Manitoba History: Review: Michael Asch, On Being Here to Stay: Treaties and Aboriginal Rights in Canada
by Ryan Eyford
Michael Asch, On Being Here to Stay: Treaties and Aboriginal Rights in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014, 232 pages. ISBN: 9781442610026, $24.95 (paperback)
The subject of anthropologist Michael Asch’s On Being Here to Stay: Treaties and Aboriginal Rights in Canada should be of vital interest to all Manitobans, especially in light of the recent Maclean’s magazine cover story highlighting the problem of racism in Winnipeg.  Asch, Professor Emeritus at the University of Alberta and current visiting Professor at the University of Victoria, derives the book’s title from a statement made by former Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Antonio Lamar in the monumental 1997 Aboriginal title case, Delgamuukw: “Let’s face it, we are all here to stay” (quoted on p. 3). Justice Lamar made the statement in the context of discussing the need for “the reconciliation of pre-existence of aboriginal societies with the sovereignty of the Crown” through negotiated settlements (p. 3).
Asch argues here that arriving at such agreements is necessary not only to achieve meaningful reconciliation and to build a relationship of mutual respect between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples, but also to legitimize the very existence of Canada itself. Asch asks non-Aboriginal Canadians, who he refers to as Settlers (capitalized in the text), “what, beyond the fact that we have the numbers and power to insist on it, authorizes our being here to stay?” (p. 3) Asch’s use of ‘our’ in this instance is indicative of the way he addresses his audience throughout the book. He encourages all Settlers to recognize that they have a responsibility to live up to the true spirit and original intent of treaties made with Indigenous people regardless of “whether we arrived yesterday or a century ago or more” (p. 164).
In the preface, Asch explains that his intention in writing the book was to “put in one place a position on the political relationship between Indigenous people and the Canadian state that I had been developing for thirty years or more” (p. vi). That position has been shaped by the research and publication of two influential books, Home and Native Land (1984) and Aboriginal and Treaty Rights (1997), by appearing as an expert witness in Aboriginal rights court cases and public judicial enquiries, during work as a senior research associate on the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1993-94), and through the research and personal relationships formed with people in the community of Wrigley (Pehdzeh Ki), North West Territories, especially the late Mrs. Jessie Hardisty, to whom the book is dedicated.
In large measure, On Being Here to Stay represents a continued exploration of a question addressed in Asch’s earlier publications, which strikes at the heart of the question of legitimacy: how can the fact of Canada’s existence be reconciled with the 1960 United Nations Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples (also known as the Declaration on De-Colonization), to which Canada is a signatory? That declaration stipulates that “it is wrong legally as well as morally to move onto lands that belong to Indigenous peoples without first obtaining their permission” (p. vii). As any student of Canadian or Indigenous history should be aware, that permission was never granted for vast areas of what is now Canada, and, even in those areas where historic treaties were signed, such as Manitoba, there remain fundamental differences of interpretation between First Nations and Canada over the meaning of those treaties. Did Indigenous nations surrender land and sovereignty to the Crown, or did those nations agree to share the land with the newcomers and coexist in a relationship of fundamental equality and mutual respect (pp. 76-78)?
Asch argues that the treaties did not transfer sovereignty to the Crown, and did not result in the surrender of title to the land, because, regardless of what the written treaty documents say, such subjects were never explicitly discussed or explained to Indigenous treaty partners during the negotiations (pp. 106-12). In making this argument, Asch draws heavily on the perspectives of Indigenous Elders and other knowledge keepers. He dedicates considerable space to presenting “what Indigenous peoples today explain are the terms of the treaties made with the Crown in the past that permitted settlement on their land” (p. vii). In the process he defends the oral record of the treaties against the claim, made by Thomas Flanagan and others, that knowledge transmitted in oral form is inherently unreliable. Chapter 3 is largely a rebuttal of the arguments made in Flanagan’s 2008 book First Nations? Second Thoughts.
The first four chapters of On Being Here to Stay provide a valuable overview of contemporary discussions and debates of treaties and Aboriginal rights in Canada. The second half of the book (Chapters 5-9) takes Asch in two “unanticipated directions” (p. x), both of which are essentially historical. That is, although Asch intended the historical background for the book to go back no further than the Supreme Court’s 1973 Calder decision, a landmark case widely seen as ushering in a new era of Aboriginal rights litigation (discussed in Chapter 2), he ultimately delves much deeper into the history of relations between Indigenous nations and the Crown. He presents a detailed analysis of Treaty 4 (1874) and Treaty 6 (1876) in Chapters 5 and 8, and a critical exploration of concept of a “nation-to-nation relationship,” often referenced by First Nations leaders in Chapters 6 and 7. These unanticipated directions in Asch’s book together amount to a recognition that any understanding of the contemporary relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the Canadian state must be grounded in a deep historical perspective, one that thoroughly examines all available sources, but also works to avoid the Euro-centrism inherent in privileging written texts over Indigenous knowledge.
Asch’s discussion of Treaty 4 will be of special interest to those familiar with the history of the treaties. He compares published Indigenous oral histories of the treaty with several written records created at the time of the negotiations, particularly the transcript of discussions included in treaty commissioner Alexander Morris’s book, The Treaties of Canada with the Indians (1880). Based on this comparison, Asch makes some interesting claims. First, he takes a very optimistic view of Morris’ actions and intentions, arguing that when he made promises to the Cree and Saulteaux chiefs he “meant what he said” (p. 82). Second, based on his comparison of the sources, Asch claims that interpretation of the treaty’s meaning that Indigenous leaders provide today “more accurately reflects the shared understanding of both parties [emphasis in original]” than does the written treaty text (p. 82). Asch recognizes that this is a contentious claim that will not be convincing to everyone; I would include myself among the skeptics. Since Asch states that it is important to compare all the available evidence, it is unfortunate that he does not go beyond published sources to explore Morris’ unpublished correspondence, available at the Archives of Manitoba. I would contend that accepting his argument requires us to ignore much the historical context surrounding treaty making.
Ultimately, the reason Asch wants us to believe that there was a shared understanding at Treaty 4, and that Morris really did mean what he said, is because he wants us to believe that reconciliation is possible. In spite of the flaws in the written documents and the Canadian government’s poor record of fulfilling its promises, Asch sees treaties as the best way forward for reconciling Canada with the U.N. Declaration on Decolonization, and for achieving the kind of negotiated settlements that Justice Lamar referred to in Delgamuukw. Ultimately, Asch provides a hopeful vision of the potential for rebuilding relations between Indigenous people and Settlers that all Manitobans would do well to pay attention to.
1. Nancy Macdonald, “Welcome to Winnipeg, Where Canada’s Racism Problem is at its Worst,” Maclean’s, 22 January 2015.
Page revised: 19 November 2015