Indigenous historians offer valuable insights on Canada’s past. It’s time to listen to them.
Who gets to define Canadian history? Last May, Canadian writers took sides in a passionate debate about “appropriation of voice.” Novelists and journalists insisted on their freedom to write whatever they pleased. They said freedom of speech was in peril.
This debate about appropriating the voices of marginalized people also urgently concerns Canadian history and historians.
In May, I also read Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s leaked warning to the nine chiefs of the Matawa First Nations in far-northwestern Ontario. The province could delay no longer, Wynne said, on an all-weather road to give mining companies access to the so-called “Ring of Fire,” an area of the James Bay Lowlands rich in chromite and nickel. If the chiefs, as a group, would not agree to her “weeks, not months” timetable (Wynne faces an election in 2018), the province would negotiate individually with those nations who want the project.
Wynne’s statement was just one small incident in a long struggle, and I am no expert on these matters. Like most Ontarians, I have never been near the Ring of Fire.
But even from southern Ontario, I know enough about the history of Treaty 9, the one that covers northern Ontario, to know that when the First Nations there — like others elsewhere — agreed to share that land, they intended to run their own affairs and to control the resources vital to their survival. They did not authorize mining roads to be built by outsiders without local consent.
That was not a history that Wynne and her team seemed to know at all.
Recently, I talked with David Paul Achneepineskum. He has worked on selfgovernment and resource issues since he was a kid at Marten Falls on Ontario’s Albany River. Today he is CEO of the council of chiefs in the Ring of Fire region. After forty years of effort, he says, “there is no knowledge! Even at the government level, with senior bureaucrats and middle management, there is absolutely no knowledge of treaties. So there is no will at the political level to talk about treaties.”
Canada has committed itself to following the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but real progress on reconciliation depends on Indigenous people being able to run their own affairs and to control the resources to make that possible. “We are all treaty people,” First Nations leaders say. But many non-Indigenous Canadians, even ones in positions of power, hardly seem to have heard that message.
There is a profound challenge for history and historians here. Many fine historical scholars study Indigenous issues in Canadian history. Jim Millar, Sarah Carter, and Arthur Ray come to mind, as do Indigenous scholars such as Blair Stonechild and Georges Sioui.
Materials are at hand via which we can inform ourselves about treaty relationships, residential schools, violence against Indigenous women, and other vital public policy questions. Canada’s History magazine includes more Indigenous history now than ever, while last fall’s Canada’s History Forum focused on Indigenous history in partnership with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. But Wynne’s recent statement suggests understanding of these vital questions is hardly widespread.
So are journalists and novelists — and historians — free to write what we please?
We are. But experience suggests that freedom to imagine “Indians” has mostly given us what historian Daniel Francis has called “The Imaginary Indian.” We need more Indigenous history of Canada. It will be more powerful and more persuasive when more of it is researched, written, and presented by Indigenous historians — scholars who know their own traditions and issues.
‘There is no knowledge! Even at the government level ... there is absolutely no knowledge of treaties.’ — David Paul Achneepineskum
Former Fort Hope First Nation Chief Charlie Okeese looks over the mining claims for the Ring of Fire project.