The Niagara Treaty was pivotal to Canada’s existance


This week is a significant one for Canadians on a number of levels, some of which are interrelated.

As noted in this space last week, Monday, August 4 represents the centenary of Canada’s entry into the First World War where, by Armistace Day 1918, over 60,000 Canadian troops had been killed or injured.

But this is also the 250th anniversary of the Treaty of Niagara, another event of enormous significance, as was the First World War, to Canada’s development.

Last year, readers of The Expositor were presented with a concise outline of the impact of the Royal Proclamation of 1763 by Manitoulin historian Shelley Pearen, author of the enduring travel book ‘Exploring Manitoulin,’ and also ‘Four Voices’ (which examines the 1862 Manitoulin Treaty from four unique perspectives) as well as several volumes of historic Jesuit correspondence about Manitoulin Island in which she was involved as a co-translator.

The Niagara Treaty, whose signing is being celebrated this week on Manitoulin (this was a highlight event on the holiday Monday at the Wikwemikong Cultural Festival) as well as elsewhere throughout the Canadian Great Lake region and beyond, represents the actual ratification, in what is now central and eastern Canada, of the Royal Proclamation of the previous year and it is from these two documents that the relationship between the Crown (now Canada and its provinces) and the First Nations citizens of Canada, then and now, derives.

So this too is an important and significant anniversary to celebrate.

Apparently the First Nations leadership of 250 years ago also knew they were making notable history as the annals of the day report that no fewer than 2,000 First Nation leaders attended, representing 24 First Nations groups who came to present-day Niagara-on-the-Lake from as far east as Nova Scotia, from as far north as Hudson Bay and from as far west as the Great Plains (the present day Prairie Provinces).

The beaded wampum belts that Ojibwe historian Alan Corbiere of M’Chigeeng often interprets to ensure that the story of that historic meeting endures were an important record of what was agreed upon, rendered in the manner that the First Nations communities of the time recorded important events for perpetuity.

The 1764 wampum or “Covenant Chain Belt” centrally shows two human figures, representing the English and the aboriginal communities with hands joined while each figure’s other hand holds onto two joined six-sided symmetrical patterns that represents life going on in their respective nations and among their people. The covenant chains are beaded with the date 1764 with one more of the six-sided patterns beyond each set of two numerals at either end of the chain.

Sir William Johnson, representing the British Crown, in his presentation of the Covenant Chain and another wampum belt (that represented the 24 nations present) stated that, “You have now been here for many days, during which time we have frequently met to renew and strengthen our engagements and you have made so many promises of your friendship and attachment to the English that there only remains now for us to exchange the great belt of the Covenant Chain that we may not forget our mutual engagements. I now therefore present you with the great belt by which I bind all your western nations together with the English and I desire that you take fast hold of the same and never let it slip to which end I desire that after you have shown this belt to all Nations that you will fix one end of it with the Chippewas at St. Mary’s (present day Michilimackinac at the Straits of Mackinac) while the other end remains at my house and, moreover, I desire that you will never listen to any news which comes to any other quarter. If you do it, it may shake the belt.”

Sir William Johnson, by ending his speech with a threat in this way, was letting the chiefs know that he and the Crown did not precisely view this as an agreement between equals, or even between nation and nation.

But it was, nonetheless, an agreement in writing, through the wampum belt, that could be shown to other First Nations groups that hadn’t attended the event so that everyone could know what was being agreed to.

The previous year, the Royal Proclamation had established, at least for the British, their definition of Indian Country.

On these lands, the Crown claimed sovereignty but also agreed, importantly, that Indian Country lands were to be considered to be owned (or at least “possessed”) by the First Nations people living on said lands.

The purpose of the Niagara Treaty 250 years ago was to transfer ownership of the land to the Crown through the surrendering of claims on lands by First Nations peoples, a process that led directly to the reserve system as more and more Europeans filled present-day central Canada and wanted to take up these lands for agriculture and other purposes and some of the land transferred to the Crown was given back to the First Nations to form the reserves.

(Interestingly, this is why Wikwemikong’s official name is “Unceded Indian Reserve” as that community’s leadership, in subsequent local treaties, did not surrender their lands to be given back to them, a situation unique in Ontario and unusual anywhere in Canada.)

This Treaty of Niagara proved to be of enormous benefit to the British Crown militarily as, during the War of 1812 a half century later, First Nations that had been involved with the Treaty of Niagara allied themselves with the British and against the Americans as their leaders believed the treaty had bound them to the British cause and the First Nations participation in that three-year-long border war, primarily fought along the Great Lakes frontier, was a deciding factor in the British holding out against the Americans’ intent to extend their holdings to include, at the very least, present day southern Ontario.

Similarly, as we recognize a century ago Canada entered into the European fray that would become the First World War, First Nations men volunteered out of proportion to their numbers in Canada on the basis of this then-150 year old Niagara Treaty where they still felt they were bound to defend Britain’s interests, even abroad.

The Niagara Treaty has been pivotal in Canada’s development, even her survival, and this is another anniversary that must be considered marking a key point in our nation’s evolution.