OTTAWA — Many First Nations are preparing to mark significant anniversaries of their treaty relationships with the Crown in coming years, but a government briefing document says Ottawa has no plan to commemorate the treaties.
"Between 2021 and 2027, nine of the 11 numbered treaties will be marking significant anniversaries," the briefing note reads.
"Treaty 1 to 7 at 150 years, Treaty 8 at 125 years, and Treaty 11 at 100 years."
The note was prepared by officials for a top bureaucrat in the Crown-Indigenous Relations Department, which is responsible for settling land claims.
It was released in part to The Canadian Press under federal access-to-information legislation and outlines how the department has been working with Canadian Heritage for the last year, "given the high volume of upcoming treaty anniversaries," and the fact it's receiving requests for funding.
Canadian Heritage is responsible for the planning and funding of historical and cultural events, such as the 150th anniversary of Confederation.
By way of the treaties, the Canadian government gained access to vast swaths of land for settlement from the Northwest Territories and northern British Columbia through the Prairies and most of Ontario.
In exchange, Indigenous Peoples were provided parcels of reserve land and promised payments and other rights that many First Nations leaders and communities say have never been fully honoured.
Aaron Mills, a McGill University professor who focuses on Indigenous law and hails from the Couchiching First Nation, says it's important to recognize that from an Indigenous perspective, treaties are viewed as "living relationships," not merely as contracts.
Government officials underlined that commemorating the signing of these treaties would be "visible markers of reconciliation."
"Furthermore, they have the potential for high impact in advancing reconciliation with relatively low cost."
The November 2021 briefing note says besides these historic agreements, some modern treaties will also reach important milestones, including Nunavut, which marks 25 years as a territory in 2024.
The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada urged Ottawa to work with residential school survivors and the wider arts community to develop a reconciliation framework for Canadian Heritage and commemoration, officials noted.
"Treaty First Nations have continually called on the federal government to better recognize and commemorate treaties."
Officials say that to date, Ottawa's role in helping mark such events has been limited, in part due to the fact there is no dedicated source of money.
"Existing funding levels are not adequate to handle the potential number of treaty commemoration proposals as there are over 150 treaty First Nations and Indigenous organizations who could potentially be seeking to access these programs."
Officials added that, based on their meetings, they found "no federal department currently has a plan for treaty commemorations or funding for upcoming treaty anniversaries," with only limited support being available. They have recommended departments come up with an approach for the commemorations.
"The planning should have been in place for a while now," said Mary Culbertson, Treaty Commissioner of Saskatchewan.
She said Ottawa needs to step up and provide funding for such events, which is a feeling government officials noted is shared by Manitoba's treaty commissioner.
"We just need the financial support and we need the political support," said Culbertson.
Mills says there is a "massive educational deficit" as to what Canadians know about the treaties. He believes marking significant anniversaries, like a treaty's centennial, could be done in such a way that it becomes important to those who are not Indigenous.
"What we might do is honour the mistakes made so far, and commit to correcting course … and if Indigenous folks could be present in that way — I would be one — I would find that a really honourable, worthwhile purpose," Mills said.
"Our federal government, in particular, should lead in having that kind of dialogue with non-Indigenous Canadians."
Culberston said recognizing a treaty signing in a public way also informs people that they are not something of the past.
"It reminds everybody that we're here because of the treaties."
In a statement, a spokesman for Canadian Heritage didn't address the funding issues raised by government officials, but listed programs under which money for treaty commemorations can be accessed.
Daniel Savoie said these programs provided the funding for last year's anniversaries of signing Treaty 1 and Treaty 2 in Manitoba and Treaty 11 in the territories.
However, the briefing note singled out these events, saying they should not be seen as benchmarks because the COVID-19 pandemic limited their size. As well, officials said the events received "limited funding" from Canadian Heritage and other government offices.
"The lack of clear financial authorities and a dedicated source of funds limited the Government of Canada's ability to more fully support the commemorations."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 19, 2022.
Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press