Read our lips: we agree to share the land, not surrender it. That, according to this fine, careful study, is what Indigenous parties were trying to say during the negotiations of Treaties One through Seven on the prairies 150 years ago. Compare this with what was written down in the final texts, and the implications are huge — not just for who “owns” Canadian land but for what “sharing” it means today.
Sheldon Krasowski takes his time building his argument, starting with popular perceptions of the treaty process. Generations of historians have relied on an account by Alexander Morris, a Winnipeg land speculator, lieutenant-governor of Manitoba, and chief commissioner in most of the negotiations. When evidence has conflicted with Morris’s version of events, it has often been deflected by the historian George Stanley’s “cultural misunderstanding” thesis, which prevailed well into the 1980s. As Krasowski puts it, Stanley viewed European cultures as inherently superior to Indigenous ones and expected that such superiority would be an “insurmountable barrier for Indigenous leaders.” Even if different interpretations of events were possible, it was the European understanding of treaties — as narrowly legalistic — that mattered.
In a sweeping correction, Krasowski adopts a methodology he calls the Treaty Bundle approach, which foregrounds the oral histories of treaty elders. Starting in the 1970s, Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars like Harold Cardinal and Walter Hildebrandt recorded many oral histories of the treaty process, which have been handed down from generation to generation. Krasowski uses this evidence to reconstruct each treaty-making endeavour as the process moved westward through the 1870s. He persuasively reads oral histories alongside more traditional scholarly evidence: diaries, letters, and private eyewitness accounts from settler-farmers like James “Peace River Jim” Cornwall.
In negotiation after negotiation, Canada promised to provide agricultural equipment, schools on reserves, health care, and, in at least two instances, measures to conserve the bison and block liquor trafficking. The symmetries between the oral and written accounts are compelling: regardless of source, Krasowski finds no agreement to “cede, surrender and yield up to the Government of the Dominion of Canada for Her Majesty the Queen and her successors forever, all their rights, titles, privileges whatsoever to the lands included within the following limits,” as Treaty Four would have it. In fact, he suggests, Morris and other commissioners strategically avoided any specific mention of ceding or surrendering land.
Krasowski argues that Morris may have learned a lesson from his predecessor, Adams Archibald. While negotiating Treaty One, which was signed in August 1871, Archibald explained that all land not specifically set aside as part of a reserve would be turned over to the Crown. As a result of that statement, he spent “nine days discussing the land question because the Cree and Saulteaux demanded nearly the entire province of Manitoba as reserved land,” Krasowski writes. “Archibald resolved to avoid the topic of land cessions in future negotiations, and Morris clearly followed that example.”
Evidence does support notions of sharing the land. Parties involved with Treaty One, for example, agreed to set aside some areas for settler-farmers and some for Indigenous communities. “The remaining lands,” Krasowski explains, were supposed to “fall under dual Indigenous and Canadian jurisdiction.” In Treaties Four and Six, negotiations focused on permitted land use — surface rights, more or less, that were limited to the depth of a plow blade in some cases.
No Surrender is full of insightful details that challenge popular narratives. One insight is that First Nations had to spend years pressing for treaty making in their territories, as settlers squatted on choice locations and surveyors and telegraph construction crews went around planting sticks and running lines.
Another is the role that character and integrity play in shaping history. Simon Dawson, who worked as a government surveyor and road builder and was one of the commissioners for Treaty One, was respected by the Anishinaabe because he honoured their jurisdiction and the tolls they established to cross their lands. By contrast, Morris comes across as closer to the fictional picture Rudy Wiebe drew of him in The Temptations of Big Bear, where Morris contemplates the rolling prairie “now at his booted feet . . . with no more than a few embraces endured.” While Krasowski bends over backward to give Morris his due, suggesting in one instance that he was under pressure from his bosses in Ottawa, the facts beg to differ. Morris casually reneged on treaty promises, referred to promised schools as imparting “the cunning of the white man,” and tried to bar Indigenous leaders’ own interpreters from treaty council meetings.
Through Krasowski’s deft use of the Treaty Bundle approach, the book reveals a historic vision of Canada shared by two groups of people, albeit with differing belief systems, and it contextualizes Indigenous world views that informed negotiations. As Winona Wheeler, a Cree academic from Treaty Five Territory, puts it in her foreword to the book, the methodology presents treaties as sacred undertakings framed and confirmed in ceremony. Throughout No Surrender, Krasowski references the work of the Cree lawyer and academic Sharon Venne, who has pointed out that ceremony bestowed rights and responsibilities on Indigenous and non-Indigenous parties alike. Both have ongoing “obligations” to act as “stewards of the land.”
The oral accounts, in particular, position the Sacred Pipe Ceremony — not the written text that went back to Ottawa — as the centrepiece of treaty making. It solemnized the sharing relationship that the treaties embodied, with the smoke from the shared pipe understood as “the very point of contact with the Great Spirit,” according to some quoted elders. Krasowski describes the ceremony as one that “linked the partners in the treaty relationship” — an act that was both perpetual and grounded in kinship. Consider the words of Anishinaabe Chief Sah-Katch-eway. In accepting the terms of Treaty Three, in October 1873, he invited Morris to “lend me one of your daughters and one of your sons,” and in return the chief would lend Morris one of his daughters and sons “for you to teach what is good, and after they have learned, to teach us.”
No Surrender is a dense read, with too many details at times and not enough interpretation of their significance. Still, it is a valuable book that builds on other accounts of treaty making from an Indigenous perspective, notably the Abenaki literary scholar Lisa Brooks’s The Common Pot, from 2008. It also sets treaty making within a tradition of nation-to-nation dealings mandated by the Royal Proclamation of 1763, one of our founding constitutional documents. As such, it helps set the stage for the future, as Canada follows through on its 2016 adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and takes on the “foundational change” that Carolyn Bennett, then minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, described at the time. As a forward-looking text, No Surrender also complements Braiding Legal Orders, a collection of essays recently published by the Centre for International Governance Innovation, in which Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars juxtapose international and domestic laws with Indigenous legal traditions to imagine plausible shifts in policy in light of the UN declaration.
How were the numbered treaties actually forged? Did the nineteenth-century negotiations represent only legalistic — transactional — agreements? Or were they sacred, ceremonial starting points for ongoing relationships? There’s a huge difference in meaning between the two, just as there is between two views of land: as property to be surrendered or as a life-giving gift to be jointly stewarded. Krasowski’s work challenges us to consider those differences and the shifts — even foundational shifts — in popular perception they might require.