A Web of Relationships

Breaking out of colonial thinking to relate to the land differently

Heather Menzies

Wetland with reeds and forest in background

Photo provided by author

When I discovered that having a treaty relationship with Indigenous people might be part of my heritage as a Canadian, I had no idea how this would change my thinking about land and the environment.

It started when I met some Nishnaabeg in southwestern Ontario, the ancestral home to these people from before an 1827 treaty with the British Crown legitimized my great-great-grandparents settling there in 1832. I had set out to meet these Nishnaabeg hoping to learn what my responsibilities might be toward that treaty, because I had been reading about such treaties from an Indigenous perspective.

I’d learned that the treaties are grounded in kinship-like relationships around the sharing of land, with responsibility to maintain that relationship passed down from generation to generation. In addition to opening up a vast portion of this territory to settlers, the 1827 treaty had reserved large chunks of land, often considered sacred, for the exclusive use of the Nishnaabeg in perpetuity.

But in an egregious breach of the treaty, in 1942, the federal government appropriated one of these reserves and turned it into the Ipperwash army training camp.

Instead of returning the land after the war, they converted it into a cadet-training camp, and kept it going even when some of the aging elders led the way to reclaim their homeland in 1993, setting up tents and trailers near the practice shooting range.

When I showed up in 2018 and started meeting the people who were still there, I thought that accepting their invitation to help them tell their story might be a way to fulfill my treaty responsibilities. I was their writing assistant, and was happy to work pro bono.

I also thought I was fully qualified to help and serve them. I associated colonial thinking with other white people: people in positions of power over Indigenous people, not progressives like me trying to support them in their quest for justice and recognition.

As I worked with them, however, I learned how wrong I was. After taping a conversation in which one of the Nishnaabeg, Marcia Simon, talked about resuming the daily life of the reserve in 1993, I said affirmingly: “So, you carried on being traditional.” She scoffed. “It’s not being traditional. It’s just being normal, being human.”

My mind was always organizing the messy stuff of life into conceptual categories with labels. Categories and labels with established authority and meaning.

There were many awkward moments like this – moments when I was challenged to confront my unconsciously colonial (and even white-superiority) thinking. Without meaning to, I had put Marcia into an historical box, which effectively boxed out  the fullness of her humanity – along with the possibility of this being a shared humanity, a shared sense of what’s normal. But it went beyond the actual words I used and the assumptions behind them. It was also how I thought, using boxes.

My mind was always organizing the messy stuff of life into conceptual categories with labels. Categories and labels with established authority and meaning. Categories and labels with which I was familiar, and which I used to turn something that was unfamiliar to me into something that was. I was accustomed to doing this, especially as a “professional” writer, qualified to interpret reality through these lenses and categories. I’d always assumed these were neutral. I’d never considered the power and control at work behind them – until then.

I still might have carried on essentially colonizing what I was witnessing, by taking it upon myself to interpret it my way, if I hadn’t been trying to establish what I hoped might be a treaty relationship with Marcia and the others.  So there was more than my justice-informed determination pushing me to get it right. As I grew to know these people, warm relationships started to form between us. I wanted to genuinely respect what they were saying, to hear them on their terms, without my interpretive lenses standing between us, blocking their ability to trust me. So I learned to really listen: to just be present and let the meaning of what I was seeing and hearing emerge.

Doug White, Snuneymuxw lawyer and special counsel to BC’s premier on reconciliation, has talked about this being a time of “rupture” and “a break from the predominant and entrenched patterns of the last 150 years of this country.” I realize now that this includes patterns of thinking, not just institutional thinking, either, but personal/professional thinking like mine.

The last recording session I did before I started writing was with two Nishnaabeg elders, 85-year-old Bonnie Bressette and her husband Fred. Toward the end, they shared some of what they’d learned from the animals who also live in their territory, including the medicinal importance of a water weed root muskrats eat in the winter, and the sap of the birch tree buds in the early spring – something they learned from the birds who also seek it out. As I took in not just the details of the stories but also Bonnie and Fred’s joy in sharing this knowledge from their animal kin, I felt as though I was being welcomed into the world as they experienced it.

Something shifted, or opened up, inside me, and I began to sense what it was like to live that way: embedded in a webwork of relationships.

That breakthrough in my thinking has been followed by others, as I continue to open my mind, and my heart, to a different way of thinking and being in the world that the forebears of the Nishnaabeg I worked with would have brought to the treaty council fires in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. And I now realize that this is the crux of learning my responsibilities to the treaty side of my heritage as a Canadian.

“Territoriality” implies an experienced sense of being embedded in place and, perhaps too, kinship with all the beings that share it – from muskrats to birds and trees.

The work is twofold: “breaking” or “rupturing” (to use Doug White’s words) what has kept me boxed into colonial patterns of thinking, plus learning to respect this other, more relational approach to everything, including land and the environment. I now realize that this is the crux of learning my responsibilities to the treaty side of my heritage as a Canadian.

I’m learning to better appreciate what’s being said in documents like the Tsleil-Waututh Nation’s environment assessment of the Trans Mountain Pipeline and Tanker Expansion (TMEX). They exercised their self-determination responsibilities and undertook this assessment in 2013 because tanker traffic through their territory around the Burrard Inlet was slated to increase from once a week to once a day. And, “According to Coast Salish concepts of land tenure and territoriality, the water, the land, air and resources of Tsleil-Waututh territory, are our birthright. We have a profound obligation to both our ancestors and future generations to protect and care for our water, land, air and resources.”

As I read this, I note the use of the word land “tenure,” which is different from land “ownership.” Deriving from the French word “to hold,” it implies an active relationship that is reciprocal: holding land and also being held by it.  Similarly, “territoriality” implies an experienced sense of being embedded in place and, perhaps too, kinship with all the beings that share it – from muskrats to birds and trees.

Combining internationally recognized expertise with their own land-based law, the Tsleil-Waututh assessors concluded that the TMEX project should not proceed. “Our obligation is not to oil. Our obligation is to our land, our water, our people, our life, our snəwayəɬ, our law. According to our law, this project represents a risk that we, the Tsleil-Waututh people, are not willing to take.” Period.

Supporting positions like this (and the jurisdictional authority behind them) might be part of what it means to be treaty allies or treaty kin. It might also be what reconciliation requires: reconciling two ways of thinking (abstract and objectified plus relational and experiential) in a shared framework of people being indivisible from the “environment,” their sense of place in it, and responsibility to it.

Learning to self-identify this way is a challenge, but one that individual Canadians and NGOs in the environmental movement need to take on. To me, our ability to tackle the climate crisis and dismantle its root causes depends on it

Cover image of Meeting My Treaty Kin: A journey toward reconciliationMeeting My Treaty Kin: A Journey Toward Reconciliation
By Heather Menzies
UBC Press, On Point Press 2023
272 pages,
5 1/2 x 8 1/2,
Paperback $29.95

Heather Menzies is an award-winning writer, acclaimed public speaker and adjunct professor in the School of Indigenous and Canadian Studies, Carleton University. She lives on unceded Snuneymuxw territory.

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