70. Harold Johnson, Two Families: Treaties and Government

by breavman99

This summary is another adaptation of one I wrote for Dr. James Daschuk in the course on treaties I took with him last summer. And it’s more than appropriate to post this on Canada Day, because Cree writer and former lawyer Harold Johnson calls what we mean by Canada into question in Two Families: Treaties and Government. It was one of the most radical books I read last summer, and I continue to return to it, perhaps for that reason.

Johnson begins his book by introducing himself and his relations: “I am of this land,” he writes, echoing the Anishinabe Chiefs Craft discusses. “I am of this earth” (11). “I do not say that I own this land; rather, the land owns me,” he continues (13). That land holds stories, including the stories of the relationship between First Nations and settlers (12-13). “They can help us to live here in a good way if we learn to listen,” Johnson states. That is the purpose of his book: to teach settlers what they need to know if they are to live in this place—in Johnson’s perspective, the Treaty 6 lands—in a good way: to explain Cree laws and history, to explain how they are different from what settlers might have been told, to explain how the Canadian Constitution fits into Cree supreme law, and to “suggest how we might live together as two families sharing the same territory” (14). He will never suggest that settlers should go home, Johnson continues, because we “have a treaty right to be here” (14). Immediately Johnson’s perspective becomes clear: the treaties subtend Canadian law because they give settlers the right to share this land.

The key term in Johnson’s discussion is a Cree word he was given by Elders: kiciwamanawak, or “our cousins.” That is the term they told him he should use when addressing or talking about settlers. The kinship term is important. “In Cree law,” Johnson writes, “the treaties were adoptions of one nation by another” (13). That’s the reason Canadian laws are subordinate—or should be subordinate—to Cree law, in Johnson’s perspective: settlers were adopted by the Cree, and not the other way around.

Before settlers arrived, Johnson argues, “[w]e lived according to the laws of the Creator, which incidentally look a lot like the laws of ecological order” (18). It is the Creator’s laws that are superior to settlers’ legal systems. Those systems are simple compared to the laws of the Creator; a student could spend a lifetime trying to understand the questions that the phrase “All My Relations” raises (18-19). In Cree society, people are equals, and that means that Cree people and whites are also equals. “We should be living as two families in the same territory,” he states (20). He continues, giving a glimpse of what the Cree might have expected when they were negotiating Treaty 6:

When your family arrived here, Kiciwamanawak, we expected that you would join the families already here, and, in time, learn to live like us. No one thought you would try to take everything for yourselves, and that we would have to beg for leftovers. We thought we would live as before, and that you would share your technology with us. We thought that maybe, if you watched how we lived, you might learn how to live in balance in this territory. The treaties that gave your family the right to occupy this territory were also an opportunity for you to learn how to live in this territory. (20-21).

It’s worth noting that one of the Cree words for reserve, iskonigan, also means “leftover” (Wolvengrey 39). More importantly, it’s clear that, according to Johnson, settlers were supposed to adapt to Cree ways of living and laws, rather than the other way around. That, of course, did not happen, and one of the central reasons (aside from the sheer number of settlers who arrived in the 1880s and 1890s) might have been the way settlers and their government(s) have (as Johnson would argue) misunderstood the treaties.

There is no coherent theory that explains the sovereignty of the Crown in this territory, Johnson argues, unless one relies on “the out-moded doctrine that you have a right to this territory because you are superior to my family”—a doctrine that rightfully belongs to the KKK or the Aryan Nations (23). “Discovery cannot be justification for your family’s occupation of this territory,” he continues. “Your family did not discover this place. It was never lost” (23). Nor were First Nations conquered in battle. Therefore, “the only right you have to occupy this territory must come from treaty. You have a treaty right to be here,” Johnson concludes. “The only coherent theory that provides for your sovereignty that is not based on supremacist ideology is that you obtained the right to be here through negotiation and agreement” (25). Notice that Johnson is shifting between the words “occupation” and “sovereignty,” words that are not synonyms. Otherwise, “[w]e are left to assume that the Crown stole sovereignty, and that certainly is not honourable” (25). 

One of the ceremonies given to the Cree by the Creator is adoption, and for Johnson that is what happened when the treaties were negotiated. “It was in accordance with the law of adoption that my family took your ancestors as relatives,” he writes. “We solemnized the adoption with a sacred pipe. The promises that my ancestors made are forever, because they were made under the Creator’s law. This adoption ceremony is what we refer to when we talk about treaty” (27). The Cree adopted the Queen, according to Johnson, rather than the reverse (29). Of course, the implementation of the treaties did not reflect this understanding, and Cree societal structures have been damaged as a result. That is because of the difference between the written text of the treaty and the oral histories about it (41-42). “I doubt the Treaty Commissioner explained the treaty in a way that conveyed the meaning the Crown assigned to the words, ‘cede, release, surrender and yield up . . . all rights titles and privileges,’ and the limits to be placed on hunting and fishing,” Johnson argues (42). Sheldon Krasowski would agree with Johnson on this point, and in No Surrender: The Land Remains Indigenous, he goes beyond Johnson’s conjecture. On the contrary, Johnson argues, Elders who are familiar with the oral histories “dispute the written record of the treaties. . . . When the written record is compared with the oral history, it is clear that much of what my family members said to the commissioner has been omitted, and that which has been recorded has been perverted” (43). The word “perverted” suggested an intentional decision to mislead or misrepresent, which is the opposite of the conclusion J.R. Miller reaches in Compact, Contract, Covenant, or that Michael Asch comes to in On Being Here to Stay: Treaties and Aboriginal Rights in Canada. The cultural arrogance of the recorder, the people who write things down, is the reason for this perversion, and it’s a problem that doesn’t exist in oral history, according to Johnson, because in oral history the historians are bound by the Creator to maintain an accurate record of what was said and done, or else they will suffer negative consequences (43-44). “The written text of the treaties has no more authority than the oral histories,” Johnson continues. “The authority assigned to the written text is a subversion of what really happened,” which was that settlers “came under our law when you came to this territory. That is simple. You abide by the laws, customs, and traditions of the people in whose territory you reside (45).

Abiding by Cree law would mean abolishing hierarchies and artificial entities like corporations (46, 47, 49). It would also mean understanding that good and evil are extremes best avoided. “Our way of being is our understanding of where we are in relation to our environment,” Johnson writes. “This understanding has many more possibilities than the extremes of good and evil” (51). It would also mean abandoning adversarial ways of thinking about the world (57), as well as the belief that settler society is superior to the Cree. “As long as you insist on your doctrine of superiority, you will be in breach of that law [the law of adoption], and you will not develop your understanding,” Johnson writes. “We want to talk to you but you will not listen” (53).

Other changes would be necessary if Johnson’s understanding of the treaty became widespread, including the abandonment of the concept of property, which is inconsistent with the treaty’s promise to share the land and its resources. “The concept of property is laid over the earth like a sheet of clear plastic: invisible, sterile, and devoid of human connection,” Johnson writes (64). It would also mean that Cree nations have sovereignty, rather than the Crown. “We did not give you control over the entire territory, nor did we abdicate our responsibility to the earth,” Johnson contends. “Under our law, we did not have the right to pass off our duty to your family, to surrender our choice, our authority” (67). Also, the responsibility for resources would have to lie with First Nations, not the province—that decision violates the treaties (68). 

Moreover, the Canadian Constitution would have to be understood as secondary to the treaties. “Your acknowledgement of the treaties as first documents will begin to put us back in balance,” Johnson writes. “When your family accepts that this country’s founding families are yours and mine, then we can begin to search for other truths” (84-85). The doctrine of sovereignty would be unneeded, because settlers “have a treaty right to occupy and use this territory,” granted through the ceremony of adoption. “Sovereignty is an old excuse to deny my family’s equality with yours. Your family has sovereignty and mine does not” (89). And the written text of the treaties? “Kiciwamanawak, my family did not adopt a piece of paper; they adopted you. The paper at tre aty was ancillary to ceremony. My ancestors recognized your paper as your ceremony and participated so as not to offend” (90). The Constitution therefore becomes secondary to the oral treaty record. “I cannot accept that your constitutional documents have any power,” Johnson writes. “I cannot talk to those papers and tell them of the plight of my family. I can only talk to you, Kiciwamanawak, and remind you that you have treaty rights” (90). In fact, the Constitution is a treaty right, according to Johnson (92). He disagrees strenuously with the Constitution’s language regarding existing Aboriginal rights. “The assumption that your family can determine the rights of my family is never clearly articulated in your constitutional documents,” he writes. “Neither have your courts ever articulated a legitimate theory. Authority is merely assumed. Kiciwamanawak, I can only suspect the reason that the theory of your domination is never clearly articulated is because your family does not have one. The old theories of discovery or conquest or emptiness no longer hold true” (103). In fact, the Constitution itself “is subservient to and dependent on the treaties for its legitimacy,” Johnson argues. “There is no other legitimate basis for your occupation and use of this territory. It is only by treaty that you have any rights here at all” (105). And so Johnson returns to his starting point: “If we return to the original intention of treaty and recognize that we are relatives, Kiciwamanawak, we should be able to walk into the future in a good way” (121).

Two Families is a powerful expression of an Indigenous perspective on the treaties. It turns the standard way of thinking about Canada upside-down. I think it is definitely is one of the sources Asch uses in his discussion of treaties. There is a logic to Johnson’s argument that is difficult to deny, if you accept his claim that the treaties were ceremonies of adoption. Aimée Craft doesn’t go that far, in her book on Treaty 1, although she would agree with Johnson that the treaty was about sharing territory rather than surrendering it. And, to be honest, I can’t help thinking that our history would be less shameful if Johnson’s ideas had been shared by Victorian Canadians. There would have been no Indian Act, no residential schools, no pass system. Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine settlers and First Nations walking into the future “in a good way” (121), even if that’s what reconciliation actually means—although when I think about Johnson’s argument, I become ever more convinced that he’s right, and settlers are wrong.

Works Cited

Asch, Michael. On Being Here to Stay: Treaties and Aboriginal Rights in Canada, University  of Toronto Press, 2014. 

Craft, Aimée. Breathing Life Into the Stone Fort Treaty: An Anishinabe Understanding of Treaty One, Purich, 2013. 

Johnson, Harold. Two Families: Treaties and Government, Purich, 2007.

Krasowski, Sheldon. No Surrender: The Land Remains Indigenous, University of Regina Press, 2019.

Wolvengrey, Arok. nêhiyawêwin: itwêwina/Cree: words, vol. 1, Cree-English, University of Regina Press, 2001.