrators from Boston and Wabanaki representatives, the Indigenous delegates promised not to disturb settlers on lands they currently inhabited. But the treaty also guaranteed these nations “and their Natural descendants…all their lands, liberties, and properties” and “the privilege of fishing, hunting, and fowling as formerly.” The 1725 agreement was not a land surrender, but rather a treaty of peace and friendship. Afterwards, when the English claimed that the treaty secured their right to expand and control territory, an Abenaki delegate, Panaouamskeyen, responded: “do not hence infer that I acknowledge thy King as my King, and King of my lands…God hath willed that I have no King, and that I be master of my lands in common.” The Mi’kmaq signed an exact copy of the 1725 treaty with the British government at Annapolis Royal. They understood their rights, and they would defend them.
By mid-century, Britain was eager to increase its presence in Nova Scotia. The planned military town of Halifax (1749) was to be one of five settlements on the peninsula. Set onto the side of a steep hill at Chebucto harbour, the town of Halifax was built on stolen land. According to the 1725 treaty, any new settlements would have to be negotiated with the Mi’kmaq. A letter written on behalf of the Mi’kmaq to Edward Cornwallis, the new governor of Nova Scotia, made their position perfectly clear: “the place where you live, the place where you are building a fortification, the place where you want now to establish yourself…this place belongs to me.” While Cornwallis did not halt construction on the new town, Mi’kmaw territorial strength prevented the construction of the remaining four settlements. By 1752, after sporadic violence with the Mi’kmaq, the British attempted yet another treaty. Jean-Baptiste Cope, who claimed to be a chief of the Shubenacadie Mi’kmaq, arrived at Halifax to treat with the new governor, Peregrine Hopson. After negotiations, a new treaty—one based on the 1726 agreement—was struck. It was a weak agreement, however, because Cope spoke only on behalf of a small group of Mi’kmaq. The following years witnessed renewed settler-Indigenous violence as the Mi’kmaq used force to protect their homelands.
When a new imperial war erupted in 1754—the Seven Years’ War, the first world-war, in its literal sense—the Mi’kmaq once again had to defend their territory. But they also protected their European allies. Nova Scotia was home to thousands of French inhabitants, the Acadians who called the region l’Acadie, and they quickly found themselves the target of British imperial policy. The Acadians had enjoyed better relations with the Mi’kmaq. Since their arrival in 1604, Acadians developed a system of dykes to reclaim marshlands from the Bay of Fundy’s tides, thus encroaching less on traditional homelands. The French and Mi’kmaq also intermarried and, in time, shared religious affinities as the Mi’kmaq increasingly converted to Catholicism. Starting in 1755, British soldiers rounded up French settlers, put them on ships, and dispatched them throughout the Atlantic world. The Mi’kmaq rescued Acadians who fled and took refuge in Mi’kma’ki. It was possible for settlers and the Mi’kmaq to co-exist, but those relationships were born of shared cultural understandings and mutual respect.
At the end of the Seven Years’ War, the British emerged victorious against the French and claimed (but didn’t control) nearly half of the North American continent. But they hadn’t defeated the Mi’kmaq or their allies, and therefore new treaties were negotiated in 1761. The lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia, Jonathan Belcher, invigorated by the British victories, met with Mi’kmaw delegates and referred to the English as “your merciful conqueror.” In an attempt to dictate to the Mi’kmaq their new relationship with the King, Belcher used a metaphor that revealed what the British hoped to achieve in Nova Scotia: private property. Belcher explained that English laws “will be like a great hedge about your rights and properties.” But there was a flip side to this metaphor that suggested the English weren’t as powerful as Belcher might have hoped. “I must demand,” he continued, “that you build a wall to secure our rights from being trodden down by the feet of your people.” The British believed they now controlled the entirety of Mi’kma’ki, but a Mi’kmaw chief described something much closer to the reality on the ground. “You were before these acquisitions a very great people, but we now acknowledge you to be much more powerful” he replied to Belcher, “tho’ less great in the extensiveness of your possessions than in the uprightness of your heart.” The Mi’kmaq understood the 1761 agreement as an extension of the treaties struck in 1726 and 1752. They understood the British were increasingly powerful, but they also knew that Mi’kma’ki remained unceded, and their rights to hunt and fish had never been surrendered. Not in 1761, and not in 2020.
Canadians are treaty people. Treaty making is a form of international diplomacy, and all Canadians should worry when the government ignores its previous agreements, or attempts to reimagine the terms simply because one nation is now reduced in strength and lives within the imposed borders of the settler state. Remembering 1726, 1752, and 1761 should not fall solely on the Mi’kmaq, but rather be a national project that can reinvigorate Canada’s relationship with its Indigenous partners.
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