A wise man once said that those who don’t learn from their past are doomed to repeat it.
That sentiment perfectly fits the Indigenous concept of time as a moving wheel, rather than a straight line. What goes around does come around, and history does repeat itself, just as predictably as the recurrence of the seasons.
We’re supposed to learn from our mistakes so as not to keep making the same ones over and over again. The smartest among us know they can also learn from the mistakes of others.
So the task of presenters at a Mississauga Youth Forum in late November was really quite simple – summarize four billion years of history in four hours for about five dozen First Nations youngsters.
Doug Williams was on home turf in Curve Lake’s community centre, having once served his First Nation as Chief and now as an Elder, not to mention his distinguished career as a certified bullfrog poacher. Williams is one of few remaining speakers of the Mississauga dialect of Anishinaabemowin. He delivered a marvellous teaching on humility for the benefit of young citizens of Alderville, Hiawatha, Scugog and Curve Lake First Nations who signed up to take a half-day history lesson on a PA day when they could have been out playing road hockey or just Tweeting.
Taping sheets of flipchart paper to the wall, he used them as a linear timeline to illustrate the four billion years that science say our plant has existed. Doug used a felt pen to indicate the 20,000 years the Anishinaabe say we’ve been here, after which the 400 years since Champlain and other Europeans showed up was nothing more than the width of a marker-pen line on the ten-foot long chart.
Then he used a Medicine Wheel to show the emergence of plants, then trees, then birds and animals onto our planet, followed by a very thin slice of the circular pie for the time that we two-leggeds have been around. If all this isn’t enough to make you feel insignificant in the great scheme of things, you must have an ego on you like Stephen Harper.
My goal was to try and enthuse our young crowd – ages 12 to 29 – about a 248-year-old wampum belt that most Canadians don’t know about, and that many of those who do don’t care about. The 10,076 beads woven into the 1764 Treaty of Niagara Covenant Chain form one of Canada’s first constitutional documents, an agreement that Indians are Nations with inviolable land rights. The fact that First Nations kept their half of the treaty deal by defending Canada in the War of 1812 hasn’t stopped successive governments from having major memory lapses about their obligations.
Such historic knowledge is crucial for all young Canadians if future judges, journalists and members of parliament hope to fulfill their country’s promise.
The Covenant Chain laid the foundation for the treaty relationship, which was supposed to be about sharing but came to be more about greed.
Dave Mowatt, band councillor and de facto historian for Alderville First Nation, talked about perhaps the worst example of the 40-odd treaties enacted with First Nations in Ontario. Of the seven First Nations covered by the 1923 Williams Treaty, four were the Mississauga communities represented by our young audience members. Other governments claim that Williams signatories surrendered off-reserve hunting and fishing rights, the only time that has happened in Ontario, but Dave read actual minutes from Treaty 20 proceedings in 1818 that would help contradict that interpretation.
The Mississauga and Chippewa signatories have always understood that their historic harvesting rights were never ceded – and they weren’t allowed to have lawyers at the 1923 signings. Canada and Ontario, on the other hand, always have lots of lawyers. A few weeks before Dave Mowatt’s presentation in Curve Lake -- during early stages of a Federal Court trial about the terms of the Williams Treaty -- the province and feds suddenly conceded that the affected First Nations did not surrender their hunting and fishing rights in two million acres of traditional territory included in Treaty 20.
Doug Williams played a key role in helping the legal experts arrive at such a startling conclusion. In 1977, when he was Chief of Curve Lake, he and Wayne Taylor decided to catch some bullfrogs about 30 miles from Curve Lake, near Marmora. They were subsequently acquitted of charges, based on the terms of the 1818 treaty.
Doug delighted his young audience by describing techniques resorted to by people who want to practice their treaty rights while others consider them as poachers. He recounted strategies that ranged from submerging jacklights for spearing -- so they wouldn’t reflect off the water-- to fishing during Stanley Cup playoff season when game wardens were less likely to be on the job.
Anne Taylor brought history up to the present, reminding us that our actions impact on everyone else in our community circles, now and for seven generations into the future.
If we coujld all remember to live like that, only the good things that happen are likely to repeat themselves.
Maurice Switzer is a citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation. He serves as director of communications for the Union of Ontario Indians and editor of the Anishinabek News.