Honouring the Treaty Spirit


“Honour the Treaty Spirit” 

a sermon by Rev. Brian J. Kiely with remarks by Jeff Bisanz

Unitarian Church of Edmonton, Oct. 25, 2015

An audio version can be found at http://www.youtube.com/EdmUnitarian

Look up ‘treaty’ in the dictionary.  It’s a contract or agreement between sovereign nations.  Look up the history of treaties and you can see there have been good ones: ones that create mutual security and financial gain.  There have been bad treaties, like the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I.  That was a punishing document forced on the German people by vengeful allied armies.  It demanded exorbitant reparation payments that threw Germany into crushing economic chaos and created the conditions that made World War II almost inevitable.

What’s the difference between good and bad treaties?  To me it comes down to a matter of respect.  When sovereign nations see mutual benefit and treat one another with respect, the treaty is likely to be fair, mutually beneficial and long lasting.  It helps when both sides have the power to ensure mutual enforcement.  Both sides are then invested in it working and nervous about it failing. There are consequences for failure on all sides.

When it came to creating treaties between the Crown and Canada’s First Nations and particularly Treaty 6 here in the west, there was a clear power differential. The Crown had it, and the weapons and troops to back it.  The First Nations people did not.  It might be that Treaty 6 was negotiated with fairness and good intention on both sides, but the overwhelming power differential soon set that fairness aside.

The inequality created too much temptation.  While a moral case could be made, there was no systemic need for the settlers to respect the First Nations rights.  The Crown had the ability to enforce any interpretation of the treaty they chose and the Indians couldn’t do a whole heck of a lot about it.

For example, the Crown took on an obligation to set up schools.  They did so.  The treaty did not specify maintaining First Nations cultures, so the Crown created residential schools designed to force assimilation and effect cultural genocide.  We are still dealing very much with the after-shocks of that choice.  The Cree and other first nations in this area had no means to fight back against the increasing European majority.

One might argue that technically the treaty was honoured.  Schools were built, for example.  But the spirit of the treaty was not honoured.  And there’s the rub, the disaster, the tragedy.  The spirit is what’s important.

A treaty enacted without mutual respect is an empty shell.  Laws must be more than a series of legal limits and permissions.  Interpretations of the law must be able to breathe and have spirit.  That’s what makes mandatory sentencing in general a bad idea.  It is law without life.

We had an election last week and changed governments.  To many a key issue was removing a government that was systemically dismantling the spirit of the law, the spirit of what it means to be Canadian.

A few weeks ago the End Poverty Edmonton strategy was released at a public meeting featuring Mayor Iveson and Task Force Chair Bishop Jane Alexander and the considerable team.  As someone who has been involved in the housing initiative started by Mayor Mandel, I was thrilled to see the next step introduced.


But the stunning moment for me came when the Mayor named as the first of five defining features of the strategy: Honour the Treaty Spirit.

Wow! Think about that.  What would that look like?  What would it mean?  I think it has implications for all of us.  The report explains it this way:

Our city has a surging number of First Nations, Métis and Inuit people who seek a bright future

in our city. Many of these people have been dramatically affected by the intergenerational trauma of residential schools and assimilationist policies, and poverty represents a legacy of inequities and injustices that continue today.

Edmonton is located on Treaty 6 territory, and City Council declared 2014-2015 a year of Truth and Reconciliation in Edmonton. Mayor Don Iveson points out, “we are all Treaty people.” Starting from this perspective, the EndPovertyEdmonton strategy has been shaped by its vision that Edmonton become a city where all can enjoy prosperity and equity, a city that lives and breathes the treaty spirit, and a city that uplifts us all.

Yes!  Yes! Not the law, not even the treaty obligations as I misquoted in the newsletter, but Honour the Treaty Spirit.  Let’s go back and think in terms of two sovereign nations treating one another with respect.  Let us start from a place of affirming the inherent worth and dignity of one another as our Unitarians Principles call us to do.  Let us look at Treaty 6 not just in terms of legalisms and cut and dried justice but with equity and compassion as well.

This part of the strategy includes five recommendations:

Establishing an Aboriginal culture and wellness centre.

Initiate people-first and trauma-informed policy and practice.  That’s the creating cultural safety approach I discussed two Sundays ago.

Implement a community witness program to carry on the healing work of the TRC locally.

Provide opportunities where Aboriginal people in poverty can “show and grow” their talents and abilities.

Make systemic changes to better reflect the needs, interests and culture of Aboriginal people.

Well all of those things are pretty institutional, so I was pleased that the Strategy also includes a ‘Count Me IN!” section about what individuals can do.

That includes things like participating in Aboriginal events, supporting their businesses, be part of the community witness program and get training as you are able in people-first and trauma-first strategies.  But the critical first step is what we have been discussing all month:  learning to recognize, as the Mayor says, that we are all Treaty 6 people – and think about what that means.

This week my younger grade six daughter was attending City Hall School, a wonderful classroom experience in City Hall where they take tours, meet councillors and officials and learn about various Edmonton initiatives programs and services.  One day a representative of End Poverty Edmonton dropped by and spoke with them on a visit to the Mustard Seed.  I asked her what she learned.  “We should treat the poor and the homeless as people just like us.  Smile at them and say hi! ”

Their teacher later told me that on the walk back to City Hall from the Mustard Seed everyone in the neighbourhood got big “HI’s” from each passing child.

If she learned nothing else this week, I am satisfied. And I think she did learn it.  The next evening, she came to help me at Food Bank here in Keeler Hall.  She handled the ID checks.  She  called everyone who came sir or ma’am and checked their ID’s with a smile and positive energy.   When families came with young children she went and played with them while their parents packed groceries.   And everyone leaving got a cheery, “Have a good evening!”

That’s honouring the treaty spirit from a 10 year old’s perspective.  Now if the rest of us could only do the same we would be well on the way to addressing the racism issues of our city and our country.