How treaties shaped my life — and my great-great-grandmother’s

OPINION: I was 13 years old the first time I collected my “treaty money.” Since then, I’ve come to understand more what the experience means for me, my family, and Canada
By Charnel Anderson - Published on Nov 10, 2020
Red Rock, home to roughly 900 people, is located in northwestern Ontario’s Thunder Bay District. (Charnel Anderson)



RED ROCK — In March, I moved from Toronto to Red Rock, a small town nestled on the shores of Nipigon Bay, in northwestern Ontario. It’s been an ideal spot to weather a global pandemic: since there aren’t too many people, it’s easy to social distance, and when I get tired of the mountain view from my home office, there are ample opportunities to get outside and witness Mother Nature in all her glory.  

For fun, I take my dogs — two senior chihuahua-Shih Tzus — down to the marina with me. Often we’ll see ducks, and occasionally a beaver or a bald eagle. There’s an expansive view of the bay and its islands that evokes a cosmic sense of bliss. It inspires existential thought, encourages me to stop and consider my connection to the land under my feet and to the vast, unimaginably deep body of water within arm’s reach. I think about my ancestors, who relied on this body of water for more than its soothing aesthetic. It’s a brief reprieve from politics and the pandemic.

There’s an untold number of things I miss about pre-pandemic life in a big city: food from every corner of the globe available on demand, all flavours of live music, and, strangely, riding the subway. But I grew up in Thunder Bay, and, after a half-decade in Toronto — about 1,400 kilometres and a world away from northwestern Ontario — I was eager to take what I’d learned there and reconnect with my roots.

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A few months ago, I went for a routine visit to my grandparents and left with a more vivid understanding of our family’s history in the region. We sat in the living room and scrolled through a relative’s collection of old, grainy, black-and-white photos, trying to decipher who was who. I was no help with this, as many of these photos had been taken before my time, but I was delighted to watch my grandparents, who are in their 80s, reminisce about days gone by.

Among the photos was a newspaper clipping from the June 16, 1954, evening issue of the News-Chronicle, Port Arthur’s daily newspaper, which began publishing in 1899 and later merged with Fort William’s Daily Times Journal to become the Chronicle Journal, now Thunder Bay’s only daily. There was a photo of an old woman, creases settled deeply into her face; underneath, the headline read “Macdiarmid Indian Woman Dies at 110.” The article identifies her as Mrs. E. “Natawasing” King but notes that she was known to everyone as “Old Nokomis,” or “old grandmother” in Anishinaabemowin.

a tree by a lake
The author moved from Toronto to Red Rock in March. (Charnel Anderson)

Mrs. King is my grandfather’s grandmother. According to the article, she was believed to have been the oldest Indigenous woman in Canada at the time. She was born in 1884 and, at 10 years old, was “adopted” by a Hudson’s Bay Company factor. (Given the Canadian government’s record of separating Indigenous children from their families, which would be revealed only decades after this article was written, I don’t know whether she was voluntarily “adopted” or forcibly taken.) Mrs. King “saw Canada grow from a land of few white people to a nation joined together by the Fathers of Confederation,” the article says.

I was fascinated by this article and tried to imagine what my great-great-grandmother’s life must have been like, given that she had lived during a period of intensifying European colonization that would transform the socio-political landscape into something we’re more familiar with today. And all of this happened not far from where I am now.

The article offers some clues about Mrs. King’s life that, taken together, illustrate an existence dramatically altered by colonial policy. The article says that she lived in a “wigwam” and “grew up in the days when there was no transportation except by birch bark canoe in summer and dog team in winter.” Before she was “adopted,” Old Nokomis “had never seen flour, sugar, or salt” and became “violently ill” after drinking her first cup of tea.

At 110 years old, Mrs. King suffered a stroke and died at her daughter’s home in Macdiarmid, a small community about 170 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, on Lake Nipigon. Lake Nipigon — or Animbiigoo-zaaga’igan in Anishinaabemowin — drains into Lake Superior’s Nipigon Bay, my existential thinking spot.  

“The Fathers of Confederation were people of her own time,” the article continues. “The events that are now history, she knows firsthand” — such events as the fur trade, which had been underway for some 200 years before Mrs. King was born. Or the Robinson Superior Treaty, signed when she was six, which extinguished the Indigenous claim to the land on the north shore of Lake Superior, making way for Canada to become a country in 1867, when Mrs. King was 23.

Today, northwestern Ontario is valued for its natural resources; in the mid-1800s, it was the minerals  — copper in particular  — buried deep in the Canadian Shield that led the British Crown to take an interest in the region. By 1846, the Crown had issued 34 mining permits for the land in and around the north shore of Lake Superior.

an old postcard showing cottages by a lake
Macdiarmid is a community about 170 kilometres north of Thunder
​​​​​​​Bay. (Lovelady's/Thunder Bay Public Library Collection/

Geologists and surveyors descended on the region, causing concern among the Indigenous groups living there. The groups made their concerns known to the central government. After investigating the Indigenous claim to land and gauging the interest of Indigenous groups in a land-cession agreement — according to an 1849 report, most were interested — Crown treaty commissioner William Benjamin Robinson began negotiating treaties with the Indigenous groups around the northern Great Lakes.

On September 7, 1850, the handful of chiefs and principal men — including Chief Joseph Peau de Chat of Fort William and Chief Mishimuckqua of Gull River — signed away to the British Crown the entirety of the north shore of Lake Superior, plus its islands, from “Batchewana Bay to Pigeon River, inland as far as the height of land.” In return, each Indigenous group received £2,000 in cash, an annual payment of £500, their choice of reserve, and hunting and fishing rights in the now-ceded territory.

Until recently, most of what I knew about the Robinson Superior Treaty I’d learned from experience. I was 13 years old the first time I collected my “treaty money” — the $4 annuity that Indigenous Services Canada still doles out, 170 years later. My mom drove my brother and me to the recreation centre on Fort William First Nation. We handed our status card to the person behind the desk, and they handed us a sum of money. I remember being grateful and a little giddy as I considered what I would buy with the cash, but I didn’t really understand why this transaction was taking place. Frankly, I took it for granted.

I know now that that experience was a direct result of the chiefs and the treaty commissioner having put ink to paper in 1850. It brought to life the previously two-dimensional signing of the Robinson Superior Treaty. Once I’d stopped to consider the impact of this treaty and of the 70 other historic treaties that the Government of Canada recognizes, I realized that many aspects of my life — and the lives of everyone else who lives in Canada — have been shaped by them.

Treaties are constitutionally recognized agreements between sovereign Indigenous nations and the Crown that outline the rights and responsibilities of both parties. The Crown began negotiating treaties with Indigenous groups in 1701 — a process later defined in the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which states that lands that have not been ceded or purchased by the Crown would be reserved for Indigenous people. Later, Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982, would reaffirm Indigenous and treaty rights. Treaties are fundamentally part of Canada.

Just as the Constitution enshrines the rights of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians alike, treaties enshrine the rights of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people who live in a territory. These rights differ among treaties and their respective territories: for example, the Robinson Superior Treaty allows for European settlement of the north shore of Lake Superior, a right from which flow a series of cascading benefits, from land ownership through to economic enterprise.

a road by a lake
Lake Nipigon drains into Lake Superior’s Nipigon Bay. (Charnel Anderson)

In the late 19th century, thanks in no small part to the Robinson Superior Treaty, another distant relative, my grandmother’s grandmother M. Saari, emigrated from Finland and settled in northwestern Ontario. She went on to give birth to my great-grandmother V. Saari, who in turn had three kids, including my grandmother.

In the 1950s, my grandmother lived in Nipigon, a community slightly larger than Red Rock and less than 20 kilometres away on Nipigon Bay. One day she went to the local café sporting a brand-new pair of penny loafers, complete with pennies in the slits of the shoes’ horizontal straps. There she met a man who tried stepping on her brand-new shoes. An interesting way to flirt, but it seemed to work: a couple of years later, they were married.

Over the course of their 64-year marriage, my grandparents had five children, who went on to have nine grandchildren, including me. Of course, not all the decisions that led up to my existence were the result of the Robinson Superior Treaty, but if not for its power to allow Europeans to settle in northwestern Ontario, I’m not sure I’d be here today.

Red Rock is named for the red early Precambrian cuesta — a sloping hill with a steep cliff on the other side — surrounding the community. On the east side of Nipigon Bay, almost directly across from Red Rock, is the second-largest pictograph site on Lake Superior. The pictographs, made from red ochre, sit far above the waterline today. They’re at least 2,000 years old, by some estimates.

I can’t see the pictographs from my vantage point on the other side of the bay, but when I’m there, soaking up one of the most stunning panoramas this side of Lake Superior, I get a sense that there are more stories to be told.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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