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The Treaty Canoe by Alex McKay, Osgoode Hall Law School

Canoe photo

‘Treaty Canoeby Alex McKay

A number of initiatives over the past several years have created opportunities through which members of the Osgoode community have been invited, provoked, and encouraged through film, fiction, performance and visual art, to think differently about the law we study, as we study it. ‘Treaty Canoe’ (by artist Alex McKay shown above as installed in the Osgoode Hall Law School library on January 15, 2016) a performance/sculpture/installation made from cedar, copper wire, birch bark, red-ribbon, glue, and treaties hand-penned onto hand-made linen paper is another such opportunity. As a collection of objects both art and law, tool and text, past and present, ‘Treaty Canoe’ is at once an important recognition of the violence and erasure at the foundation of the colonial project in Canada as well as a invitation to participate in a de-colonial ‘re-writing’ of these histories. Its current installation at Osgoode, at a cross-roads in the center of our bustling academic institution, within the confines of the library, but visible also to all those passing through the atrium, has the potential to operate as more than a symbolic acknowledgement of these histories. With the recently issued Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Canada has reached an important intersection in its shared history and ongoing relations with Indigenous Peoples. As an artefact that draws on and draws in a diverse array of affective and embodied responses, ‘Treaty Canoe’ is an effective vehicle through which to engage our community in the beginnings of a dialogue about reconciliation.

This post reflects our nascent effort, as legal scholars and paddlers, a white woman and a Cree man, to engage with this piece in this way. As we begin our conversation about Treaty Canoe, we have been reminded of the sort of conversations one might have while paddling — unmediated, reciprocal, and balanced- so as not to overturn the canoe. But we also quickly realize that ‘Treaty Canoe’ speaks powerfully but differently to indigenous and non-indigenous people. It also speaks in different registers for each individual. For some, and at some moments, the canoe is recognizably the iconic Canadian object, both friendly and familiar, invoking pleasant recollections of time spent in Canadian wilderness. For others, as for each of us at other times, the canoe, with the Hudson’s Bay blanket stretched underneath, vividly recalls its use as a vessel of trade, exploration, and war, and the histories of disease and dispossession of indigenous communities that accompanied those uses. For us, this contrast is key to the power of the installation as a provocation to thought in relation to Canada’s national reconciliation project. It speaks to the making of the nation-state in Canada and the simultaneous unmaking of the indigenous nations of this territory that was the violent underbelly of that nation-building exercise.

Other elements in the installation extend its range and resonance. Beside the canoe, at about the same height, sits a megaphone made of curled birch bark with the words Treaty of Niagara, 1764 written on its side in red paint. For Indigenous leaders, the Treaty of Niagara solemnized the relationship with the British Crown, which had also been set out in the Royal Proclamation of 1763. The wampum belt presented by the Crown to gathered Indigenous leaders in 1764 was an acknowledgement of this relationship in keeping with Indigenous legal orders. The artist notes that the megaphone is mute—in recognition perhaps, that over the intervening centuries, the voices of Indigenous Peoples have been oppressed and silenced. Could the megaphone also reflect or invite a resurgence of these Indigenous voices and a revitalization of Indigenous legal orders? Perhaps. Behind and above both the canoe and the megaphone, the artist has also placed a blue and white flag, which represents the Two-Row wampum belt (Kahswentha). The location of the flag above these other elements might signal how to approach the installation as a whole. The Kahswentha is comprised of two parallel lines in purple representing Indigenous and non-Indigenous laws, languages and cultures. The white row in-between is reflective of parallel movement together down a shared river – presumably in canoes – separated yet held together by these principles of peace, friendship and mutual respect.

By taking on a form that is both modern and ancient, re-inscribing agreements that have not been honoured, and reminding us of the responsiveness that is a necessary part of any ongoing relationship, ‘Treaty Canoe’ disrupts conventional histories and calls for a new dialogue concerning the place of Indigenous peoples in Canada’s history. It demands our investigation into the writing out of international law that, while centuries old, has not been forgotten. And, it invites us to consider the fluidity of relationships that may float along through time while still maintaining a shape that is at once deeply familiar, necessary and contemporary. In these ways, it presents both a challenge and an opportunity for our community to engage meaningfully with our shared histories as ‘Treaty People.’