- Negotiating the Numbered Treaties: An Intellectual & Political Biography of Alexander Morris
In Negotiating the Numbered Treaties, Robert Talbot paints a complex picture of the person who negotiated treaties on behalf of the Crown — Alexander Morris. According to Talbot, Morris is a rare man in Canadian history who, during the negotiation of several of the historic numbered treaties, came to understand and adopt the perspective of the Indian negotiators. Talbot's thesis is that Morris developed an understanding of treaty as the basis of a timeless and sacred reciprocal relationship between the Indian people and the Crown, rather than seeing treaty as the means to realize the colonial aspirations of the Crown in British North America. However, the thesis is not argued persuasively. The lack of persuasion, nevertheless, does not make the book an uninteresting read; nor does it mean the book suffers from a lack of scholarship. It simply means that the work does not provide enough evidence to argue that Morris was such a unique character within the Canada-Aboriginal relationship of the later nineteenth century.
Talbot clearly articulates that he is endeavouring to explore a middle ground between the idea that treaty was a process entirely made up of sharp dealings on the part of the Crown, in which the Indians did not comprehend the implications, and the more recent scholarly argument that the Indians were the ones who really understood the sacred intent of treaty, which was to forge a relationship with the Crown that would fundamentally ensure that both parties prospered into the future. Talbot's thesis occupies a conceptual space between George Stanley's [End Page 269] work on the Canadian North-West and interpretations of the treaty process provided by Jean Friesen and John Tobias (pp. 14-15).
Talbot admirably traces Morris's early life, education, and career development into his role as treaty negotiator and the end of his public life as Lieutenant-Governor of the newly created province of Manitoba. Morris supported a grand vision of Canada as a country to be carved out of the vast riches and resources of the North-West. Very little thought or regard for the original habitants of the territory entered into this vision. The elements of this portrayal are problematic when they then form the basis of the thesis that Morris came to empathize with and admire the First Nations people. In Negotiating the Numbered Treaties, Talbot simply states that a conversion in thinking took place as a matter of fact, rather than supplying supportive documentary evidence to substantiate it. Talbot's summary in chapter 6 provides a good example of what I mean:
During his [Morris's] time in the North West, the "Indian question" became more and more present in his mind. The goal of building a transcontinental empire, easily conjured up in the distant Perth, Montreal, or Ottawa, lost some of its immediacy. The realities of the First Nations' plight could no longer be dismissed or ignored. As Morris invested more personal time and energy in the treaty-making process, he gained a personal stake in the treaties and their long-term outcome. They took on a huge significance for Morris, and he became increasingly disillusioned with Ottawa as he realized that his colleagues and superiors were not of the same mind.(p. 56)
He paid close attention to the language of their [the First Nations'] conversation, especially in negotiations, and often appropriated their symbolism and imagery in his attempts to reach an understanding. Developing a genuine concern for their situation and circumstances, his sympathy turned to empathy. His goal of seeing the territory settled and its resources developed remained ever-present, but he recognized the threat this posed to the future of the Native people. By the end of his tenure, he had come to admire them in many ways, and he sincerely hoped they would survive as distinct, self-sustaining communities.(pp. 56-57)
The evidence required to support such a striking conversion in Morris's thinking should be diverse and substantial. Unfortunately...