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The Law of the Land

Re-learning the Peace and Friendship Treaties through First Nations' eyes

by Melissa Albiani

"The only ones who abide by the treaties are First Nations," said co-founder Gkisedtanamoogk.
"The only ones who abide by the treaties are First Nations," said co-founder Gkisedtanamoogk.

The Annual Peace and Friendship Gathering at the Tatamagouche Centre, held this year from August 15 to 19, gets to the root of race relations: a sometimes painful, yet important process. 

gkisedtanamoogk, one of the founders of the Gathering, describes his work as "destabilizing the fear" that non-First Nations have towards First Nations and their spirituality.  For 300 years, he said, the Federal Government has evaded the Peace and Friendship Treaties of the 1700s, and the Marshall Decision.  These Treaties give Mi'kmaq and Maliseet First Nations Treaty rights to hunt, fish and gather on their land, which remains unceded to this day.  Still, gkisedtanamoogk said, First Nations not only face government and non-native opposition to these essential rights, they face new threats such as fracking.

"The only ones who abide by the treaties are First Nations," he said.

The first gathering was held eight years ago, sparked by the Burnt Church Crisis between Mi'kmaq people of Burnt Church First Nation and non-native New Brunswick fisheries (1999-2001).  The 1999 Marshall Decision, gave Donald Marshall Jr. the right to fish for eels out of season, and acknowledged the Treaty of 1752 and the Treaty of 1760-1761.  The Supreme Court emphasized Native people's right to establish a ‘moderate livelihood’, in modern-day standards, through trade and the use of resources to obtain trade items.  But when Burnt Church First Nations exercised their right to fish out of season, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans tried to buy out Mi'kmaq fishers, ignoring the Marshall Decision.  The non-Native community, meanwhile, began destroying Mi'kmaq lobster traps. 

While Burnt Church was the stimulus for cross-cultural peace building, it was local churches' work on residential schools that gave Gathering founders Margaret Tusz-King and gkisedtanamoogk people to work with.  The lead-up to the first gathering was a hard year of monthly meetings with churches and First Nations to try to find reconciliation, said Tusz-King. She comes from a religious and "colonizer" background, she said, but is committed to healing and social transformation.  "I carry all the history of my ancestors, and gain the unjust benefits.  We have to re-earn the trust." 

Original participant Cathy Gerrior has been a part of the work with Tusz-King from the start.  That first year, she was invited to represent a family member who survived the residential schools.  "I felt for the first time the collective trauma of my entire people."  She said she felt the rippling effects personally, and began to examine what she was passing on to her children.  Her mother and children were with her at the gathering.

This year's theme was fracking, and many activists, organizers, and community members attended to share their work and make connections.  On another day, Sherry Pictou spoke about the Bear River First Nation's vision for a food and livelihood fishery based on ties to the natural world to prevent hunger and disease.

Although central to the Gathering, political issues are always approached from a First Nations perspective.  Almost all discussions happen in Ceremony, and on 'Native time'.  It's around the sacred fire that burns for four days and nights, that First Nations and non- First Nations people share their stories.  gkisedtanamoogk explains that in a sharing Circle, it's the participants who direct the conversation and decide the theme.  

The Mi'kmaq believe that Mother Earth's fire is represented in the Sacred Fire, said Gerrior.  Smoke rises from the Fire to the Creator, and connects us to the ancestors and spirit world.  Between the Sacred Fire and the Sweat Lodge, a safe space is created that makes healing possible.  Where barriers of fear and ignorance have formed the roots of racism, here they can be dismantled.

Kathryn Anderson, Faith and Spirituality Program Coordinator at Tatamagouche Centre, was at the gathering for the first time this year.  For her, participating in the event is the "possibility to begin to understand history and the spirituality that's a gift to us all from Aboriginal people."

This cross-cultural work has no foreseeable end for Tutz-King and gkisedtanamoogk.  They helped organize the July 9 Water for First Nations and non- First Nations people, a day after the Fredericton Rally against Fracking.  Some 300 people attended. 

Their next focus is on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Atlantic National Event (ANE) in Halifax (October 26-29).  Concerned that the commission lacks of spiritual or logistic support for survivors to be able to attend the event and to safely share their stories during the event, they will be helping individuals who would like to attend.


For more information,

Bear River First Nation's Vision for a Food and Livelihood Fishery 

Quotes from the Water Ceremony

The Maritime Peace and Friendship Treaties


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