…the parties hereto of the second part have and hereby do release, surrender and give up to Her Majesty the Queen, all the right, title, interest and claim of the parties of the second part, and of the Ottawa, Chippewa and other Indians in whose behalf they act, of, in and to the Great Manitoulin Island…. – Extract from The Manitoulin Island Treaty

As the nineteenth century progressed, as Canada began to fill up and develop at a faster rate, as it became more and more obvious that the old Indians ways were dying out and, in any event, becoming impossible to sustain, people, including Indians themselves, turned their minds to the question of what, in the future, Indians could do to sustain themselves. The answer was the same activity that hunting societies turned sedentary had evolved into since the beginning of the Neolithic era: agriculture.

In 1862 it was a term of the Manitoulin Island treaty that the Crown, “with a view to the improvement of the conditions of the Indians,” would grant to each Indian family residing on the unceded part of the Island 100 acres of land of their choice, and to each single person over twenty-one (presumably male), 50 acres of his choice.

There were other terms in the treaty like these, and they were subject to conditions, but clearly, overall, the intention of the treaty in this regard was to afford the Indians on the Manitoulin Island the opportunity, in conjunction with their tribal brethren (one of the conditions was that the parcels granted be contiguous) as equals with new non-Indian settlers, to engage in farming, one of humanity’s most useful and virtuous occupations.

There was no “racism” exhibited by this. This was not “cultural genocide” being perpetrated. This was not conduct on the part of the Crown carried out with a view to extirpate a culture. This was conduct designed to lessen and ameliorate the negative consequences of a culture and way of life already mainly gone. This was honourable conduct intended by the Crown to give renewed purpose and self-sustainability to these important, well-regarded but very vulnerable Crown subjects.

The non-coercive nature of the treaty processes generally is reflected in the fact that, with respect to the Manitoulin Island treaty, the “certain bands” of Indians occupying the eastern part of the Island, being what is now the Wikwemikong Reserve, which didn’t agree with the treaty terms offered, were exempted from it. They opted out, choosing to remain technically in some sense occupants of unceded land, but nonetheless still “…under the protection of the government as formerly…”. (“Wikky”, as the locals call it, has done quite well by the Crown under this arrangement. Even though it chose not to sign the treaty and thus in some respects could have been left by Canada’s Crowns to its own devices, it has been honourably dealt with by Canada and Ontario in most respects as though it did.)

And again, there was no mention in the treaty of anything like “nation to nation” dealings. There was no talk or thought of any duty to consult regarding any government or non-Indian activities or undertakings on the ceded lands– no talk of “sharing the land” – and nothing about that in the wording of the treaty.

Having said that – having said that there was no talk of sharing the land, in the legal-political sense – that doesn’t mean that the land was not shared in fact, under unquestioned Crown suzerainty. It was, like the sharing between brothers.

Or between husbands and wives.

One of the first draft township maps drawn after the making of the 1862 treaty divided eastern Manitoulin Island  into certain proposed township areas and listed the particular signatory Chief who lived in that area.  The list showed that Chief Ahbetosowai resided in Area Number 3, the area comprising the present North East corner of the Island, now stretching from Little Current to West Bay. A casual reader of the map list, from an “aerial distance”, would assume that Chief Ahbetosowai was completely arms-length to and unassimilated with the British treaty makers- perhaps even hostile to them – in any event “alien” to them.  No so. Chief Ahbetosowai, already known to the few white settlers and traders in the Little Current area as George Abbotossaway, was married to a white woman, Sara, and had been living in the Little Current area and carrying on different businesses there since the 1850’s. George had met Sara in England when he was sent there in 1838 to learn English!

So the de facto sharing the land, and the peaceful and mutually beneficial, assimilative, integrative and interracial living-and inter-marrying- had been going on since even before the Treaty was signed. 1

The wonderful book, Manitoulin and Region: Voices from the Past, by Margaret E. Derry,2 vividly and poignantly reflects this reality as well. Ms. Derry describes the relationship of mutual dependency, assistance, respect and regard that quickly built up between the new white settlers who came to Manitoulin Island after the making of the treaty and the Indians already there. “Friendships with neighbouring native peoples developed in both the east and west parts of Manitoulin.”

She recounts a 1951 interview with John Hall, son of Willard Hall, who in 1869 was one of the first of these new migrators, about his father’s first winter on the Island:

The only people he saw that winter were the Obidgewong Indians. Pun-e-be-ke-zhik, the old chief; Jon-mu-quoum and Moc-tai-ki-oshk came to visit him. They looked in his flour barrel, and Willard thought they might be wanting to steal it. They found he had quite a supply of tobacco. They were crazy for tobacco and begged him to give them some.

The next time they came for tobacco they could not find the flour barrel, because it was hidden. So the Indians went out, back to Lake Wolsey, and brought Willard some corn, because they did not think he had enough food. They also brought him some fish. From then on Willard Hall knew the Indians were his friends.

…the Indians showed him how to snare rabbits and partridge…They also brought him wild geese and wild pigeons which were plentiful in those days. When the winter was nearly over Willard told the Indians that he couldn’t let them have any more tobacco because his own supply was getting low. Well the next time they came around they brought him several plugs of their own tobacco.

…The Indians never did much work. They hunted and fished and raised corn and potatoes. They did make maple sugar which they sold…they made their sugar camp in the bush to the west of our farm in Gordon. They made stirred maple sugar. They would boil the sap in kettles and stir it until it went solid in a cake after stirring hard. They would break this up into lumps and ship it to town in 100 lbs. hogheads.

Edward Nolan migrated to the Manitoulin in the summer of 1877. Ms. Derry recounts a similar 1951 interview with his son Joe about the hardships and privations experienced equally by Indians and settlers alike and the resulting barter trade, intermarriage (“Bob Stuart married Mary Moquam, daughter of old John Moquam”) and mutual sharing of knowledge, food, tools and equipment that was engaged in to overcome it. It was the same kind of wilderness partnership-like co-existence that had existed for 200 years between the French and the Indians during the times of the fur trade.

The beauty and old-fashioned Christian goodness and, for all Canadians today, the inspirationally instructive nature of this behavior and these relationships is summarized by this extract from Joe Hall’s interview about his own life:

“When I got married, Jim Poquam (Bai-gum-quom) came along with a quantity of corn, beans, winter onions and garden seeds as a wedding present. I found that the Indians were the very best of neighbours. I often went fishing with them on the south shore in Lake Huron. We’d put in a net and fish all night. Then we’d come home with 100 pounds of lake trout apiece. They were willing to share everything they had. When I started to clear my own farm, I started without anything. I didn’t have any horses. The Indians left their own work to come and help me. About 1900 Bill Shabidon, the Chief at that time, had a team of horses. He would lend them to me to do my plowing, or for drawing grain or anything I wanted. Bill was a neighbor I could always depend on….I found that if you were stuck, or in a pinch, just go to an Indian for help. That’s the first thing I could say about these red men. The Indians were like myself at the start- they didn’t have much to do. On one occasion Bill Shabidon came along in the Spring and said “Don’t know what I do this summer. Can’t get no fish. Kaw-wee-yau-au-sup (no net)”. I had a fairly good net, which I cut in two and gave him half. I said, “You can bring me some fish sometime.”

Well Bill came in twice a week all that summer with a little basket of dressed fish. He never forgot that I had given him a net. The same thing was repeated the next summer. I often thought how many white men would forget a favour like that after a week or two. But not Bill.

One time I was laid up sick in bed with cramps. It may have been cholera morbus, or perhaps it was improper diet, for I was “batching” it at the time. Some pigs belonging to one of my white neighbours broke into my potato patch and were eating my potatoes. Old John Moquam came along and said, “I come dig your potatoes.” So he brought his two granddaughters along, and he and the two girls dug my potatoes. After he had them in two pits, and securely fenced, he wanted to know how much I was going to pay him. I said, “That’s all right John, you take one pit and I’ll take the other.”

There was more than that. As in all situations where people of different races and ethnicities live and work together and where there is an absence of the lean and hungry people common to all social groups who use race as the divisive hinge and focus for their power and money seeking, and where race thus properly recedes into virtual invisibility and fundamental irrelevance, there was genuine, human  fellow-feeling, even love, between Indians and whites.

John Hall recalls about his father Willard:

The Indians always seemed to like my father. He was staying with us in his old age after my mother died in 1891. He was sick for quite a while before he died in 1902. The Indians often came to see him when he was sick. My wife couldn’t speak any Indian, and the Indians couldn’t speak any English. So when they would come to the door, Mrs. Hall would say “Do you want to see him?” and they would nod. So they would sit around in our house next to his bed. They would talk to each other in Indian. Often they would reach over and pat his face and smooth back his hair.

George Eliot, in Middlemarch, wrote, in relation to this ultimately spiritual, deeply human, emotionally-connected, universalist,  selfless, humble, brotherhood-of-man  behaviour:

For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who live faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

As did Marilynne Robinson:3

What we have expressed, compared with what we have found no way to express, is overwhelmingly the lesser part. Loyalties and tendernesses that we are scarcely aware of might seem, from a divine perspective, the most beautiful things in creation, even in their evanescence. Such things are universally human. They forbid the distinctions “us’ and “them”.

I fear that the truthful spirit of empathy and common humanity – of the universal brotherhood of man – exemplified by this profound, poignant and stirring recollection – the spirit I felt was again in the air when I was growing up in Northern Ontario in the 50’s and early 60’s – the spirit of George Abottossaway and Nelson Mandela – is being crushed by our elites- Indian and non-Indian- and by the Indian industry’s relentless and harmful graspings for more  money and power.

  1. Information, including a photograph of the handsome George Abottossaway, from the museum on the second floor of Turner’s General Store, Little Current, Manitoulin Island.
  2. Margaret E. Derry. Manitoulin and Region: Voices from the Past. Polar Lane Press, 2010.
  3. Decline, from The Givenness of Things, HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. Toronto, 2015

By: Peter Best