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Reviewed by:
  • No Surrender: The Land Remains Indigenous by Sheldon Krasowski
  • Hugh Shewell
No Surrender: The Land Remains Indigenous. By Sheldon Krasowski (Regina, University of Regina Press, 2019) 368 pp. $27.95

Canada likes to obscure its historical relationship with Indigenous peoples. During the 1950s, few Canadians in Ottawa (where this reviewer lived) were aware of an Indigenous presence in Canada. Yet, not far from the city were several Algonquin and Mohawk reserve communities. Ironically, Canada's capital sat and remains on unceded Algonquin territory. The national museum portrayed Indigenous peoples in dioramas gathered around a campfire, perpetually frozen in time. In history lessons, they were scarcely mentioned. Krasowski grew up in Saskatoon, located in a part of western Canada known among First Nations as Treaty 6—a term that he was never taught—one of the eleven numbered treaties, together with many previous pre-confederation peace and friendship treaties, that formed the political and geographical foundation upon which Canada could emerge as a nation. Indeed, Canada is really a country of three founding peoples (the English, French, and Indigenous nations) that developed from a partnership between the European fur traders and the Indigenous occupants of the land. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 that followed the end of the Seven Years' War recognized the Indigenous title and established the terms only by which their lands could be ceded for settlement.

The numbered treaties established after confederation in 1867 and based on those terms of cession came in two periods: Treaties 1 to 7 were negotiated between 1871 and 1877 and Treaties 8 to 11 between 1899 and 1921. As the book's title implies, Kaslowski's thesis is that the indigenous people never surrendered their land; they agreed only to share it. Nevertheless, until recently, the dominant historical narrative is that because of a cultural misunderstanding of the terms of treaty, the First Nations did not fully realize that they had surrendered the land. Krasowski argues instead that the evidence clearly suggests that the negotiated agreement was not accurately reflected in the final treaty texts. He also argues that the tendency of previous historians to discuss the treaties separately is mistaken; the treaties were more like bundles. What he means is that Treaties 1–7 must be understood as a single process based on federal policy to promote Canadian expansion and settlement westward and that their logic was perfectly clear to the affected First Nations.

Krasowski's methodology is straightforward in principle but complex in execution. For each treaty he attempts to recreate the negotiations by first setting the immediate context that impelled both parties—the Crown and the affected tribes—to produce a treaty. He then examines archival records—including the treaty texts, government documents, newspaper accounts, private diaries, written recollections of the interpreters and witnesses present, and, importantly, the oral histories of the descendant elders and knowledge holders. Through this examination, he identifies inconsistencies between the official treaty text and the documented [End Page 624] understandings of those who witnessed and/or had knowledge of the proceedings. Even without a smoking gun, plenty of evidence suggests that no agreements to surrender the land ever occurred. Rather, the agreements permitted settlement only on the condition that lands be set aside for the exclusive use of First Nations, for the preservation of their hunting and fishing rights, and for assistance, as might be requested, for their adjustment to European ways. Indeed, the Selkirk Treaty (1817) established a principle that implicitly runs throughout this history—that small tracts of land would be reserved for settlers and the remaining land would be the exclusive jurisdiction of the Cree and Saulteaux. This early treaty set the stage for how First Nations chiefs anticipated the tenor of subsequent treaties, delineating reserves for settlers, not for Indigenous people.

Krasowski's work is an extraordinarily thorough examination of the available documentation related to Treaties 1–7, the negotiations and final texts. His diligent attention to the ceremony and ritual of the treaty process, the conflicting views of participants and witnesses to the negotiations, and the wording of the final texts is admirable. He has made an invaluable contribution to our knowledge and appreciation of how important...


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pp. 624-625
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