To celebrate Day One Hundred of Treaty Walks we held a blog launch. The highlight for me was a panel discussion featuring Michelle Hugli Brass, Kate Hersburger, Sandy Pinay Schindler, and Lynn Anderson. Michael Koops, my husband, moderated the panel, crafting the questions, fielding questions and reflections from the audience. The trust and honesty present in the room left me in a puddle of tears at the back. I haven’t known how to write about it until today. Over the next few weeks I will interview those panelists in an attempt to honour that discussion. Today I met up with Michelle Hugli Brass at the All Nations Healing Hospital.
Q: You hear the expression, "We are all Treaty people." What does that mean to you?
A: I think it’s a really good phrase that we’ve been hearing lately, especially the Office of the Treaty Commissioner using that phrase, and really getting that idea out there, and I think it’s really important for all Canadians to know they have a stake in these treaties, this is integral to our history, it’s how Canada was built, and people don’t realize that because it’s not taught in schools; treaties are not just something from the past that only apply to First Nations people, they apply today, and they apply to every single Canadian. Canada is a huge, vast country, and that is very rich, and it’s rich because of it’s resources, and its resources are accessed by Canadians because of the peaceful settlement of Canada which came from the treaties. Right? So everyone has treaty rights, our ancestors had the right to come to this land, to settle, farm, to build towns and cities, and grow a strong economy, and that’s how they enjoy their treaty rights, and you still see it today, with gas and oil exploration, mining companies, Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan is huge, and so this is how people benefit from their treaty rights every day, and many people only see the First Nations side of it, they see the support for education, and some tax free status on the reserves, and health care benefits, and that kind of thing. When you look at the issues that our people have, it’s a very small payout for the vast amount of resources and riches that we do have in this country. You look at where our First Nations people are in terms of health care and education; it’s very little in exchange for what was really given. So, the term we are all treaty people is integral to our history and it’s integral to how we’re going for form our relationship in years to come. It has to be based on that relationships and people from both sides need to realize we’re all stakeholders, and that we should all be proud of them, they’re not something that are holding us back, they’re not something that is a relic from the past, they’re living documents, that should be interpreted in a modern time. Like the medicine chest clause, they talk about that in treaty six, a medicine chest was provided for First Nations at the time, and that was the health care at the time, well today, we’re at the All Nations Healing Hospital, health care is very different, and it has to be adapted to fit for today, just like the resources are still being accessed today. And that’s a bone of contention, because a lot of elders say when we said we’d share the land, it was to the depth of the plough, you could come here and farm, it wasn’t talked about the resources under the ground, the minerals in the ground, because at that point it wasn’t discussed, it was just the initial discussion. Other’s might not agree that the resources are really part of it, but that’s the point, we’re all treaty people, so let’s get back to the bargaining table and negotiate and figure out what does this mean to everyone.
Q: In your opinion, "Why would a teacher need to 'mediate on treaties'?"
I think it’s a hard thing to teach. We haven’t taught it in school. People don’t grow up knowing this history. I didn’t learn it in the provincial school system. I was completely educated in Saskatchewan and I didn’t learn anything about treaties until I went to University. As I covered news stories about teaching treaties in the classroom, and the curriculum being developed, I thought, what a great idea, but what I heard afterwards and not always on tape because a lot of teachers didn’t want to say it out loud, that teachers weren’t opposed to teaching it, but they felt ill-equipped, or didn’t have the tools to teach it, and I don’t know if they got the support that they needed. In many cases, and I’m not a teacher, so I wasn’t in that situation, but in many cases, it sounded like it was dumped in their laps, here you go, you have to teach this in your classroom now without the proper tools and support, or not knowing the right cultural approach to it to. I think people want to be respectful and teach it well, so I think that idea of meditating on the treaties I find very interesting and I find very uplifting because it gives me hope because of this idea that to do it properly you can’t just understand the treaties by reading about them, understanding the treaties requires a relationship with the land, it requires a relationship where they were signed and the communities that were involved, and not everyone is willing to make the time to do that, and I think that is maybe the reason why.
Q: In her blog, Sheena confesses, "I've lived in Treaty 4 territory most of my life, AND as a Saskatchewan teacher, I am expected to bring 'Treaty teachings' into my classroom; However, I 'know' very little about treaties." How common is this statement?
I found it to be common in the teachers who I’ve spoken with in my position as a journalist covering stories like this. Most times I find that teachers are eager to learn and eager to bring in other speakers to help with that. And I’m sure there are some teachers who would prefer not to teach it.
Q: Do you feel any significant connection to the fact that we live in a place where Treaty Four was signed?
I think it’s really cool. I’ve only lived here for a year; I’ve always lived in Regina or Saskatoon. I feel it a lot more here, especially where I’ve been working lately, driving in to the All Nations Healing Hospital right next door to the Treaty Four Governance Centre. I don’t think about it every day because it’s just such a part of my life. But I do find it significant and I think if people can learn history here, and I think it’s a really good or unique way to get people who don’t have that historical understanding or don’t feel that treaties apply to them, to say that they were signed right here in our community, this is our history, you live right here and this happened that happened right here. To start that relationship building, relationship mending and building, to have it happen in the Fort Qu’Appelle area I think would be very significant. And I see from the panel and when we were speaking about this that there is a real desire for many people to learn more. What I liked best about the discussion was how many Non-First Nations people were there, especially of different ages, it was nice to see such a mix because often at these talks you see a lot of people who get it already and know it already and they’re there because they like to hear and have these discussions, but I really felt that this was a real community coming together and I think it has to do with this place, it might not have happened in other places, where you don’t have the land where it happened so close.
Q: In your estimation, how would you characterize the relationship between First Nations and non-First Nations here in the Fort, in Saskatchewan?
It’s a little bit hard for me to say at this point because it’s so new to me, but what I have noticed, and this is such a delicate thing to talk about, and when I talked about this on the panel, I talked about being frank and being brave when having these discussions because when you talk about race and racial issues and divides and barriers, people can get very hurt, and your emotions can get revved up, but it’s important to have the conversation. What I’ve noticed most in the Fort Qu’Appelle area is how much it seems to be mostly White and First Nations people, and I use the term white, I’m half white, I prefer it to Caucasian, but I’m happy to use Caucasian if people prefer it, too, again it goes to terminology and the tiptoeing around the conversation and what words do you use. Whereas in Regina, you’re starting to see immigrants coming in and people with different backgrounds and more diversity in the larger city. Most of my experience has been very respectful, but I’m also working in a place where it is very integrated and people of the different backgrounds working together. I don’t know what it’s like on the street. It’s always hard to identify racism, that’s the tricky thing with racism is that it’s very difficult to prove. When it happens to you and you bring it up, you appear as the trouble maker because you’re making a big deal about something and you can’t prove it. But I have had some cases where I’ve been treated different because I’m Native. I noticed that in Regina, too. But maybe I’m just more aware of it here because there are two camps, and I don’t say two camps that we’re all separate and on different sides. I’m not too sure. I’m sure my answer for that will develop over time. I was really pleased with the turnout at the panel because I really saw that willingness to be one community and work together.
Q: What role does Treaty Four have in this relationship?
That goes back to how we’re going to get that respect for each group. In this area we have people living on the reserves; whereas in the city you have that urban population, and you also have, in the circles that I went through, very educated population because most of my friends and the people I associate with I met in University, and then being a journalist, you’re also working with people covering politics and covering stories, people who have exposure to a lot of different kinds of people and cultures and ideas. That’s not to say that I didn’t run into a lot of close-minded people, because I certainly did in the city and in the journalism profession, but Treaty Four is integral, we need to understand where our relationship started and what rules and what guidelines were established to navigate that relationship. And it’s too bad, because it outlines everything that seems to be an issue of conflict today. You know, we hear the stereotypes, First Nations get free education, they get free health care, they don’t have to pay taxes, these stereotypes and myths that get perpetuated, but where do they come from? Yah, there are some benefits there, but they don’t go back and look at the treaties it really outlines that relationship as to where those benefits apply, in exchange for what, you know people say they get education, as if there was no tradeoff. I think that over time once people learn more about the treaties and our shared history that relationship will change and we’ll continue to define it and strengthen it.
Q: In her blog (Day 10), Sheena recounts a friend of ours, Helen Blacklake, making moccasins with a beaded Mini-Mouse design. What comparison would you make between these Mini-Mouse moccasins and Treaties?
I think a lot of people it’s that modern adaptation. We have our cultural ways and traditions, but we adapt to modern times, and the treaties have to reflect that as well. I touched on that earlier. First Nations don’t need balls of twine anymore or farming implements, when we look at economic development we’re at a completely different level now in 2012. And that applies to education. Education isn’t just one school house on the reserve up to grade eight. You need a university education, or a post-secondary education to participate in the economy, and that’s what we need in Canada. Treaties are not stuck in the past. First Nations are not stuck in the past. Our arts and culture is not stuck in the past. We’ve always adapted, that’s one thing our elders have always taught us, our people always adapted to the changing of the times, and that’s why we wanted to sign treaties. We saw that times were changing, we saw newcomers, we saw that it wasn’t going to go back to how it was. We needed the tools in order to share in the new life that was coming our way. First Nations wanted the education of the newcomers; they just didn’t want the residential schools and all the crap that came along with that.
Q: The other day, Sheena was interviewed on CBC’s Blue Sky, and at the end of the interview the radio host said something to the effect of, “Well, you have made a good impact or good start (on social justice) with this blog." How much of an impact do you think Treaty Walks will make?
I think it’s huge. I think you can make a huge impact. I think it’s so significant that you’re doing this. That you are a teacher, that you’re non-native, that you care about this issue, that you care about the treaties enough to walk on it, to blog about it, to think about them, to be really honest and truthful, to speak about them from a really truthful place inside and to have a meaningful impact. You know, people can blog about anything, and people do. There’s a lot of stuff out there that lacks substance and this is something that is so important and it’s something that has to come from our community. We can have our chiefs and our leaders and MLA’s and all sorts of people draft legislation and curriculum and documents and have negotiations but really when you talk about building on a treaty relationship it’s building it with our neighbours, our schools, our community, and for you to be doing this it gives me a lot of hope and it makes me feel really proud. So many of our own people are always trying to push treaties and have them recognized and upheld and to have an ally, to have somebody to stand with us, and understand them, and you don’t have to understand them the way we understand them, we all have different ways, right, but attempting to build on that relationship and learn, that alone has made an impact on so many people. It’s already had an impact on you, on the people who read your blog, on the teachers, at that panel and the more people that we can get connecting and linking to it. That’s another thing. On line, you have this vast audience that you can connect to, so I think the potential is really good there.
Q: Any reflections or a take-away from the launch or anything else you’d like to share.
We need to do more of this. We need more of the community coming together, to talk frankly about the treaties and what they mean because they do launch into other issues that hold us back from developing a strong relationship. They’re complicated issues. People want an easy answer. When people say, “Explain to me why you get this,” they want to be told something in a few sentences, and it just doesn’t work that way, it just can’t; it’s a very complex issue, and once you start learning you realize how much there is to learn. We’re talking about two separate world views and history and politics and emotion and race. They’re heavy issues with a lot of triggers that are embedded so they can be tricky conversations, so I think that these kinds of things are what will change our communities for the better. We have to think of our children and what kind of world and community we want to build for them. Our leaders still have a lot of work to do and our teachers and everybody else, but community members, just everybody, has a responsibility to be open and to share and to have the conversations.