Band: a group of people with a common purpose or sharing a common feature.
Tribe:  a social division in a traditional society consisting of linked families or communities with a common culture and dialect. – Oxford English Dictionary

Aboriginal peoples in Canada project the concept of nation backwards into a pre-civilized past; they have tiny populations; they do not control a contiguous territory; they are internally divided among dozens or hundreds of different collective identities; and they receive only support from scattered intellectuals for their assertions of sovereignty. -Tom Flanagan, First Nations? Second Thoughts 

It is a sad irony that it is likely that the only reason any weak version of “nation” continues among the larger tribes is because of the historic oppression and isolating effects of the Indian Act and related policies, without which Indianness might well have disappeared by now. -Gordon Gibson 1

The homeland, the myth of the homeland, becomes a  fundamental value for  those who have nothing else.- Andrej Stasiuk 2

Modern Indian leaders propagate the general falsehood that the treaties their forefathers entered into with Canada were the result of “nation to nation” dealings, in the sense of two sovereign, independent nation-states entering into a treaty agreement and then, subject to the carrying out of the treaty obligations incurred, carrying on as before on their own sovereign, independent tracks.

An example of this occurred recently in respect of the implementation of the harmonized sales tax in Ontario, which caused Indians for the first time to in effect be subject to the 8% provincial sales tax (now part of the HST). Indian leaders protested (ultimately successfully) their inclusion in this as a violation of their “sovereignty.”

Patrick Madahbee,  formerGrand Council Chief of the “Anishnabick Nation,” a political alliance and lobby group of Robinson-Huron treaty bands, stated in January, 2010 in a Northern Ontario newspaper, the Espanola Mid-North Monitor, that “…First Nations are not subjects of the Crown, and that First Nations citizens do not have to pay taxes to any other nation.3 As the article went on to say:

Madahbee and other First Nations leaders at the special Assembly of First Nations meeting in Ottawa unanimously passed a resolution reaffirming their sovereignty as Nations as reflected in the treaty relationships with the Crown.

The resolution also declares that First Nations have never relinquished or surrendered their sovereignty or autonomy to the governments of France, Britain, Canada or provincial governments.
…The 13 per cent HST is considered a major assault against First Nations, according to Serpent River First Nation Chief Isadore Day.

…First Nation tax immunity is derived from its nation -to -nation relationship with the Crown……Day further added this directly impacts other areas such as First Nations citizenship and mobility rights.

“This tax grab will directly impact those that are already in poverty. The real issue here is the unilateral nature of another government’s imposition that impacts all of our citizens, on and off reserve lands.”

The immediately above well summarizes this false, even mythological, historical view of the original treaties that Indian elites, and the Indian industry generally, are currently propagating.

And, as non-Indian Canadians continue to cower in silence in this whole area of Canadian life, such unchallenged, false assertions about Canadian history and the resulting legal situation of Indians in Canada today, as those made above by former Chiefs Madahbee and Day, are becoming more prevalent and getting ever more wild, grandiose and delusional.

They need to be countered, but no one seems to be willing to, even though most people know they’re ridiculous. Canada’s governing classes and our academic and media elites – the people ordinary Canadians in the past instinctively looked to for leadership and to “mind the store” on such matters – are all floundering in this ridiculous folly – are all failing the Canadian citizenry in this regard by refusing or neglecting to, in every case where these false and self-serving claims come to their attention, quickly and strongly challenging them and, in some cases, chastising those asserting them.

Polemic on one side, virtual silence on the other.

(Marilynne Robinson, from her essay, Memory, in The Givenness of Things,4in her case referring to “liberals” too cowardly to publicly stand up for their principles, and to Christian leaders remaining passively silent in the face of the hijacking of true Christianity by the American right for crass political and monetary purposes.)

Because the longer these intellectually juvenile assertions go unchallenged- the more they are foolishly and irresponsibly conceded intellectual and political legitimacy- the more our non-Indian elites choose “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice”-5then the more they become thoughtlessly regarded as received truths. And so the greater the sense of entitlement engendered by them becomes. This in turn hardens and emboldens the expectations and demands of Indian elites- (as witnessed by the recent lawsuit by the Maniwaki Quebec, Algonquin  band against Ottawa and Ontario claiming ownership of Parliament Hill! What an outrageous, over-reaching insult to their fellow Canadians!) -makes fundamental reform that much more of a messy and daunting concept – that much more to undo – that much more of a reckoning for frightened politicians to avoid and delay.

(In Ontario, First Nations bands, over the entire span of McGuinty/Wynn Liberal government rule, rarely heard the word “no” from Queen”s Park. As described extensively in this essay, (well below), it was a continuous, reckless  giveaway by Government to Indian bands. The new Conservative Douglas Ford government is now, in various small ways, saying “no”, and trouble is upon us.)

It’s the civic duty and responsibility of all of us, especially our governing classes, to challenge these false assertions at every opportunity- “Public discussion is a political duty”6-just as it’s our and their duty and responsibility to defend our non-Indian ancestors and their legacy, which we are all irresponsibly failing to do.

And meanwhile, while politicians and other Canadian leaders naively buy into this delusional talk, (such as in November 2015 newly-elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau writing a “Mandate Letter” to his new Minister of Justice, Jody Wilson-Raybould, advising her that it is time for a “renewed , nation to nation relationship with Indigenous Peoples, based on recognition of rights, respect, co-operation and partnership.”), or fiddle, fidget and bite their tongues, and by their timid silence contribute to the further debasement of the public discourse, the further demoralization of our non-Indian citizenry, the further erosion of Crown sovereignty, the further alienation of non-Indians from politics, and the further diminishment of their own moral right to govern and to be entrusted with positions of leadership and power, – all of this worsening the present dysfunctional situation – the suffering of the vulnerable vast majority of Indians continues and increases, and Canada’s national tragedy compounds even more.

The Oxford Dictionary defines “nation” as follows:

An aggregate of persons so closely associated with each other by common descent, language or history as to form a distinct race or people, usually organized as a separate political state and occupying a definite territory. In early examples the racial idea is usually stronger than the political; in recent use the notion of political unity and independence is more prominent.

The Indians who signed the treaties constituted “nations” only in the early racial, linguistic and people-of-common-experience sense of the word. They were cultural/racial “nations” only.

Great Britain or Canada, as the case was, signed the treaties as nations in the more recent political, sovereign, precisely-defined territory, “nation-state” sense of the word.

Even the concept of the nation-state itself is coming under serious question. Sir David Cannadine, in The Undivided Past, described nation-states as “imagined communities… transient, provisional, ephemeral, made-up associations, encompassing a multitude of shifting boundaries and subjective identities-but never for long.” He further wrote:

Taking the long view and a cosmopolitan perspective, it is clear that in recent times, nation-states and national identities have for the most part appeared, vanished, and re-emerged so frequently and so variously as to cast serious doubt on nationality’s past and present claims to being some sort of platonic ideal of human affiliation or even the preeminent and most enduring form of human solidarity.

These are cautionary words about all forms of the “nation” or the “nation-state.

It’s a clever bit of sophistry for modern Indian leaders to talk of there having been “nation to nation” dealings, and just leave it at that, assuming (usually correctly) that no one will dare to challenge them and point out that it was in fact a situation of very small, semi-nomadic, band and clan-oriented Indian cultural/racial aggregates on the one hand, treating with the large, modern, sophisticated  British or Canadian nation-state on the other hand – a complete apples dealing with an orange situation – political mice dealing with a political elephant.

Traditional anthropologists, that is, those working and publishing before the present anti-intellectual, co-opted era of advocacy “scholarship,” suggest that “the family hunting group, (being) a kinship group united by blood or marriage, having the right to hunt, trap and fish in a certain inherited district bounded by some lakes, rivers or other natural landmarks,” was the main social unit of the tribes of eastern Canada.7

In the political context “nation” is an English word of Latin derivation with a relatively precise nation-state meaning. It’s unlikely that the ancient Canadian-Indian languages ever had or have now their own word of similar meaning. It’s also unlikely that the word “nation” can even be accurately translated into any of those ancient languages, so foreign was the concept of the nation state to pre-contact Indians.

There can’t be a “nation” in the modern nation-state sense of the word when the highest loyalty of members of it is to other members of their same extended family. That’s characteristic of a small tribe, band or clan only- not a “nation” in the modern sense of the word. The situation may have been a little different in western and northern Canada, but not so much as to constitute any of the Indian groups or tribes in Canada at the time of the original treaties as nation-states, or as nations generally, in any modern sense of the word.

Consider the Robinson-Huron Treaty of 1850 as an example. It specifically refers to treaty money being paid annually to the chiefs “and their tribes.” The words of surrender in the treaty say that:

…the said Chiefs and their principal men, on behalf of their respective tribes or bands…” surrender their lands to the Crown. The retained right to hunt and fish over the surrendered lands is retained by the “Chiefs and their tribes….

The Serpent River reserve, of which Mr. Day was Chief, was the seventh on the list of seventeen reserves created by the treaty. It is stated to be reserved for former Chief Day’s predecessor, Chief Windawtegawini “and his band” – not “and his nation.” The phrase “and his band” is used in the description of all seventeen reserves created.

At the beginning of the “augmentation clause”, (see discussion of same in chapter 16 below), the treaty states in part:

The said William Benjamin Robinson, on behalf of Her Majesty, who desires to deal liberally with all her subjects, further promises and agrees etc etc…(italics added)

By signing the treaty the Indians acknowledged that they were “subjects” of the Crown. One can’t be a subject of the Crown of Canada- or, in modern parlance, a citizen of Canada- and at the same time assert that one is a subject or a member of another separate, independent nation.

This question was addressed early in the history of the United States. In 1831, in Cherokee Nation vs. Georgia, Chief Justice John Marshall of their Supreme Court described tribes like the Cherokee as “domestic dependent nations.” He further wrote:

They occupy a territory to which we assert a title independent of their will, which must take effect in point of possession when their right of possession ceases. Meanwhile they are in a state of pupilage. Their relation to the United States resembles that of a ward to his guardian.

They look to our government for protection; rely upon its kindness and its power; appeal to it for relief to their wants; and address the president as their great father. They and their country are considered by foreign nations, as well as by themselves, as being so completely under the sovereignty and dominion of the United States that any attempt to acquire their lands or to form a political connection with them would be considered by all as an invasion of our territory and an act of hostility. 8

These words are apt to the situation of Indian bands in Canada.

William Robinson, in his report to his superiors on the treaty,9 wrote that there were only 1422 Indians inhabiting all of the Lake Huron area, “including probably two hundred half-breeds; and when I paid the Indians they acknowledged they knew of no other families than those on my list.”

Seventeen different band chiefs, representing all the bands from Penatanguishine to Batchawana Bay on Lake Superior signed the treaty, meaning that each Chief signed for a band  of only about 85 people!  85 people, or 1422 people in total, can’t make up a nation in the modern nation-state sense of the word that current Indian leaders like Chiefs Madahbee and Day incorrectly use it.

That was the case then and it’s still the case today, even with respect to the mainly British Columbia Indian bands, with their Tsilhcot’in created aboriginal title, which have not yet signed treaties with Canada.

As Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson wrote in 201010 in relation to the air-evacuation to Sudbury of the population of Kashechewan because of contaminated drinking water there (that action, of course not prescribed by any treaty, being another example of the full and faithful carrying out by Canada of the Crown honour principle):

Dozens of Kashechewans are scattered throughout Northern Ontario and many exist all across Canada: clusters of native people living on unforgiving land, far from urban centres, yet asked by their leaders to be treated as “nations”. The rhetoric is uplifting, but the task is insuperable by dint of small numbers, isolated locations and forbidding geography that would render the most skilled among us incapable of building a functioning economy, let alone the bare superstructure of a modern government. The royal commission on aboriginal affairs, established by the Mulroney government, took up the cause of these “nations” and designed an entire parallel political superstructure of “nation’ to ‘nation” dealings. That the majority of these nations had fewer people than a small Saskatchewan town and that many of the members had drifted into cities, did not seem to matter within the commissioners dream palaces.

Commissioners dream palaces. And indigenous “nations” that are castles in the air.

“Castles in the air do not require very rigid foundations;  their enchantment lies in the fact that they are built on almost nothing.”11

The negotiations that are presently going on with Indian bands in Canada, whether in relation to land claims, treaty entitlements or entering into treaties themselves, are not modern “nation to nation” negotiations. They are negotiations which our Crowns honourably choose to participate in between the remains of small, tribal, cultural/racial aggregates and the nation-state of Canada. They should be viewed and conducted accordingly.

Political nations, the highest form of which is the nation-state, are the product of a certain type of historical evolution characteristic of post-tribal societies. This evolution never occurred with respect to Canada’s pre-contact, essentially stone-age culture Indian peoples, nor did it occur between the time of contact and the time of the original treaty era. Nor has it occurred to date.

Political nation-states are characterized by features not present in mere bands, tribes or cultural nations. In Empires and Barbarians, referred to above, Peter Heather describes and analyses the phenomena that occurred to cause semi-nomadic tribes, relatively primitive cultural nations, to, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, eventually evolve and develop into the political nations, which, by about 1000 A.D, became the basic national, political building blocks of modern Europe.

He asked and attempted to answer the question: “what features (ephemeral in the mind of Sir David Cannadine or nothave to be present for a political state to be formed?” Some of his conclusions:


  • a large scale, regionally-based political structure
  • a bureaucracy
  • a defined border with means of defending it, e.g. fortifications
  • an unequal social and political hierarchy ruled by a king
  • a central authority
  • political consolidation
  • architecture and permanent buildings
  • an ending of local groupings such as tribes
  • private property
  • taxation
  • a nobility- “optimates”- hangers-on who profit by their proximity to the leader
  • heritable leadership
  • heritable dynastic power
  • a literate elite
  • a unifying ideology- “ideological cement”
  • “national” efforts, e.g. predatory expansion
  • a structured religion
  • a military retinue in charge of an army
  • permanent military machines
  • wealth accumulation and preservation mechanisms
  • material surpluses
  • an increase in the amount of movable wealth
  • patronage
  • minimum internal movement
  • a core of towns and villages
  • a core and a periphery distinct in population density and economic organization
  • forest clearing for farming
  • increased agricultural production
  • agricultural surpluses
  • an unfree class to provide services
  • exploiting outsiders
  • metallurgy
  • international trade
  • trade networks
  • permanent and visible transportation and communication networks
  • permanent, monumental grave sites.


In First Nations? Second Thoughts Tom Flanagan described many of the same factors as being prerequisites for the establishment of a “civilization,” as that term is commonly used and understood by historians, of which the political state is one of the highest expressions.

The pre-state societies of the Indians of Canada at the time of contact and still, when the treaties were signed, lacked almost all of the above features. If, at the time of the making of the treaties, they exhibited any of those features that was more likely than not as a result of absorbing them from European culture; for example, a structured religion – Christianity – and the permanent grave site beside the reserve church. There might be the odd exception as to one or two of those features perhaps applying in some degree to a particular Indian cultural/racial aggregate, but in no case to the degree where that aggregate could be said to have evolved out of the pre-state condition that was prevalent and characteristic of all the Indians of Canada when the treaties were signed – and still is the case today!

Examining in more detail the events and circumstances surrounding the making of some of the treaties themselves highlights and confirms that in no way was the making of the treaties a result of political nation to political nation dealings. Also, looking at what actually occurred when some of the treaties were signed, how and why the parties came together, what different people actually said – looking at what some of the treaties themselves actually say  confirms that, contrary to what Indian leaders like chiefs Madahbee and Day, as they then were, said, these were no “nation to nation” dealings. These were pathos-filled  de facto, surrender talks between small, broken tribes of cultural nations only, and a powerful, modern, political nation-state.

Finally, examining some of the treaty-signing processes can also better inform and guide our views and approaches to attempting to better the situation of Indians in Canada today.

  1. From A New Look at Canadian Indian Policy -Respect the Collective -Promote the Individual, above.
  2. From theIntroduction to Joseph Roth’s The Emperor’s Tomb, a novel about the dissolution of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and the relative social stability and safety lost as a result – but one example of tragic and irretrievable human change and cultural loss. Granta Books, London, 2013
  3. Rosalind Raby, Anishinabek Launch Campaign Against ‘Illegal, Immoral’ Tax,  Espanola Mid-North Monitor27 January 2010.
  4. HarperCollins  Publishers Ltd, 2015
  5. From Martin Luther King’s famous Letter From Birmingham Jail
  6. United States Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, quoted in Free Speech, Big Money, Bad Elections, by David Cole, The New York Review of Books, November 5th, 2015
  7. See Cultural Ecology, edited by Bruce Cox, Carleton Library, 1973.
  8. Decision excerpted in Lapham’s Quarterly, Rule of Law, Spring 2018
  9. Alexander Morris. The Treaties of Canada With the Indians. Coles Publishing Company, 1979. This seminal book is the source reference for all the treaty extracts, quotes, reports and commentaries in this essay.
  10. The Globe and Mail, 28 October 2010.
  11. Patrick Leigh Fermor, from Mani, excerpted in Words of Mercury, above.

By: Peter Best