The History of the Robinson Huron Treaty of 1850.
This article comes from a portion of David Nahwegahbow’s opening statements during Ontario’s appeal of the Stage One decision of the Annuities Case at the Ontario Court of Appeal. David Nahwegahbow is the Robinson Huron Plaintiffs’ lead legal counsel. His statements have been edited for clarity and length.
This is a map of Upper Canada in 1838 which shows that all the new settlements and townships at that time reached as far as Lake Simcoe. Just north of this is the Robinson Huron Treaty Territory. It stretches along the north shores of Georgian Bay and Lake Huron to Batchewana Bay, just past Bawaating (Sault Ste. Marie), and up to the height of land (where the water north of the height of land flows to James Bay and water south of the height of land flows to the Great Lakes and surrounding watersheds). Roughly, the Treaty Territory makes up the vast areas described as ‘Great Tract of Wilderness’ and ‘Immense Forests’ in the 1838 map of Upper Canada. This is all ‘Anishinaabe Country’—Anishinaabeakiing.
Upper Canada 1838
In 1838, up to the time of the Treaty in 1850 and for some time beyond, the population of this area was almost exclusively Anishinaabe. There were some non-Anishinaabe people living at or around trading posts at Bawaating (Sault Ste Marie) and Michipicoten. But apart from that, this is Anishinaabeakiing territory, lands and waters, that the Anishinaabe have an inherent relationship with.
This is an important point to understand because apart from a military garrison at Penetanguishene, there was no state apparatus or physical Crown presence in the territory. The Crown depended upon its longstanding alliance and Treaty relationship with the Anishinaabe to protect the territory from incursion.
The history of the Crown-Anishinaabe alliance relationship dates back to the 1750s, during the Seven Years War when the French and the British fought for control over what is now Ontario and Quebec and the northeastern United States. At the start of the war, the Anishinaabe had been in a military alliance with the French and for much of the war, the British were unable to defeat them.
A pivotal point came in 1760 when the British, through Sir William Johnson—the first Superintendent General of Indian Affairs—were able to convince the Anishinaabe and other former French allies to remain neutral. This contributed significantly to the ability of the British to prevail over the French.
However, holding on to control of the territory was not guaranteed. The British did not conquer the Anishinaabe in 1760. This fact became clear over the next 3 years. The British had started to occupy former French Forts without Anishinaabe consent and also failed to continue the French practice of providing tribute or presents to the Anishinaabe. This aroused concerns amongst the Anishinaabe and other Indigenous Nations resulting in what is known as Pontiac’s War.
The efforts of Sir William Johnson during these 3 years were instrumental to resolving these hostilities peacefully. In this period, Johnson’s main strategy was to renew or extend the Covenant Chain to the Anishinaabe, making them allies of the British. The Covenant Chain was a diplomatic and military alliance initially established between the Dutch, and then the English, with the Haudenausonee (the Iroquois Confederacy). The Covenant Chain Alliance signified a Nation-to-Nation relationship.
Two key events in establishing this alliance relationship were the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and the Treaty at Niagara in 1764. The Royal Proclamation recognized the autonomy, independence and territorial rights of Indian Nations, including the Anishinaabe. It prohibited squatting on Indian land; it prohibited colonial governments from granting patents to Indian lands and made purchase of Indian lands illegal by anyone except the Crown. It established a Treaty process by which the Crown could obtain the consent of Indigenous Nations to share their lands, through the negotiation of Treaty terms. Today, the Proclamation and the inalienability of Indian lands to anyone but the Crown, is recognized as the source of the fiduciary duty and the honour of the Crown.
As monumental as the Proclamation was, to the Anishinaabe it was a Crown document, which had yet to reflect the consent of Indigenous Nations. Johnson knew this.
Because of his knowledge and familiarity with the diplomatic protocols of the Great Lakes area, Johnson knew that to secure and strengthen the nation-to-nation relationship with the Anishinaabe would require holding a Council Fire. In 1764, Johnson held a Council Fire at Niagara where he presented the Anishinaabe with the Great Covenant Chain Wampum belt. Upon presenting the Wampum Belt, Johnson stated that “you will fix one end of it with the Chipaweighs at St. Mary’s whilst the other end remain at my House.”
The Anishinaabe Council Fire ‘Chipaweighs at St. Mary’s’ is where the Robinson Huron Treaty Council took place in 1850. In this way, the Treaty in 1850 has a direct connection to the Treaty at Niagara in 1764 and the nature of the relationship that was established there. The French called it Sault Ste. Marie. The Anishinaabe call it Bawaating, which means place of the rapids. For centuries it was an important place of gathering and governance for the Anishinaabe.
The Crown carefully maintained their relationship with the Anishinaabe from 1764 onwards through strict observance of the protocols of Great Lakes diplomacy. The Crown called upon their Anishinaabe allies many times, including during the War of 1812. The Crown depended on the military ability and readiness of the Anishinaabe during the most pivotal conflicts in this country’s history. Canada, and certainly Ontario, would not look the same today without the contributions of the thousands of Anishinaabe warriors.
One of those Anishinaabe warriors who fought in the War of 1812 played a central role in the making of the Robinson Treaties: Chief Shingwaukonse. Shingwaukonse was born near Mackinac Island around 1773. His mother was from Bawaating. In the photo above, Chief Shingwaukonse is in the middle.
After fighting in the War of 1812, Chief Shingwaukonse would settle at Ketegaun seebee—Garden River, which is just east of Bawaating. Shingwaukonse was very knowledgeable about the Covenant Chain relationship; he was a visionary leader and a prominent spokesperson for the Anishinaabe. He established personal relationships with many representatives of the Crown, including Lt. Gov. Colborne in the 1830s and Gov. Gen. Lord Elgin in the 1840s, as well as Anglican missionaries, Indian Department agents, and of course William Benjamin Robinson, the Treaty Commissioner appointed to represent the Crown. He even hired his own lawyer, Allan MacDonell, to assist him in Treaty negotiations.
with William Robinson
Chief Nebenaigoching from Batchewana was also instrumental in the making of the Treaty. He is a direct ancestor of the present-day Chief of Batchewana and one of the named plaintiffs in the Annuities Case, Chief Dean Sayers. In the photo of the three men above, Chief Nebenaigoching is on the right.
Chief Nebenaigoching’s father fought and was killed in the War of 1812. At the age of 8, the British invested Chief Nebenaigoching with his father’s war medals and other symbols of authority at the Council Fire on Drummond Island. These medals can be seen on Chief Nebenaigoching in the photo. Such moments of recognition were all part of the ongoing renewal and maintenance of the Covenant Chain relationship between the Anishinaabe and the Crown.
William Benjamin Robinson
William Benjamin Robinson was from a prominent family in Upper Canada and would eventually become the Commissioner of the Robinson Huron Treaty. In the photo of the three men, William Benjamin Robinson is the person on the left. He was involved in many business ventures, including the fur trade. His fur trade ventures were made possible by connections his oldest brother had established with the Anishinaabe during the War of 1812.
Through his experience in the fur trade, Robinson not only made connections with the Lake Huron Anishinaabe, but became familiar with Anishinaabemowin—the language spoken by the Anishinaabe. Over time, Robinson had earned a reputation among the Anishinaabe as a fair man who could be trusted. The Anishinaabe valued relationships more than anything. If someone was not related, the Anishinaabe made them fictive kin.
This recognition of trust and respect is evident in the photo above: Shingwaukonse has arms around both Robinson and Nebenaigoching. In describing this image in her testimony during Stage One of the Restoule Annuities case, expert historian Dr. Heidi Bohaker pointed out the significance of the headdress, beaded legging and other items that Robinson is wearing. Robinson is dressed in traditional Anishinaabe garb—not the clothes of an English Gentleman.
Chief Shingwaukonse and Chief Nebenaigoching frequently reminded the representatives of the ongoing relationship between the Crown and the Anishinaabe and the principles embedded within it. Some of the most prominent records of this are captured in the pre-Treaty petitions, memorials and speeches by Shingwaukonse and others. They form an important context for understanding the common intention of the Treaty parties. For example, Shingwaukonse petitioned:
“The Great Spirit, we think, placed these rich mines on our lands for the benefit of his red children, so that their rising generation might get support from them when the animals of the woods should have grown too scarce for our subsistence. We will carry out, therefore, the good object of our Father, the Great Spirit—we will sell you these lands, if you give us what is right—at the same time, we want pay for every pound of mineral that has been taken off of our lands, as well as for that which may hereafter be carried away.”
It is important to understand that these petitions were prompted by unilateral actions taken by the Colonial Government in approximately 1845 and later, to allow settlement and development activities on Anishinaabe lands, particularly mining activities, without Anishinaabe consent, contrary to the Royal Proclamation of 1763.
Not only were these encroachments on Indian lands illegal under the Crown’s laws, they were a violation of the Covenant Chain alliance and illegal under Anishinaabe laws as well. The Anishinaabe saw these actions as a direct challenge to their jurisdiction, their relationship with their territory, and their relationship with the Crown. This prompted a major resistance to colonial unilateral actions, which culminated in the Mica Bay Incident in November-December of 1849.
Lands reserved for Indians Map – Royal Proclamation October 7, 1763
The level of Anishinaabe resistance to unilateral government action prompted the Crown’s direct representative, Lord Elgin, to step in and acknowledge the conduct of colonial officials violated the Royal Proclamation and ordered the Government to make a Treaty. This was the situation leading up to the Treaty Council in 1850.
The Crown needed Anishinaabe consent to regularize mining permits and to continue allowing newcomers to develop and settle in their territories. The Anishinaabe were prepared to share the lands by way of a Treaty, but expected to share in the benefits.
The parties entered into a sacred Treaty around the Anishinaabe Council Fire at Bawaating on September 9, 1850 and created terms for living together that are now part of the constitutional fabric of this Country.