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A fire that’s been burning for 173 years 

September 18, 2023

Spiritual practices observed in Robinson treaties case courtroom are a modern continuity of an ancient tradition

A sacred fire (or Shkodeh, as it is known in Anishinaabemowin) has burned every day the Robinson treaties trial has been in session. This landmark case was first heard in 2017. Submitted by Alex Bisson

CBC Indigenous: A sacred fire can rise from its ashes if its keepers save the coals and use them the next time they rekindle the flames. This tradition has been a part of the relationship between the Crown and the Anishinaabeg since the signing of the Robinson treaties in 1850. 

When the two parties met 173 years ago to formalize their partnership, a sacred fire burned. 

Seven generations later, as these treaties become the subject of one of Ontario’s and Canada’s most complex and consequential litigations, the sacred fire is still burning.  Every day, lawyers and justices convene to work on the case, and firekeepers wake up before dawn and host a sunrise ceremony. 

They use a pipe, sing, pray and put out traditional medicines: tobacco, cedar, sage and sweetgrass. 

Herbs and a pot laid out.
Herbs in bowls.
A person holding red pouches with a fire in the background.

They pull out the coals preserved from the previous sacred fire and make a bed for the new flames. 

Even with billions of dollars at stake and the future of the Crown-Indigenous treaty relationship hanging in the balance, politics have no place at the sacred fire. Crown lawyers, plaintiff lawyers, reporters, justices and members of the public meet there in the mornings, at lunches or court breaks.

“This is how we would do it when we started the treaty relationship,” explains Walter McGregor, one of the firekeepers.

A man with a beard holding feathers while standing next to a fire.
Walter McGregor lives in Wahnapitae First Nation near N’Swakamok (Greater Sudbury). He became involved in firekeeping about 20 years ago. (Aya Dufour/CBC)

“Instead of talking in court, we gathered around a sacred fire. We would discuss problems, solve issues, and pass on new ways and teachings.”

While the sacred fire is an ancient tradition for cross-cultural events such as treaty negotiations, carving out a space for it in the modern Canadian judicial system is relatively unheard of.  Yet, the treaty’s sacred fire accompanied the court over the past six years as it made its way from Thunder Bay to Sault Ste. Marie, and then again from Little Current to Greater Sudbury.

Charting unknown territory

“What we did was pretty new,” recalled Patricia Hennessy, the justice who has presided over the case since 2018, during an Indigenous law conference earlier this year.  She said that when the invitation to join the Anishinaabeg signatories of the treaty in ceremony first came through, the matter had to be discussed in an Ontario Superior Court case conference. 

“Once it became known that both the Crown and plaintiff lawyers would attend, I also accepted the invitation,” said Hennessy.  “It was the beginning of a practice that continued from time to time throughout the trial.”

Sagamok Anishnawbek cultural worker Leroy Bennett, who oversaw the spiritual aspects of the annuities case, said he didn’t really understand what he was getting into when he was first approached by the litigation team in 2017. 

A smiling man wearing a grey hoodie.
Leroy Bennett is a cultural co-ordinator for Robinson Huron Waawiindamaagewin, an organization created to deal with non-annuity-related issues that arise from treaty interpretation. (Aya Dufour/CBC)

“Elders told me it was a big responsibility,” Bennett said. “But I was pretty nonchalant about it “Looking back, I think that attitude shielded me from fully realizing the magnitude of what this was.” 

Bennett said he came to understand his responsibility was to bring forward Anishinaabe culture and protocols in Canadian courts. This meant that at times, he was charting unknown territory. 

When lighting the first sacred fire of the trial in Thunder Bay in 2017, Bennett remembers worrying about whether he was going against the city’s bylaws.  “I just thought: ‘Let’s do it,’ not as an act of defiance, but rather as an act of resurgence for that way of life.” 

A fire in a large tent.
The sacred fire and the knowledge keeper were of great comfort to all court users throughout the case, including counsel, Justice Patricia Hennessy said during an academic conference at Lakehead University earlier in January. (Submitted by Alex Bisson)

Bennett said the sacred fire drew in hundreds of people during the first few days. “Everybody began to realize that the fire was helping us as the court case went on,” he said.  “When things got tough, and they did, we always had something to go to.” 

The fire’s spirit

Alex Bisson, a firekeeper from Wiikwemkoong First Nation, added that the sacred fire has a spirit.  Through the process of preserving the coals, he said, that spirit has accompanied everyone involved in the Robinson treaties trial.

A man tending to a fire.
Alex Bisson loves to share firekeeper teachings with visitors to the Robinson-Huron treaty sacred fire. (Aya Dufour/CBC)

“It is so powerful when lawyers, judges, delegates and chiefs are all there. You can feel the energy of the fire and its spirit doing their work.” 

Firekeeper McGregor also speaks of the sacred fire’s spiritual energy. “There’s a power that just draws you to it. It’s hard to describe.” McGregor said he feels the spirit’s energy most strongly at night, when the firekeeper’s eyes are the only ones watching the flames. 

“There’s energy around you. You feel it. You sense it.” 

Another firekeeper, Sagamok Anishnawbek’s Steve John, said firekeeping has helped him live a good life. A tattoo artist by trade, he started learning how to light and protect a sacred fire when he entered an Indigenous-led treatment program for substance abuse issues 20 years ago. 

“Everybody had specific chores in that program: cooking, cleaning, organizing. My responsibility was to watch over the fire,” said John. It’s an experience that has shaped the rest of his life, he said. “The fire helps me when I need it. It comforts me. I know it’s a direct line to my ancestors.”

John said he was recruited to do firekeeping by the Robinson-Huron litigation team when he showed unwavering commitment to protect a sacred fire burning during a First Nation gathering.  “That time, I stayed up all night and day for multiple days to care for the fire,” he remembered. “I was seeing everything in blue by the end of it.”

A firekeeper teaching that stays with John is that of the spiritual connection between a sacred fire, the Earth, the sun and one’s own heart. 

An Indigenous painting featuring a person tending to a fire with an eagle flying overhad.
Steve John painted this interpretation of a firekeeper teaching. (Aya Dufour/CBC)

The firekeepers are gearing up to continue their work in the Robinson treaties case. Later this fall, the matter will be before the Supreme Court, as Ontario is appealing the Superior Court’s findings.

The Robinson-Huron past annuities case was recently settled by Ontario and Canada, which will pay $5 billion each for failing to honor the annuities clause in the treaty. 

As for the Robinson-Superior past annuities case, it will be settled by an order from the province’s Superior Court sometime this fall. The third stage of that trial is wrapping up in Thunder Bay throughout September. 

Unlike their Robinson-Huron counterparts, who entered out-of-court negotiations with the Crown, the Robinson-Superior plaintiffs are leaving the question of compensation for past annuities in the hands of Hennessy. 

Once the question of past annuities is resolved for both groups, there are still many treaty negotiations to be had, as the Crown’s obligation to pay annuities to First Nation signatories according to the wealth generated from the territory is still going forward. 

Ontario and Canada have to continue discussing with the 21 treaty territory First Nations signatories to determine what annual payments should look like in modern times. These annuities have been capped at $4 per person since 1874.

Meanwhile, firekeepers continue to preserve the ashes of the sacred fire.  “We’re going to keep them, because we don’t know if treaty talks are going to end,” said Bisson.

About the Author

Aya Dufour

Aya Dufour is a CBC reporter based in northern Ontario. She often writes about the mining industry and Indigenous sovereignty. Follow her on Twitter @AyaDufour.