OTTAWA – A historic wampum belt is being used Tuesday for the first time in centuries to help retie the relationship between First Nations and the Crown.
Aboriginal leaders from Ontario have brought the replica of the 1764 Treaty of Niagara belt with them to Ottawa for a historic summit with the prime minister.
Sewn from 10,076 purple and silver shells, it symbolizes the link forged between First Nations and the Crown in the year following the 1763 Royal Proclamation that defined the relationship between the two sides.
It’s those historic ties that chiefs across the country want to draw on in the one-day meeting that’s billed as an opportunity to reset that relationship.
So when they display the belt during the opening ceremonies of the summit, they will hold it aloft backwards.
“As we turn the belt we symbolically recognize that the issue of our relationship with the Crown is not correct,” said Chief Isadore Day Wiindawtegoweinini of the Serpent River First Nation.
“And we must turn that belt and provide recognition of the work that still needs to be done. This really is at the foundation of the messaging behind this meeting with the federal government.”
While the meeting was announced last year, a date was formally set at a time of heightened tension between the government and First Nations.
Living conditions on the Northern Ontario reserve of Attawapiskat, where families were living in trailers and tents in frigid weather, had burst onto the international stage.
Amid desperate calls for change for aboriginal families across the country came the Harper government’s pledge to also do more to strengthen financial accountability on reserves, which receive billions annually in federal funding.
Both sides are now hoping to chart a path forward.
The chiefs have high hopes for a two-track approach delivering short-term fixes for immediate crises and also pave the way for a fundamentally different long-term relationship within 12 to 18 months.
Immediate challenges could include inadequate funding for housing, child welfare, education and water.
Long-term issues include crafting a pathway to self-governance and recognition of treaty rights, a more reliable fiscal framework, economic development, financial transparency, and speeding up talks on comprehensive land claims.
Among other items, chiefs and federal politicians are widely expected to endorse a plan that would see Ottawa introduce legislation that would give native communities the power to set up their own school boards, and change the structure of government financing so that it’s more predictable.
But all of that hinges on going back to the original spirit of the relationship between the two sides, Chief Day said.
The belts tell that story.
In addition to the massive 1764 belt, a smaller black-and-white one from the same time period will also be used.
Three white columns divided by black lines signify that the First Nations in their canoes would not interfere with the Crown and their ships.
A third belt, called the “dish with one spoon” represents sharing in the bounty of the land.
Among the key issues for many chiefs is the fact they’re not sharing in the wealth being drawn out of their traditional territories.
“These wampum belts signify the original spirit and intent of treaties but it goes back even further to that sacred obligation of sharing,” Day said.
The 1764 belt is a replica of an original since lost to history. The belt had been made as part of the Treaty of Niagara, signed between the Crown and 24 First Nations marking one of the first land deals.
It also set the stage for First Nations participation in the War of 1812 as those who signed the treaty believed themselves to be allied with the British.
The belt was resewn last year by women from the Shawnee nation in the U.S., whose band was also part of negotiations with the British in the 18th century.
All three belts will form part of an opening ceremony that will also include prayers, songs and speeches from the governor general, prime minister and National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Shawn Atleo.
A dozen cabinet ministers will also be part of the meetings, along with hundreds of chiefs from across the country.
How much time Harper will spend at the summit is unclear, as he leaves for World Economic Forum meetings in Switzerland later in the day.
But he held a roundtable with regional chiefs late Monday where each had a chance to outline their agenda.
NDP Aboriginal Affairs Critic Linda Duncan said while she was skeptical that the meetings could achieve much, she was impressed by the chiefs.
“Five, six years since the Conservatives have been in power and finally they are getting together with them?,” she said.
And these chiefs are still willing, to on their own money, come out here and sit down and still try to be nation to nation, that’s pretty remarkable.”
– with files from Canadian Press reporter Heather Scoffield