A new monument stands tall on the Alberta legislature grounds in Edmonton: a three-metre statue of the Treaty Six Medallion.
Chiefs, elders, politicians, spectators, and the Queen's representative gathered for an unveiling on Sunday, Aug. 21 — 149 years to the day that adhesions to Treaty Six were signed at Fort Edmonton in 1877 by nearby First Nations.
Throughout time, the Canadian government presented each chief with a Treaty Six Medallion after signing the treaty.
Speaking before the unveiling, Chief George Arcand Jr. — the chief of Alexander First Nation and the grand chief of the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations — said the monument represents our collective history.
“I really believe this unveiling is an opportunity for us to respectfully acknowledge that Alberta and the City of Edmonton are recognizing treaty, and the significance of treaty," Chief Arcand Jr. said.
"This event today, and this monument, will forever live on as a historic relic, signifying a more prosperous future to come that keeps the original terms, spirit, and intent of Treaty Six."
Also present at the event was Lt.-Gov. Salma Lakhani.
“Treaty relationships are an essential part of the Crown of Canada, and they are something that I’m proud to honour in my role as the Queen’s representative," Lakhani said in a short speech. "It is important to note that every person who makes their home on this land that we share becomes part of a fundamental treaty relationship that is an ongoing, living agreement between peoples.”
Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi and provincial Minister of Indigenous Relations Rick Wilson also spoke of Treaty Six's importance before the unveiling.
In his speech, Wilson gave examples of the provincial government's collaborative work with First Nations, including the private orthopedic surgery facility being built in Enoch Cree Nation, and the $1.5-billion Cascade Power Project currently under construction near Edson, in which six First Nations have a collective $93-million share.
In an interview after the unveiling, Chief Arcand Jr. said he hopes the monument will remind politicians to continue and sustain the working relationship with First Nations.
"I hope that this reminder in the legislature grounds is a way for the provincial government to continue to recognize and work with First Nations," he said. "When the Alberta government sets aside some land and the City of Edmonton is part of setting aside that land to recognize that Treaty Six was actually [signed] here … in my view that creates reconcili-action."
Chiefs from many First Nations spoke at the unveiling, including Chief Tony Alexis of Alexis First Nation, Chief Arthur Rain of Paul First Nation, and Chief Darlene Misik of Papaschase First Nation, which is a landless nation that historically lived in south Edmonton.
No representatives from Michel First Nation, who signed adhesion to Treaty Six in 1878, spoke during the event. Former Michel council member and provincial NDP candidate for Edmonton-Rutherford Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse thinks this may be due to the political contention within the nation.
"There’s currently four political bodies stating that they are the leadership for the Michel First Nation, which is part of the issue," Calahoo Stonehouse said. "People don’t know who to invite.
"[Members] weren’t seeing political action take place with the governing body that was in place for decades, [so] people started to create their own advocacy groups,” she said.
Until 1958, when the entire Michel band was forcibly enfranchised by the Canadian government, the nation lived near what is now Villeneuve. The Michel First Nation is the only nation to be entirely enfranchised, which meant that members of the band lost treaty rights, land rights, and Indigenous status, while receiving Canadian citizenship and the ability to attend post-secondary school and vote.
In 1985, after an amendment was made to the Indian Act, 750 individual Michel members had their status restored, however, the members weren't reinstated to the Michel First Nation, but to the federal government's general list of recognized status individuals. Since then, Michel First Nation has been trying to be reinstated as a full band through Canada's legal system.
Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) reported in 2019 that the Michel band hasn't been reinstated because there is currently no provision under the Indian Act allowing for it.
“The reason for band status recognition is, under the common law, in order to have a land claim, a comprehensive and/or specific land claim, you need to have two criteria: a group of treaty-status [Indigenous people] from the Michel, and Crown land," Calahoo Stonehouse said, adding that the nation's land was surrendered after the band was enfranchised.
During his speech at the unveiling, Chief Arcand Jr. acknowledged nations who signed Treaty Six, but who have been "abandoned, surrendered, or enfranchised." Chief Arcand Jr. listed Michel First Nation, as well as Sharphead.
"Ancestors of these nations' people are still alive today, and we hope that this recognition of Treaty Six can be meaningful to them today as well … in the hopes that their nations will get the recognition and the respect they deserve," Chief Arcand Jr. said.
For Calahoo Stonehouse, recognizing that Michel First Nation still exists today is always important.
"In Treaty Six we are the only Haudenosaunee people," she said. "Hopefully we start to get recognized as a people-hood who were also treaty signatories in this territory.
"That’s part of the recovery from genocide, acknowledging that we exist here, and we’ve co-existed with other Indigenous groups and signed treaty to share the land and co-exist with settlers.”
The history of Treaty Six has largely been controversial, as both sides have disagreed on what exactly the treaty promised.
In Tamara Starblanket's 2008 essay Treaties: Negotiations and Rights, published by the University of Saskatchewan, Starblanket explains that contention exists due to differing oral and written understanding, as well as the Crown's claim of authority over the land. Starblanket is a Cree woman from Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation — signatories of Treaty Six — and the current dean of academics at Native Education College in Vancouver, B.C.
"Our sacred understandings of treaty are transmitted through the generations orally by the Elders," Starblanket wrote. "The Elders understand our treaty as peace and friendship agreements, not land surrender agreements."
"Non-Indigenous people were granted the right to live in Indigenous peoples’ territories so long as they maintained peace and respected the land. In exchange, Indigenous peoples were promised health care and education (to name a few)."
When treaty negotiations took place, Starblanket wrote, the Crown assumed they held sovereignty over the land because the Hudson Bay Company sold what was known as Rupert's Land to the government of Canada for $1.5 million in 1869. Rupert's Land encompassed what is now northern Quebec, northern Ontario, and most of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, according to the University of Winnipeg's Centre for Rupert's Land Studies.
"The Hudson Bay Company was a trading company and how they came to have ownership over Indigenous lands is suspicious," Starblanket wrote before providing an example from University of Alberta alumnus Sharon H. Venne's book Understanding Treaty 6: An Indigenous Perspective: “in present circumstances, it would be tantamount to [PepsiCo] or another such company gaining title to the lands of another country merely by engaging in trading.
"In treaty agreements, the Crown assumed it was granting land to Indigenous peoples because of the assumption that [Canada's] so-called title was already solidified," Starblanket wrote.
"The written version of treaty leads to further lack of knowledge as it is commonly understood that Indigenous peoples ceded and surrendered the land to the British Crown."