Treaties: Where to Begin?

This is the fourth post in a series as I reframe how I teach grades 7 and 8 Canadian History so that Indigenous perspectives are centered. I am not Indigenous and have worked at building my own knowledge by learning from and listening to Indigenous voices. Any misconceptions or errors are mine. Feedback is always welcome.

Relations with Indigenous people of Turtle Island (Canada) have boiled over once again. In Nova Scotia, Mi’kmaw rights to fish for lobster have been challenged – in spite of court rulings and Treaty Rights. In Ontario, land rights granted through the Haldimand Tract are at risk. The news has not been pretty these past few weeks. I debated bringing those stories into the classroom as they unfold; however, I don’t feel my students have fully grasped how two fundamentally different world views coming into contact lie at the heart (from my point of view) of these on-going conflicts. They need to grasp that puzzle piece first.

We began this week’s learning by considering the idea of ‘laws’. As always, I wanted students to make their own knowledge visible to themselves, so they worked independently to answer the following questions.

  1. What are some words you know that are associated with ‘laws’?
  2. What are laws?
  3. Why do laws get made?
  4. How do laws get made?
  5. To what extent to laws matter?

Students then formed socially distant groups to share their thinking. Finally, we gathered as a class to capture all the knowledge. Rich discussion ensued! Students had diverse ideas including a basic understanding of the process and ideas on keeping communities safe, crime, punishments, and peace, and different jobs.

We returned to our interconnected/hierarchy anchor chart and reviewed important ideas from each. Students then had to think and predict. How might people with interconnected and hierarchical worldviews approach law-making?

Students generated interesting ideas and excellent discussion. They recognized that people with an interconnected worldview might:

  • make laws to keep things in balance
  • make laws to ensure fairness
  • listen to everyone before making a law
  • consider the impact of a law on everyone and everything

They predicted that those with a hierarchical worldview might:

  • make laws that benefit some more than others
  • make laws that benefit those at the top
  • not listen to everyone when making a law
  • not consider how a law might impact different groups, plants, animals …

Again, this prompted insights and excellent discussion. Students have nascent understandings and we will work toward more nuanced and complex ideas as we explore worldviews.

Finally students were asked what misunderstandings might occur when people from these two very different worldviews interpret a law. There were lots of ‘Oh …..’ and ‘Ahs’ as they realized immediately that there would be tension and even conflict. Some recognized that the two worldviews might not even be able to discuss a law because they wouldn’t even understand what the other was saying or describing. “What do you mean everything is equal? That isn’t even a thing!” “What do you mean the king benefits the most? That isn’t even possible!’

Paired Texts

The students were now ready to examine some primary source evidence representative of those worldviews and relevant to our Canadian context. I decided to take a Paired Text approach. .I presented them with the first few pages of the British North America Act of 1867 – that document the marks the start of our country.

I also held up a Wampum that every school in HWDSB has been given and asked if they knew what it was. I said it’s a ‘Law’. They stared at me in puzzlement and continued to guess at what it could be, what it was made of, and what the symbol represented. I gave them a hint, “This is something you hear on the announcements every single morning.” Some continued to stare, but a few hands went up .”It’s it’s …. Haudenosaunee ….. Ani … Ani … Anishnabee!” Finally someone shouted it out, “The Dish with One Spoon!” Students were quite surprised and had many comments and questions, but I set both aside for the day. We were out of time.

Today, we began unpacking the BNA Act of 1867. There were a few reasons I picked this text. From a language perspective, I want my students to feel they can delve into difficult language and make sense. It is a document where one can ‘feel’ the hierarchy – it’s very apparent in the language and content. It’s kind of exciting to think of the start of our country and the document that marked the beginning of our ability to make our own laws. This is particularly significant for our school, as Dundas Central was built in 1857 and the students sit in a pre-Confederation classroom. We worked through it together and students wrote notes and captured their thinking with: I notice, I wonder, I realize. It was fun to take on this challenge – parts were quite difficult and they celebrated when they figured something out. Students were surprised at the formal language, the role of the Queen, how Ottawa was chosen to be our capital city, that only four provinces were involved, that Canada was quite small back then … We diverged into many discussions, including the concept of the British Empire – the world map came out; the role of the Queen today, Students took notes of their noticings, wonderings, and realizations. I pointed out to students that when this document was written and when their school was built, western Canada had not yet been opened to settlers at any grand scale. First Nations and Métis Nation were living their traditional and emergent ways of life. That surprised many of them.

Tomorrow we will read about the Dish with One Spoon Treaty. I am hoping that students will see the difference, and notice that the core of Treaty is relationship. Treaties are a form of ‘law’ – agreements – that allow people to respectfully interact, share resources, and live peacefully with one another.

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