Forgotten arguments of Deskaheh. (Speech)

Conference McGill University
Speech by Kahn-Tineta Horn

MNN. Nov. 10th 2002


Canada’s Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples now admits that the relationship between the First Nations and the European colonizers began with the Two Row Wampum Treaty. We agreed to live side by side with each other – with us in our canoe and they in their ships. This is an agreement that allowed our peoples to share the river. The Two Row recognized that the Indigenous Peoples and the newcomers belonged to different families with different languages, culture, laws and ways of life. Back in the days of first contact, Europe’s monarchs recognized that we were not their subjects and they agreed to leave us alone to live according to our laws and customs. We agreed to share the land as separate social groups, not as one political entity.

As time went on the colonizers started to look at things differently. They forgot about the Two Row Wampum and adopted a geographic description of themselves. They had battles with their European cousins over who could come to North America. Then they started to impose their laws and ways on everyone over here based on the treaties they made to end their wars with each other. They never consulted the Indigenous nations who had been taking care of the land since time immemorial. Instead of staying in their own ship they decided to take over the whole river.

Some of Britain’s North American colonies confederated in 1867 to form Canada. The new political organization was called a “dominion” because the colonial visitors started thinking they had a right to dominate the land and all the people on it. They changed the way they defined their political identity. Instead of basing it on the allegiance they owed to their king or queen, they based it on the land they claimed. They changed from sharing to dominating.

There was no legal basis for this change. Canada was a British colony and Britain could not give her subjects here more than she had to give. All the British had was an agreement to share. Maybe Canadians forgot about the Two Row Wampum, but Britain could not give Canada the right to make laws for our people because we were never British subjects.

The Indigenous peoples never agreed to change the terms of the Two Row Wampum treaty. Our ancestors were not consulted. They would never agree to such a serious change because that takes the land away from our future generations. And they had no right to do that. The whole concept violates our law. We are the caretakers. We hold the land for the future generations. Britain’s Canadian subjects had no right to force Indigenous peoples into their territorial concepts of nationality and property. They have no right to continue to disregard the original agreements by imposing their new geographic definition retroactively.

When Europeans first came to Turtle Island everybody knew they were subjects to their kings, and that Indigenous people were not. The way of life of the Indigenous peoples was a revelation to Europeans. We were free. We treated everyone equally. We were all citizens of our own nations.

The European peoples were influenced by the freedom we had. They didn’t want to be subjects anymore and so there has been a change in the colonizer’s way of thinking about law and international relations. Europeans have formally embraced equality along with the rest of the world. Britain does not have subject status anymore. Canadians define “nationality” in territorial terms now. They have citizenship based on place of birth. But they have not fully grasped the meaning of equality. Their institutions don’t give their citizens much of a voice. And their new First Nations Governance Act shows that they don’t respect our voice at all. They are ignoring their obligations under the Two Row Wampum.

As far as we are concerned, the colonizers are free to change the way they think of themselves….but this does not give them the right to define our identity and appropriate our resources. They made many changes in themselves during the 19th and 20th centuries. But, especially since Confederation, Britain’s Canadian subjects have been violating Britain’s agreements with the Indigenous nations.

Confederation and the British North America Act did not give Britain the right to let Canadians violate the Two Row Wampum. Britain recognized that its people could only come onto our land as a separate social group that would share the river with us. But Britain’s Canadian subjects fell into the erroneous habit of thinking that they owned the land. This lie is taught in your education system. Canada draws its maps to perpetuate the propaganda that justifies the theft of our resources.

The Six Nations Confederacy knew this back in 1920. In desperation they sent Levi General Deskaheh to ask the Supreme Court of Canada to stop the Department of Indian Affairs from violating the British North America Act. That piece of British legislation only gave Canada the right to negotiate with us in place of Britain. It did not give Canadians the right to impose their laws on us. But Canadian officials would not let Deskaheh have his day in court. Maybe they were afraid of losing their jobs.

After all, if Deskaheh had proven that what they were doing was illegal, these bureaucrats would have been out of a job. So they sent troops, the RCMP, to invade the small piece of the Six Nations`Grand River territory that was left after a century of theft and fraud. In the end they deposed the traditional government, one of the oldest governments in North America. This is the model the Americans copied rather poorly for their constitution. Since that time Canada has refused to recognize or deal with our real leaders. They will only deal with councils imposed under Canadian laws.

Six Nations diplomats had been honoured guests in Britain’s courts. But by the 1920’s Britain was refusing to deal with the problems that had befallen her old allies. This is why Deskaheh went to the League of Nations to appeal for justice. The Six Nations wanted membership in this new international organization so they could present our arguments and protect our legal rights. The Netherlands, Persia, Estonia, Panama and Ireland all agreed that the Six Nations complaints should be examined by the international court. But Deskaheh was ambushed again by Canadian officials skulking behind the scenes to make sure the case never got a formal public hearing.

Today, whether Canada wants to admit it or not, our people still maintain our right to independence. We were allies, not subjects of Britain and so we are not part of Canada – the colony that became a successor state. Canada imposed Canadian laws on us unlawfully, in violation of both the Two Row Wampum and modern International law. This is outrageous. As Deskaheh put it in his last address before he died in 1924, it’s as if Mexico tried to apply its laws in the United States. Canadians know how it feels when the United States tries to impose its laws on them. So why are they doing this to us?

The root of this problem is the failure of European colonists to fully understand the meaning of equal rights. Besides, they refuse to look at their own history and acknowledge that they have changed the way they define themselves. When we made the Two Row Wampum Treaty with Britain we both defined ourselves in terms of personal relationships. Our nations were based on our clans. The European nations were based on subject status and the allegiance they owed to their sovereigns. Their decision to shift to a territorial definition of themselves does not give them the right to impose their laws on us or to take our resources. As a successor state, Canada is still bound by Britain’s treaty obligations. The settlers and their descendants are still a guests on our land…even though Canada has presumed to take over our whole house. Canada has not worked out fair and valid agreements with the First Peoples.

When the colonizers celebrate “Canada Day” they forget that Canada was not an independent nation at Confederation. In 1867 there was no such thing as Canadian nationality. Nationality is tied to idea of having shared ancestry and culture. Being Canadian is not a nationality. The settlers and their ancestors have only the shared experience of fleeing oppressive regimes and immigrating onto someone else’s land.

Canada is a “dominion” that was produced by Britian’s will to dominate. The concept of a “dominion” has its origin in feudal customs carried to Britain by foreign lords who conquered the land and the people on it. It is based in deeply rooted cultural habits that violate the egalitarian respect represented by the Two Row Wampum concept.

As a consequence, the whole existence of Canada is illegal. There is no legal foundation for the present territorial description of Canada – even by the European’s own rules which say that treaties continue to bind successor states. Canada’s self-definition that appropriates both our political identity and our resources violates the initial treaties made by Britain with the Indigenous peoples.

It violates both the European version of international law and our Indigenous law. It violates the principle of human equality that Canadians finally recognized in a formal way in the middle of the twentieth century – after the atrocities of World War II – when they signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Charter of the United Nations and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Deskaheh tried to present this argument way back in the 1920’s but Canadians didn’t get the message. Even today Canadians and their institutions continue to close their ears to our demands for political and economic equality. They have not thought things through. When Americans had their revolution they threw off their subject status. But they went crazy, grabbing land, killing people and destroying resources. They called the people of the First Nations “Indians” and treated us as vermin. In Canada people accepted this idea of the Americans that might makes right and that Europeans had a god-given right to grab lands, possessions, resources and lives. Canada thinks it was more honourable, but they bought into the sleazy American dream.

What happened was unthinkable. In the subsequent treaties on the prairies there was no meeting of the minds of the people who signed. The Anglo-Canadians imagined those people agreed to give up everything they had. The First Nations thought there was just an agreement to co-exist. It was not like the time of the Two Row Wampum treaty when there was a real meeting of minds. Back then the British knew they were British and recognized that Indians had nations. There was mutual agreement to live side by side.

The anglo-Canadian decision to shift to a territorial definition of themselves does not give them the right to take over our land and resources. All this has to be done through treaties and agreements. Canada needs our consent and we do not have to consent just because they lust after our resources and crave the right to ransack the land.

If Canada believes that all people are equal, Canada has no right to impose its laws and beliefs on us. We are the original caretakers of the land and resources. As a successor state Canada is still bound by the limitations of Britain’s treaty obligations, which were agreements to live as a separate social group on our land. This is according to international law which Canada has agreed to. The colonizers are obliged to share the land. They do not own it. They have no legal right to claim dominion over us, or to take our lands and possessions. They are visitors still. They have not worked out fair and valid agreements with us that consider the needs of seven generations to come among our people or among their own. Canada’s current attempts to force Aboriginal peoples to prove to their courts that we have a claim to our own lands is ridiculously backwards. They are the ones who are robbing us and their own future generations. They are the ones who must prove to us and to their descendants what right they have to be on this land, to ransack our resources and to leave a trail of pollution behind. If Canadians own this land, where is their receipt?

poster: Thahoketoteh