WHAT’S ‘YOUR’ TREATY? – A Call#28 In-class Exercise (with thanks to Michael Asch and Alan Hanna)

In the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action, Canadians are told of the importance of Treaties, both about teaching them, and knowing them. Many of us in Law Schools are focused on Call #28.

28.  We Call upon law schools in Canada to require all law students to take a course in Aboriginal people and the law, which includes the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal-Crown relations. This will require skills-based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights, and anti-racism.

On-Being-Here-to-Stay-Treaties-and-Aboriginal-Rights-in-CanadaThis is fine in the abstract, but, as with many things, the devil is in the details. My experience is that relatively few law students already know what treaty governs them. Indeed, many law professors are in the same situation.

Certainly, I found myself squarely in the camp of the non-knowledgeable earlier this year while sitting in on Val Napoleon’s Indigenous Legal Theory Class. Alan Hanna (a lawyer with Woodward and Company, a law firm that works exclusively for First Nations organizations and governments) came to give a guest lecture. He began by suggesting a round of introductions. He asked us to each tell him our name, and what treaty territory we were born in. As Alan told us, this is a question that anthropologist Michael Asch has been asking his students for years.


Because I work at a University that attempts to acknowledge the territory as part of its protocols, I knew that I was living on unceded Lekwungen, WSÁNEĆ and Coast Salish Territory. But that was not the question posed. I did NOT know which treaty applied in the place where I was born (Calgary). My first impulse was to blame my mother for that appalling gap in my knowledge base (I mean, why take responsibility when you can displace it?!). However, I was also pretty sure that I recalled my mom talking to me about treaties when she was taking University courses in her 60s. I just had not remembered or retained that information. I wasn’t sure which was worse: knowing that I did not know the answer, or seeing so clearly that I was not alone. Several of us in the class experienced challenges in providing an answer.

Map from https://canadianhistoryworkshop.wordpress.com/treaties/treaty-six/

Alan/Michael’s question was super-useful in terms of making visible that there are concrete things individual people can do to begin the process of reconciliation. Thus. Note to self: one step in the direction of reconciliation is to “know the name of the treaty that applies in the territory in which you were BORN, as well as in the territory in which you currently LIVE.” And so, inspired (aka ‘tail firmly between my legs’), I scuttled off to the internet, to find and then read about Treaty 7 (for you Calgarians out there!)


A second step in the direction of reconciliation might be “figure out how to work TREATIES into one of the classes you teach this year, no matter what subject you teach”.    What follows, then, is a walk-through of an excercise using “The Treaty Question” in a classroom of 40ish students. This is how Alan and I (who went on to co-teach a course on Indigenous Research Methods and Practice this summer) set it up, in order to get at the benefits of the question with a smaller risk of embarrassment to people who don’t know the answer.


On the first day of class, we ended things with the following assignment. We asked the students to take a few minutes in the evening, and go online to find out what treaty governed the place they were from. In setting up the exercise, I told them how I had been asked this question in a workshop and had been unable to answer it (argh… it is TRUE!!! And it was somewhat humiliating). My thought was that it was better to acknowledge to the students that many of us are in the same rickety boat, so that people could throw themselves into a new exercise without fear or embarrassment about a knowledge gap. This is the thing about growing up in a colonial context. There are many knowledge gaps.

We left the students with some freedom on the ‘from’ part of the question. It could mean where they were born, or where they grew up, or where they were currently living. They were told they would report back to the group the following day, and would be required to tell us three things:

  1. What treaty applies in the place you are from (born in, grew up in, living in now)?
  2. What is something you found interesting or unexpected while doing the research for this assignment?
  3. What is your favourite dessert?


Because this was the beginning of the term, not all of the students knew the others. So at one level, this assignment functioned a bit like an ‘icebreaker’. But is also functioned in a number of other ways:

  1. Substantively, this is a great way to get conversation going about Treaties. For many students, it is likely to be the first time they have been asked the question, have been able to provide an answer to the question, or looked at the text of a treaty. Because the students will likely be from a number of different places, it also means that you will have real variety. For example, in our class, we had a student visiting from Europe, who said that there was no treaty governing her. That was a great answer, as it enabled a good discussion about (for example) The Treaty of Westphalia. If that happens, it opens up space for talking about how Treaties in North America are or are not like other kinds of treaties. (Also, depending on the class you were teaching, it could enable a discussion of failures to keep the terms of a treaty, ie. Can one person get out of it unilaterally? Does a breach of a term necessarily invalidate the treaty itself?).
  1. It enabled the students to go do a bit of research on their own right at the beginning of the class (rather than just being given a map of treaties, or being told what treaty governed), in order to answer a question that was “theirs” (ie. It would differ depending on where they were from). Since they were left to do it on their own, it enabled them to develop their own search strategy, and to see something of what is out there in the world (for both the good and the bad). It also meant that they would have a chance to see, talk about and compare some of the different resources out there.
  1. The students were asked to share what they had learned with their classmates. The point of this was not simply that they acquire knowledge, but that they share it. Each student had a few minutes to ‘teach’ their classmates something substantive (which treaties apply where) and also to practice their own talking/oral/aural skills (in a very low-stakes context). This disrupted the conventional model of the professor as teacher, since the students were active participants in knowledge transmission.   It is also ‘collaborative’ in some important ways (collaborating as a class to come up with our own mapping of treaties), and this too supports the skill-development set out in Call #28.
  1. This approach provided space to develop community in a way that a typical icebreaker wouldn’t. The students tended to share in a different way: they were sharing their research process, along with something of what was surprising or unexpected to them. It meant that we spent a very interesting hour, listening to people give gently personalized accounts about search strategies and their responses to learning about the treaty that was ‘theirs’. We were still telling each other something of where we were ‘from’, but in a way different from the way we usually do it: we were each asked to describe ourselves as governed by a particular treaty. It made space for the students to begin the work of making community with each other. While any form of introduction might work for this, doing it in this way disrupted the more common pattern of replying on disciplinary background or degrees or urban/rural (which can be alienating for some students).


  • USING A CIRCLE: When we did this exercise in class, we used the ‘circle methodology’: that is, we broke up the classroom space, rearranging things so that we were sitting in a circle facing each other. There were two of us facilitating the class, so the circle began with one of us and closed with the other [a great technique for circles if you are fortunate enough to have two people facilitating/teaching the class]. Some thoughts on using a circle. If you can do it from time to time, awesome. Clearly, this is more or less of a challenge (and indeed, more or less possible) depending on the structure of the room in which you teach. There are some great advantages to using the circle method for some exercises. Most powerfully, it really lets people speak to each other. In some ways, this is because you can’t really take notes or work with laptops: there is no place to hide! Indeed, you get the advantage of a laptop-free space without having to fight for it. There is something powerful where people are talking to each other and can see each other at the same time. While I think the exercise can work in whatever space you have, it is worth thinking about disruptions to conventional classroom space for this exercise. There is something about the change in space that can also support a change in how the students both share and hear information that is being discussed.   It gives people a chance to really practice their listening skills, and leans more in the direction of the skills list set out in the TRC Call #28.
  • MULTIPLE ITERATIONS: I think this is an exercise that could be done multiple times, and in multiple classroom contexts.   Even if the class participant (student or prof) ‘knew’ the answer already, it would leave space for people to re-read, learn something new, share something new, reinforce what they already knew, make new connections.   Depending on the class you are teaching, students can be asked to engage with the treaties in more or less complex ways (for example, in  Family Law, International Law, Conflicts of Law). There is something to be said, however, for beginning where you are: to taking seriously the notion that knowledge can be acquired in layers, and that people can return to the same question multiple times. There is value in doing so in ways that enable people to connect the TRC questions to their own person experience. This lets people do learning in ways that connect them to their own experience of place. It can enable people to connect to land, while opening space for conversations about the obligations one has within a treaty, and about how one learns about treaty obligations moving into a new space.
  • saltyCaramelsSlipping
    My favourite dessert?  Chocolates hand-dipped by a sibling, of course!

    “DESSERT”: We were not just being flippant in asking the students to share their favourite dessert after telling us what they had learned about the treaty that governs the place they are from. We were asking students to do an exercise that can be uncomfortable/challenging for a number of communities for a number of reasons. It may be challenging for indigenous students who may be thinking about broken promises, connections to land, etc. It may also involve some discomfort for some settler students who are similarly asked to consider what it means to be living in unceded land, etc. By heading to a dessert at the end, students were also given space to bond over treats (you can expect to see people nodding in agreement, or occasionally salivating). The moment of lightness at the end helps with the other moments that are more difficult. It also adds another line of connections, is a reminder of food, and other things that people have in common.


While we were using this exercise in the context of Indigenous Legal Methodology, I don’t think the utility of this exercise is limited to classes the directly engage questions of Indigenous Law, Land or Pedagogy. This exercise is a pretty good one for basic ‘getting to know you’ purposes in the context of any class (or indeed, any non-class context involving introductions). At least within the law school, we are constantly asking students to tell us where they are from, what degree they have, etc. Often, those demands are just to help us get to know each other. Starting from the point of view of ‘treaty’ is one way to do the same thing, while participating in acts of reconciliation by attempting to place treaty as the ground on which we all stand.

But there is much more to be said about this exercise.  Indeed, to introduce oneself by situating the legal order from which one comes is also a performance of law in many Indigenous legal orders. For example, this was articulated as a legal obligation in current work being done by ILRU in conjunction with the Secwepemc (Shuswap Nation Tribal Council) on Land and Resource Law. Beginning with an acknowledgment of the the territory you are in, and of the territory you come from is a way of acknowledging the existence of obligations and responsibilities attaching to both land and people who have taken on relationships to it and to each other.

In the act of introducing oneself to others through Treaty, then, one can make visible the legal obligations that one carries as a result both of territory of birth, and territory in which one finds oneself (and this is true even where one is not conscious of the obligations that they carry). Knowing the treaties makes it possible to acknowledge that one is a guest in another territory. In a perfect world, it also makes visible to non-indigenous Canadians the notion that they too (or, in my own case, I TOO) have treaty obligations. The big work is how we, as Settler Canadians, actualize or engage with those obligations, as we begin to re-consider the questions of what it means to be on treaty lands (and particularly what it means in contexts where treaty obligations have not been fulfilled).


  1. The TRC Final Report (Volume 1: Executive Summary) pp. 237 to 254. That section addresses:
    • UNDRIP as framework for reconciliation
      • Calls #43 and #44
    • The Doctrine of Discovery & Treaties
      • Calls #45 and #46
    • It also includes info re this link on treaties and Manitoba. Nice resource! http://www.trcm.ca/treaties/
  1. Michael Asch, On Being Here to Stay: Treaties and Aboriginal Rights in Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2014).  For a helpful review of the book by Neil Vallance, see this link:
  2. Aimée Craft, Breathing Life into the Stone Fort Treaty: An Anishnabe Understanding of Treaty One (Purich Publishing, 2013).  For a short CBC report on the book, click here.

Going Home Star

going home star


I saw the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Going Home Star on Saturday night in Victoria.  (Read a review here: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/rwb-s-going-home-star-truth-and-reconciliation-is-inspired-and-inspiring-1.2785096).  It is an extraordinary piece of art and emotion, a choreographed telling of the legacy of residential schools in Canada, danced by by Canada’s pre-eminent ballet company.

As with most moments of art and law, I left the Royal Theatre with my heart and brain on fire, and wishing that we had had the opportunity to teach this performance in the law school classroom.  Or, alternatively, to have transformed the theatre into a place of learning for all our students. Thinking about this performance as a jurisprudential text brings many of the conversations we have been having about TRC Calls to Action 27, 28 and 50 to mind.  Some thoughts.

First, it reminds me of some of the dangers and concerns of creating mandatory course offerings.  I bought the tickets as a gift for someone close to me, someone who ultimately couldn’t come.  As a settler, I can often lose sight of the embodiment of colonialism, no matter how much I try to keep that present.  My friend carries the imprints of intergenerational trauma on her body.  And while lots of people around us commented on how much she would have loved the performance, her inability to be there wasn’t at all about whether she would have appreciated the art or not.  Even in the face of extraordinary beauty, the vestiges of colonialism can cause unthinkable pain.

Second, it reminds me that experiential education matters.  The performance itself, the ballet, the stage, the costuming, the dancing, was exquisite.  But the experience was also the drummers and their humour, the words of the Artistic Director and the audience response to the acknowledgement of the territories, the words of Grand Chief Cook about his own experience as a residential school survivor reading words from his grand-daugher’s IPad, the recognition of the survivors in the room and of the community that had paid for those tickets, the reminder that if we needed to stand up and leave the performance at any moment, content or otherwise, not only was that fine, but that there would be people to talk to.  It was feeling the Royal Theatre on its feet at the end.  The ballet was beautiful, but the layers of bark and sap and sinew that surrounded it made it living.

Third, there were elements in the performance, like points of law in a legal decision, that were jarring.  It was a constant sensory onslaught of mind, body and spirit.  The music, the throat singing and the spoken word offered affect to the story being told through movement.  The set and the use of the visual was engaging and provocative.  It made me care for the actors in the story, protagonists and villains, but it also made me worry about the context and the hurdles and obstacles presented there.  And I left thinking about representation, about synchronicity, about who keeps stories and who tells them.  I would love to think that when I teach a class I can do all of those things for my students who I know to be a mix of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners.

I know this ballet is near the end of its run.  I hope that others fortunate as I was to see it, will write about it, and what it offers those of us working to create a #ReconciliationSyllabus and more resources for an adequate response to the TRC in Canadian law schools.  I am very grateful and inspired to try to do more within our classrooms, wherever they may be, on this and the other pressing issues of our time.


The Wunusweh Lecture in Aboriginal Law

 (Image: Brea Lowenberger @BreaLowenberger)

This year the annual Wunusweh Lecture in Aboriginal Law at the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Law was focused on the questions posed by the TRC to the Legal Academy.  The presenters were Aimée Craft (Assistant Professor of Law University of Manitoba, and Director of Research, National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation), Karen Drake (Assistant Professor of Law, Bora Laskin Law School, Lakehead University) and Gillian Calder (Associate Professor of Law, University of Victoria).

A link to the presentation can be found here.