Book Review – On Being Here to Stay: Treaties and Aboriginal Rights in Canada

As part of its monthly Book Review Forum, the IPAC NWT Regional Group is pleased to present the following review for the month of May: Michael Asch’s On Being Here to Stay: Treaties and Aboriginal Rights in Canada Toronto: UTP, (2014).

SP002735Michael Asch’s book, On Being Here to Stay, is an interesting take on Aboriginal rights and treaty rights. Asch addresses Settlers’ claim to their right to stay in Canada. He proposes a way forward, built on respect of the “spirit and intent” of treaties, so as to establish an ethical way for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples to co-exist. Asch’s position with respect to colonized peoples is that it is wrong legally, as well as morally, to move onto lands belonging to others without first obtaining their permission.

Foundational to Asch’s work is the idea of temporal priority; that settlers arrived to find well-established Indigenous peoples and communities. His book appears to set the stage for an explicitly anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, and even anarchist analysis of Indigenous-settler relations and treaties; all forms of analysis that he has not purported to engage with explicitly. It is with this approach in mind that Asch makes his arguments on Indigenous and Settler relations.

Asch begins by examining the history of Canada. He sets out the context for the book’s framework well and presents his assumptions up front. His work is broken down into two sections: the first dealing with treaty relationships, generally, and the second focusing specifically on Treaty Number 4. Asch’s conclusion is somewhat somewhat anti-climactic in that he concludes that Indigenous authorities’ depiction of the shared understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous parties to the treaties is accurate, through reviewing treaties, historical events, and case law.

It is with this conclusion that Asch lost my attention. I would submit that Asch’s finding, in my view, is an uncontroversial fact and one that need not be argued.  The journals of treaty commissioners detail the negotiations around treaties and what both parties agreed to prior to signing the treaty. Asch does not add anything to the general discussion with this conclusion.

Asch also states that it is important to look at what Indigenous peoples today say about the terms of the treaties and how they should be interpreted. He notes, however strangely, that he leaves the words of Indigenous authorities un-interpreted within his book, stating that they are beyond paraphrasing. I find it difficult to understand why Asch would decidedly leave out the views of Indigenous authorities in a book that addresses the treaty relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. One can only guess as to his reasons, but Asch does confess within the book that his intent was “…to write a book that would need little further research.” Maybe this “confession” addresses this gap in his writing; that he relied more on his experiences and personal reflections than on completing further research.

Asch also refers in his book to the “nation-to-nation” relationship as a phrase that Indigenous authorities use but Asch himself, does not attempt to gather input from Indigenous peoples on its use or definition. This seems odd to me, given the importance surrounding the area of relationship building and reconciliation, especially today. I would submit that the views of Indigenous peoples would be quite important and relevant in this context; if not only to put into perspective the significance of the phrase. What one “nation” may define as “nation-to-nation” may be quite different from another’s definition; or from the colonial government, for that matter.

I can only wonder if it is the nature of the anthropologist to observe rather than interfere or interact with the community one is “studying” that limits his information gathering? The use of the term “nation-to-nation” is significant in defining Indigenous and non-Indigenous relationships and by not addressing these two views within his book, I would submit, is an oversight; and this work suffers for it.

Asch concludes the first section of his book by suggesting that treaties offer one mechanism by which Settlers legitimized their settlement on Indigenous lands – by obtaining permission from the people who had the authority to grant it. I submit that this view imposes a Settler idea of ownership of the land on the reader. I am not sure I would agree with Asch’s finding. The land was utilized by a specific band and territories were, in a sense, established. With permission, however, others were able to cross or use the land – to share it. A key part that is missing from Asch’s conclusion, here, is that he does not make reference to the Royal Proclamation, 1763, where the King stated the land was “owned” by Indigenous peoples.

One chapter that stood out to me as rather odd was Asch’s thorough review of Tom Flanagan’s work, First Nations? Second thoughts (2nd ed) McGill-Queen’s University Press (September 2008). I found this chapter to be disjointed and distracting from the rest of Asch’s argument, due to a seemingly lack of relevance to his thesis. At the end of this chapter, Asch states that his goal of including the review is not to silence viewpoints, but rather to show that the author offers no compelling reason for Asch to abandon his own argument. Again, I found this to be confusing, as Asch only relies on the one author’s work to, essentially, not sway his own argument. He doesn’t even include sources to support his thesis. I submit that this makes his argument one sided and provides an incomplete argument and viewpoint for the reader to rely on.

Overall, I felt like Asch’s work was a bit out dated. Although published in 2014, I felt like I was reading a book from the 1960s or 1970s with how his argument was presented. The context of the book does not match what is currently happening in society today; such as with the Idle No More Movement, the TRC, the idea of nation-to-nation relationships, and reconciliation.

For Public Servants across Canada and in the Northwest Territories, this work does not assist them in understanding the history of Indigenous peoples and colonialism in Canada. Its one-sided view of treaties and aboriginal rights would, I argue, cause confusion within offices and in developing public policy. With reconciliation being the “it” word these days, and with governments working towards their own submissions on the TRC Calls to Action, Asch’s book does not assist Public Servants in achieving this goal. In a way, I feel like Asch’s book sets back these achievements, the work that governments are doing, and the new path that we are moving forward on together.

This review was authored by CAITLIN BERESFORD, who is currently working as an Assistant Crown Attorney with the Durham Crown Office in Ontario.  She also works as a sole practitioner, working in the area of Aboriginal Law, specifically land claims. This review was prepared for Northern Public Affairs magazine by the Institute of Public Administration of Canada’s (IPAC) NWT Regional Group. Please note the views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of IPAC. Many thanks to University of Toronto Press for providing a courtesy copy for our reviewer.

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