Voices

Anthropologist digs into native treaties

Simon Nattrass - Provided
Simon Nattrass
— image credit: Provided

In the past, I have invoked the ghosts of Victoria’s birth to illustrate the ongoing injustice borne by the indigenous nations of British Columbia. The demons of our past — James Douglas, John Helmcken, Matthew Begbie — make convenient villains, their crimes laid bare by a view of history less biased toward colonial heroes.

It is easy to fill ourselves with guilt when the legacy of these men is revealed in the politics and relationships of today, but for UVic anthropologist and fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, Michael Asch, guilt is not the final word.

At first Asch set out to tell a story, to help those who had never thought about pre-colonial history to understand where we come from and what it means to live on someone else’s land.

As time went on, simply knowing our history wasn’t enough for Asch or his students, and he began looking for a way to move away from the political and social foundations laid by men like Douglas and Begbie.

Asch turns to an unlikely source for this alternative, looking to a set of treaties written during the confederation of Canada. We can neither deny that today’s treaty process is deeply flawed nor ignore  governments’ willingness to minimize the promises made to the people whose land we have gleefully logged, strip mined and developed for hundreds of years.

Even so, for all these flaws, Asch’s work reveals in these early treaties one of the only opportunities Canadian law offers to pursue a relationship with indigenous peoples characterized by respect instead of exploitation.

Asch’s work is founded in the simple reality that indigenous people were here first and have a right to the land that continues to this day — a right that Canada continues to ignore.

The promises made in these treaties are simple: to approach our relationships with indigenous peoples with kindness, to respect their right to the land, and not to interfere with their cultures or ignore their interests. Every tar-sands pit, oil rig, mine, and even city takes on a new light when we consider these obligations. M

Asch will be teaching a free course as part of a series on Canadian History and Politics with the Free Knowledge Project. For dates and other information visit freeknowledgeproject.wordpress.com. M

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