Current Problems

Education (6-12)

There’s ‘misunderstanding’ around treaties, and a Mi’kmaw academic aims to change that

September 3, 2023

Aaron Prosper hopes Saint Mary’s University course on treaties will help bring Mi’kmaw values to the classroom

A man sits on a bench and poses for a photo. He has short brown hair. He is wearing a brown shirt with black, red, yellow and white stripes.
Aaron Prosper from the Eskasoni First Nation is teaching a course this fall at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax called Kisaknutmaqan: Peace and Friendship Treaties. (Nick Pearce/Dalhousie University)

CBC News: A Mi’kmaw academic hopes his new Halifax university course on treaties between the British and Indigenous peoples in the region will help students understand their role and relevance in today’s society, nearly three centuries after being signed.

Aaron Prosper from the Eskasoni First Nation said the Saint Mary’s University course, Kisaknutmaqan: Peace and Friendship Treaties, will dissect and analyze treaties signed in what is now the Maritimes. “I do feel that there’s a lot of misunderstanding about treaties,” Prosper said. “In contemporary society, the thought process thinks everyone held hands and sang Kumbaya in the 1700s, but for the most part, a lot of the treaties were signed at the end of conflict or war.”

Prosper said the Mi’kmaw word kisaknutmaqan has many meanings, but it can refer to “two or more parties having a completed discussion or consensus.” “It’s important that we’re going to have these very public discussions and debates about treaties because people need to be informed,” he said.

Historic cases

The Peace and Friendship Treaties were a series of treaties signed between 1725 and 1779 with various Indigenous peoples, including the Mi’kmaq, Wolastoqiyik and Passamaquoddy.

Prosper said the course gives students the opportunity to learn about what led to the signings, and how the treaties were later used. He gives the example of the case of Gabriel Sylliboy in the 1920s and the Marshall decision of 1999, which both reference the Peace and Friendship Treaties.

Sylliboy, who was Mi’kmaq, was convicted of hunting out of season after being found with muskrat pelts. He used treaty rights dating to 1752 as his defence during the court case and subsequent appeal, which he lost. He was posthumously pardoned in 2017.

In the Marshall decision, the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed the right of the Mi’kmaq to fish and hunt for a “moderate livelihood,” although it later clarified the federal government could regulate those activities for conservation or other reasons.

Margaret Murphy, a spokesperson for Saint Mary’s University, said the school is focused on including more Indigenous-based classes. “A few years ago we had a task force of Indigenous students at Saint Mary’s and how to improve the overall student experience, and one of the big key recommendations was the curriculum needs to change,” she said.

Mi’kmaw values

Prosper, who is 27 years old, said during his early education in high school and university, the treaties were either not discussed, or students would get a narrow perspective on their role to modern society.

“One thing to understand is in the historical context when these treaties were signed, not every Mi’kmaq was in agreement when some were signed,” Prosper said. “A Mi’kmaw person who signed a treaty in Halifax is not a representative of all Mi’kmaq in New Brunswick, Cape Breton or P.E.I.”

Murphy said bringing these topics into the curriculum is vital and the demand has risen in recent years. “We’re taking their advice and the courses will benefit other students as well, which means everyone is going to be learning more about Indigenous history in the Atlantic region.” Prosper said this is a step in the right direction and part of his goal is to bring Mi’kmaw values to his class. He wants students to carry and apply the traditional lessons of peace, dialogue and compassion in day-to-day life.

He said the discourse surrounding treaties is more prominent than ever, noting the conflict in recent years between commercial lobster fishermen in southwest Nova Scotia and members of Sipekne’katik First Nation who have asserted they have a treaty right to fish for a moderate livelihood outside the regulated season.

“Treaties at the end of the day are about keeping peace to ensure that we can have this society,” Prosper said. “It really is the early days of what makes Canada what it is today, it’s what draws the line.”


Tehosterihens Deer, Reporter

Tehosterihens Deer is a Haudenosaunee from the Mohawk nation of Kahnawake. He is a reporter and journalist with CBC Nova Scotia.