Treaty rights: the next generation

Carmen Head, left, and Zoey Sanderson said they'll bring the messages they learned at the treaty forum to their school at the James Smith Cree Nation.

Young people at the Prince Albert Grand Council’s four-day forum on sovereignty and treaty relations heard a powerful message: get political and stand up for your treaty rights

When Sol Sanderson was a young man, his elders taught him many things. They taught him about his duties, and the importance of stewardship.

First and foremost, they told him to remember the past.

“The elders told me,” he recalled, “if you’re going to be a leader, then you need to understand the history and the experiences we’ve had.”

It’s a message the former FSIN chief is passing on to the next generation of indigenous leaders. He addressed them at the Prince Albert Grand Council’s sovereignty and treaty relations forum, stressing the need for First Nations people to learn their rights and devise a plan for upholding them.

Those rights are spelled out in 11 numbered treaties, negotiated over 50 years between First Nations people and the federal government. At that time, from 1871 and 1921, bands across the Prairies were struggling with changing ways of life and the decimation of the bison herd. The federal government wanted their lands for agricultural settlement, and sought to avoid the costly Indian Wars raging south of the border.

So the two sides forged agreements. Ottawa offered agricultural assistance, annual payments, on-reserve education and “medicine chests,” in exchange for access to indigenous lands. The exact terms of the treaties, which included oral and written commitments, have been contested ever since.

But Sanderson reminded the youth that their most important rights won’t be found in the treaties. First Nations people governed themselves prior to colonization, he pointed out, so they retain inherent rights to sovereignty and nationhood.

“You’ve got to be careful how you interpret treaties,” he said. “You’ve got to interpret the spirit and intent. That means that everything we had prior to treaties remains intact today.”

For more on this story, please see the Jan 20th print or e-edition of the Prince Albert Daily Herald.