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Challenging Ignorance with Information: Treaties Recognition Week at the University of Waterloo

By: Andrew Rutland

On October 25th 1784, the Haldimand Treaty was signed, in which six miles on either side of the Grand River were allotted to the Haudenosaunee (or Six Nations) which “[they] and their posterity are to enjoy forever”. This land, approximately 950,000 acres situated in present-day Ontario and part of the Haudenosaunee’s traditional hunting territory, was to be held in trust by the British Crown, but managed bi-laterally with the Haudenosaunee, requiring their knowledge and consent for any sale of the land.

Almost exactly 236 years later, less than five percent of this land remains and at the same time, the Province of Ontario is ‘celebrating’ Treaties Recognition Week. Declared first in 2016 and occurring during the first week of November, this annual event “honours the importance of treaties and helps students and residents of Ontario learn more about treaty rights and relationships” according to the Province’s website.

This week marks the first time that the University of Waterloo will be participating in Treaties Recognition Week, and rightly so, as the University of Waterloo main campus is situated firmly in the middle of the land promised to the Haudenosaunee in the Haldimand Treaty. This means every student, staff and faculty at this institution is beholden to the terms of this binding agreement; we are all treaty people.

The University of Waterloo’s main campus, as well as their satellite campuses in Kitchener and Cambridge all lie on the Haldimand Tract, land promised to the Haudenosaunee in the Haldimand Treaty of 1784. – Macleans.

The Indigenous Initiatives Office organized a series of live events and other resources providing insightful lectures on the history of treaty-making in Canada and perspectives from First Nations on the Haldimand Treaty, as well as other treaties in the area. While some may think of treaties as dusty relics of the past, the Senior Director of Indigenous Initiatives Jean Becker affirmed during the week’s opening remarks that “treaties are living documents that impact our lives still”. A suitable summary for the clear through-line of the week’s events, which constantly returned to the relevance and impacts of treaties on our lives today.

“A lot of the issues we’re having is because of ignorance” said Becker, in an interview for The Radicle. She explained that part of the problem is the fundamental difference between Indigenous and settler ways of thinking around land use.

“There was a lot of misunderstanding” she said, regarding the signing of the earliest treaties. “Non-indigenous people see the land as a commodity… [but Indigenous people] don’t own the land as if it belongs to us.”

While European settler groups may have thought they were purchasing land, this idea was foreign to the Haudenosaunee, who signed these treaties in the spirit of coexistence and mutual obligation. In Susan Roy’s lecture on historical perspectives on treaty making, the Professor in Indigenous-non-Indigenous relationships explained that the earliest treaties were not proclamations or land grants, but agreements of friendship and cooperation between two sovereign nations.

Professor Roy continued, pointing out that an example of this idea can be found in the two-row wampum belt, a sash of woven strings and wampum – beads made from shells. She explained that the words of the agreement are spoken as the strings and wampum are woven together, and the wampum can then be used to remember the initial agreement, as well as the history that has happened since then. On the symbology of the wampum belt, she explained:

“The two purple rows running alongside each represent two boats: one boat is a canoe representing the Haudenosaunee and their way of life, their laws culture, language [and] traditions. The second row represents the Dutch ship with their laws, traditions, language, religion, governance and people. The idea is that the boats travel side-by-side down a river, not interfering with each other. Between the two rows of purple beads are three rows of white beads representing friendship, peace and respect.”

Image of a Haudenosaunee Two Row Wampum Belt – University of Waterloo

While these values were intended to provide the basis of all relationships between the new settlers and the Haudenosaunee, treaties continued to evolve as the priorities and goals of both settlers and all Indigenous nations changed. Oftentimes, colonial governments interested in explicit control over land and resources fail to live up to these agreements, while Indigenous nations continue to fight for the preservation of their culture.

While the full history of treaties – from the earliest agreements from the 17th century to modern comprehensive land settlements in our lifetime – is much too lengthy for a single article, it is more important than ever to be informed on these agreements. Furthermore, as Jean Becker reminded, treaties between Canada and Indigenous peoples are legally binding, international agreements formally recognized by the United Nations. In the past few months alone, across the land known as Canada, treaties are being invoked by Indigenous groups looking to practice their rights, though it remains to be seen whether the Canadian government will uphold their end of the agreements.

In Nova Scotia, members of the Sipekne’katik First Nation asserted their treaty right to “catch and sell fish to earn a moderate livelihood under the Peace and Friendship Treaty of 1760-61 signed with the British Crown” according to a story in Ku’ku’kwes News. This was met with aggression and acts of domestic terrorism by non-Indigenous fishermen against the nation, including the destruction of their fishing equipment and possible arson of a warehouse where the Indigenous fishermen were storing their catch.

Toronto Star

In Quebec, standoffs between non-Indigenous hunters and members of the Algonquin Nation occurred when the latter set up blockades to restrict access to their traditional hunting territories. According to a story by APTN this was an action by the nation to urge the government to put in place a moose hunting moratorium due to what they call “a matter of respect for way of life; of feeding families who are food insecure, and of protecting a delicate ecological balance already compromised by over-hunting and the over-exploitation of land they’ve inhabited for generations”. Though not invoking a specific treaty (much of the land known as Quebec remains unceded territory) this remains an example of conflict between two nations attempting to coexist.

Finally, back on the Haldimand Tract, a group of Six Nations community members have asserted their right to land that was slated for a suburban development in Caledonia, Ontario, insisting the decision was made without their consent – an explicit requirement in the Haldimand Treaty. Dubbed ‘1492 Land Back Lane’ the camp exercised their right to peaceful occupation of the land despite Ontario court-ordered injunctions in favour of the developer, until August when the situation boiled over. Conflict between land defenders and the Ontario Provincial Police (O.P.P.) lead to multiple arrests and a temporary clearing of the site, according to reporting by One Dish One Mic. It was quickly reoccupied however, and this situation continues to develop with a permanent injunction against the camp by an Ontario court and further arrests by the O.P.P.; arms of the very same government that purportedly “honours the importance of treaties” this week.


It is clear then, that treaties are extremely contemporary and as important to our understanding of politics as any bill or charter from our legislatures. As students, staff and faculty at the University of Waterloo, an instruction on treaty land, it is our responsibility to ensure that this learning does not stop in the second week of November.

This was another common thread from speakers throughout the week’s event. Professor Roy, while fielding an attendee’s question about holding the government of Canada accountable urged non-Indigenous people to take direction from Indigenous activists, and finally, perhaps Chief R. Stacey Laforme of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation said it best during his lecture:

“You have an obligation to learn, but more importantly to understand the treaties, from all perspectives” he insisted. “Help us to ensure that the government lives up to its obligations. The honour of this government is also your honour. You are a part of these treaties”.

Below are resources on treaties from the Indigenous Initiatives Office and other resources compiled by the author including resources from University of Waterloo Library, the Yellowhead Institute and links to Indigenous news outlets where you can catch up on some of the aforementioned events and stay informed:

Note: At the time of publication this article incorrectly stated that the University of Waterloo’s satellite Stratford campus was situated on the Haldimand Tract. While situated on Haudenosaunee territory, it is not part of that specific treaty.


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