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Treaties and Land Claims

Treaty Road looks at the painful stories behind the numbered treaties signed with Canada’s Indigenous peoples

March 5, 2024


Erin Goodpipe, right, and Saxon de Cocq appear in the premier episode of the series Treaty Road on APTN, which explores the complex and often shocking histories behind treaties signed by Indigenous peoples and the British Crown between 1871 and 1921. HANDOUT

The Globe and Mail: Erin Goodpipe and Saxon de Cocq are friends; they have each other’s backs. That’s important, because they’re exploring some painful injustices in the new ATPN series they co-host, Treaty Road, and doing so requires openness from them both.

Treaty Road, arriving Tuesday, tells the complex and often enraging story of the first six of the 11 Numbered Treaties signed by Indigenous peoples and the British Crown between 1871 and 1921. (Season two, covering the remaining treaties, is already in preproduction.) The Crown presented the treaties as agreements to share the land peacefully for each party’s mutual benefit, but it should surprise no one that its actual agenda was to obtain title by any means, including mistranslations, omissions, lies and broken promises.

Yet realizations do come as a bit of a shock for de Cocq, a Métis writer and director (The Other Side) from Alberta who presents as white and is the stand-in for Canadians who are hearing this stuff for the first time. He begins the series eager to believe that his great-great-great-grandfather – James McKay, a Métis trader who helped negotiate the treaties and eventually became treaty commissioner – was a good guy. But as he goes along, his already wide eyes get wider.

“I went in expecting to be humbled,” he said in a recent video interview. “And I was. But I quickly realized it wasn’t about my journey, it was much more about Erin’s, and the people who live with the effects of treaty.”

Goodpipe is a Dakhóta/Anishinaabekwe from Saskatchewan, and an artist/educator/TV host (she worked with de Cocq on The Other Side). Like most Indigenous Canadians, she doesn’t have the luxury of not knowing about the treaties and their effects. Gently but firmly, she and the elders, experts and activists whom the co-hosts consult nudge de Cocq (and viewers) toward a more balanced understanding of Canadian history.

“It’s a beautiful thing when learning impacts people’s lives holistically,” Goodpipe says in a separate video interview. “In my culture, we’re generous with people who are trying to find understanding. I knew Saxon’s journey would be personal. It’s a lot to process to learn that your ancestors played a role in oppressing, or you still are. It’s almost easier, in one sense, to be the one speaking justice to power.”

Season one covers the first six of the 11 Numbered Treaties and season two, already in preproduction, covers the remaining treaties. Each episode looks at the circumstances of a treaty, and charts its present-day effects on land, resource extraction, food sovereignty and justice. HANDOUT

Each episode looks at the circumstances of a treaty, and charts its present-day effects on land, resource extraction, food sovereignty and justice. Episode three, about water, is arguably the most wrenching. The hosts meet activist Judy Da Silva, who’s been part of the Grassy Narrows anti-clear-cutting blockade since 2002, and who suffers the effects of mercury poisoning that began in 1962 when pulp mills dumped 9,000 kilograms of mercury into the lakes and rivers of Treaty Three territory, contaminating the water and its fish for hundreds of years. Goodpipe, who is pregnant in the episode, normally keeps a straight face – “I’m not a crier,” she says – but we see her trembling here.

“Not only won’t the government acknowledge the poisoning – they claim the effects are due to alcohol abuse and incest in the communities,” de Cocq says, similarly moved. “To be there and see first-hand the physical repercussions of that …” he trails off, shaking his head.

Sharing this kind of information was the goal, but it wasn’t easy on the hosts as people. “What might not come across, a number of times when I was talking to elders their conversation was intense, and that intensity was directed toward myself as the white guy in the room,” de Cocq says. “The anger is justified, but when it’s directed at you, it was sometimes difficult to sit there and accept it. It feels like it’s bearing down on your soul.”

At one point in his Regina hotel room, he had “an absolute panic attack,” he continues. “I was really questioning, who the hell am I to be telling this story?” Goodpipe; the series’ director, Candy Fox, a two-spirited Plains Cree woman from the Piapot First Nation; and their crew, who were about 50 per cent Indigenous, talked him through it.

“Educators are constantly asking how we take care of each other in the midst of learning something difficult,” Goodpipe says. “Talking about these things can be traumatizing. When I was a teenager, I was quite angry at white people. My grandparents and parents had gone to residential schools and had been severely abused. My mother didn’t know her parents, because they lived on the streets and died from violence. I wanted to walk around with a flag reading, ‘Don’t you care?’ ”

Co-hosts Goodpipe and de Cocq hope the series will become part of Canadian school curricula.HANDOUT

To set the tone of caring for one another as filming began, Goodpipe organized a pipe ceremony for the crew. “These ceremonies protect us,” she says. “We had a sharing circle, where we looked each other in the eye, said why we were there and acknowledged that we’re accountable to each other.”

Goodpipe’s intention? “To be a cautious and considerate friend, and to model how Indigenous people and other Canadians need to walk together,” she says. “That’s what I see Treaty Road as: Saxon and I are modelling the ongoing building of a relationship that we want to reflect back to others.”

“We’re in a time where people are listening, maybe for the first time, to the other side of Canadian history,” de Cocq says. “There’s no need to feel blame; no one needs to get our backs up. If you’re watching this show and getting defensive, maybe take a breath and accept the truths of our country. People have endured and are enduring horrible circumstances because of a system set up to benefit the rest of us. Those people deserve to be heard, so things can be corrected. It’s not a bad thing, to fix things! It’s not a perfect country. Its formation was far from perfect. We always stumble forward as we move forward. I hope this helps us take a step.”

The hosts also hope the series will become part of Canadian school curricula. Until then, Goodpipe suggests, “Maybe sit down with your family, your circle, and ask, ‘Do I know my lineage? Do I know what my occupation in this territory means?’ Indigenous people aren’t trying to kick you off the land. We’re trying to live in good harmony and work together for a better future for all people. A big part of that is caring for our sky, land and water. We’re all facing the climate crisis, not just Indigenous people.

“We want our culture, our knowledge, our practices, to be seen as valuable and equal,” she sums up. “I value you, you value me, because Creator made us equal. And right now we’re not valued equally, because promises were broken.”


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