Marie Battiste, editor. Living Treaties: Narrating Mi’kmaw Treaty Relations. (Sydney, NS: Cape Breton University Press, 2016)
By William C. Wicken
This collection includes essays by political leaders, scholars, lawyers, and community activists discussing various aspects of the Mi’kmaw struggle to establish their treaty and aboriginal rights in Atlantic Canada. Most of the essays are by members of the Mi’kmaw community, providing insight to the history of this struggle and how community members think about relations with provincial and federal governments.
Some of the essays focus on multiple elements of the ‘written’ past, using well-known archival records in tandem with memories passed down through parents and grandparents to re-interpret the numerous treaties which their people signed with British authorities in 1726, 1749, 1752, 1760/61, 1776, 1778, and 1779. Included in this group are essays by Patrick Augustine, Jaime Battiste, Fred Metallic, Pamela Palmeter, and Natasha Simon. Central to these essays is the idea that the Mi’kmaq agreed to live peacefully with British authorities but neither recognized British jurisdiction over Mi’kmaw lands nor submitted to British authority. At times, the authors make important insights into the historical record by including memories garnered from the community. Jamie Battiste, for instance, integrates a discussion of the Gabriel Sylliboy case of 1927-28 gleaned from various sources, including interviews with Sylliboy’s daughters. Similarly, Stephen Augustine discusses the stories his grandmother told him in order to discuss how the Mi’kmaq conceptualized the treaties.
Other essays adopt a more personal approach, recollecting the authors’ life histories or of people they have known. Included in this group are essays by Russel Barsh, James Youngblood Henderson, Stuart Killen, Joe B. Marshall (penned by Jaime Battiste), Naomi Metallic, Daniel Paul and Kerry Prosper. Barsh, Henderson, and Killen, though non-Mi’kmaq, have been involved in the political struggles of the last half-century and in their essays they discuss their experiences and the people they have known: Killen, first as an employee of Indian Affairs and later as a researcher for the Mi’kmaq, Barsh as a representative of the Mi’kmaq at the United Nations, and Henderson as a friend and collaborator of the late Alex Denny, Grand Captain of the Mi’kmaw Grand Council. The essays by Metallic, Paul and Prosper are especially valuable, each in their different ways providing insightful comments about varying dimensions of the Mi’kmaw community. Paul, the author of the well-known, We Were Not the Savages, speaks about his early life in Shubenacadie, Prosper discusses his life as a young child and adult and his life-time passion for his community and for fishing, and Marshall retells the early history of the Union of Nova Scotia Indians, founded by Marshall, Noel Doucette and others in 1969. Particularly striking in this group is the story that Metallic weaves about her mother, her father (a well-known and respected linguist), and her own, somewhat surprising, struggle to learn the Mi’kmaw language.
Mettalic’s essay provides a segue to the chapters which focus on the importance of language and education in the past, present, and the future. These essays by Marie Battiste and Eleanor Bernard speak eloquently to the importance of maintaining and building upon their efforts to ensure that Mi’kmaw continues to be spoken within the school system and the community at large.
Finally, standing in a class by itself, is Douglas Brown’s essay, which deals with his personal and legal efforts to defend those Mi’kmaw hunters accused and found guilty of hunting at night. A former legal counsel for the Union of Nova Scotia Indians, Brown argues that his experiences with litigation leads him to conclude that the justice system continues to be tilted . against the Mi’kmaq. Time, of course, will only tell.
What is unique about this collection is that the authors are either from the Mi’kmaw community and/or have been intimately involved in the community’s political struggles for years. Though some readers might find some of the essays less critical than one would hope (and occasionally be frustrated by certain historical events not being cited correctly, such as the dates of the Sylliboy case), they nevertheless impart insight into the community and its history that is often missing from more academic texts. As well, at times one would have hoped that the authors had delved more deeply into their memories and those with whom they have known. The stories that Marie Battiste, Eleanor Bernard, Daniel Paul, James Youngblood Henderson, Kerry Prosper and Joe B. Marshall tell are particularly valuable but leave us wanting to know more. Hopefully, the younger generation of authors who appear in this collection will take the time to learn more about these individuals and record their memories so that future generations will also know them.
William C. Wicken is Professor of History at York University. He has testified as an expert witness on various constitutional cases involving the Mi’kmaq and the Maliseet and is the author of two monographs concerning the Atlantic region’s indigenous populations.
 Daniel N. Paul, We Were Not the Savages: Collision between European and Native American Civilizations, Third Edition (Black Point, Nova Scotia: Fernwood Publishing, 2006).