Day 6

Ryan McMahon's 12-step guide to decolonization — the treaty edition

In the third part to his series on decolonization, the comedian, writer and filmmaker delivers a guide to Canada's treaties with Indigenous people.
Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs displays a medal depicting the Indian Treaty as he marches to take part in a protest on Parliament Hill in 2013. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

By Ryan McMahon

This recurring radio miniseries was meant to be a 12-step program on decolonization.

But over the last two weeks I've had to work hard to prove that colonialism is even a thing in Canada, and therefore we haven't once talked about decolonization.

It's hard to decolonize when you're focused on convincing people it's a thing. But, maybe, just maybe, that is the first step of decolonization. God, this is exhausting.

Let's move past the denial and past the tired rhetoric and just agree, for the sake of my job here, that colonialism is real. Because, take it from me, this state of denial is not helpful. It does me no good to blame Levi's jeans for not fitting me properly when I haven't done a sit-up in 13 years.

At some point, you have to do your sit-ups, Canada.

What decolonization means

So let's talk about decolonization and what that might mean for Canada. 

In order to do this, we have to talk about treaties. Because treaties existed before Canada did. Indigenous peoples had treaties amongst themselves.

Arguably the most important treaty ever signed in North America, The Dish With One Spoon Treaty carried three basic tenets: Only take what you need; always leave something in the dish for everybody else, including the dish; and third, you keep the dish clean.

That was the treaty between us and nature, and the treaty between us and everybody else. That was Indigenous peoples' vision for our homelands.

A Manitoba indigenous leader plans to walk 120 kilometres next month in a decidedly different commemoration of Canada's 150th birthday. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

Fast-forward to 1764, the Treaty of Niagara. Wampum belts. Peace and Friendship treaties. All founding documents and fundamental happenings that actually founded this country, before this country was a country.

The Royal Proclamation of 1763 sets the table for Indigenous rights and title to be recognized by the Crown. Those rights and title are cooked into the British North America Act in 1867. In 1982, Aboriginal Rights and Title is affirmed when the constitution is repatriated. To this day Indigenous people don't lose when it comes to free, prior and informed consent as it pertains to Indigenous Rights and Title at the Supreme Court level.

I'm a comedian, I promise.


I know. The word induces settler eye rolls of epic proportions, but we have to talk about it. Because in the original language of the treaties, "As long as the sun shines, the grass grows and the water flows." 

Needless to say, with our climate and our deadly addiction to fossil fuels, our sun shines hotter than ever, the grass barely grows, it's dead in a lot of places and the water that is flowing is barely drinkable. But, that's for a different column all together, my apologies.

Beecher Bay First Nation Chief Russ Chipps signs an agreement-in-principle towards final treaties on Vancouver Island for approximately 1,565 hectares of crown land in 2015. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

All this to say, we had a deal.

What was that deal? That depends. 

Across Canada, through time, the deal has been interpreted differently. This, of course, has not been helpful. Many Canadians are of the mind that treaties meant Indigenous Peoples ceded their land and therefore have to live with the current state of affairs. We in Indian Country know this not to be true. Do we honestly believe Indigenous peoples were willing to roll over and just hand over the keys to the entire place and agree to live on reserves, in poverty, in perpetuity? 

I mean, we're nice and we like Canadians, hell, we love Canada too, but this isn't what we had in mind.

If treaty is the foundation of this country, then we have to look at a few things here. Canada is founded, through treaty, in 1867. Just nine years later, in 1876, the Indian Act is created. Three years after that, residential schools are official government policy. See where I'm going?

Canada has never lived up to its treaty obligations. If treaty meant cultural genocide for Canada, why the hell would we have agreed to that?

The dish is broken and we don't have a spoon.- Ryan McMahon

The 1764 Treaty of Niagara was an important turning point in relationships between the Indigenous Nations that participated.

It was a way of renewing their treaty relationship with each other, and refreshing the pledges made with the ancient Dish With One Spoon Treaty, whereby the Indigenous Nations agreed to share the bounty provide by the Mother Earth with the British. That bounty continues to this day for most Canadians. But for us, not so much.

In my eyes, the dish is broken and we don't have a spoon.

Demonstrator Black Cloud blocks the Canadian National Railway line just west of Portage la Prairie, Manitoba January 16, 2013 as part of the 'Idle No More' movement. (Fred Greenslade/Reuters)

Wait. We can't leave this piece like this! 

Many listeners have noted, "I'm supposed to be a comedian. Why aren't I being funny?"

Fair enough. Allow me to tell you a few "native jokes" before we say goodbye for the week.

What do you call an Indian guy with one leg longer than the other? Not Even.

A French couple, an English couple and a Native couple are in a diner. The Native man hears the French man to his wife, "pass the honey, honey" then hears the English man, "pass the sugar, sugar" the Native man turns to his wife and says, "pass the tea, bag."

Why can't you trust all frybreads? Because some are full of bologna!

This copy may vary slightly from the broadcast version.

Ryan McMahon is an Anishinaabe filmmaker, writer, podcast host and comedian. 

To hear Ryan McMahon's full guide to Indigenous treaties in Canada, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page. Click here for part one and part two of his guide to decolonizing Canada.