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The Gunshot Treaty

author: Peter Lockyer

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It would be easy to pass by the stone cairn at the stoplights in the village of Carrying Place, Prince Edward County. but for those interested in peeling back layers upon layers of Canadian history, this site has stories to tell.

The cairn describing The Gunshot Treaty at the busy intersection of Highway 33 and Portage Road marks a crossroads in history. It was here on September 23, 1787 that hundreds of Aboriginal peoples from the Mississauga nation met with representatives of King George III to negotiate an historic land deal known as The Gunshot Treaty.

The treaty was spurred by the urgent British need to find land for thousands of United Empire Loyalists looking to re-settle after their flight from their homes in The United States during and after the American Revolution. The Gunshot Treaty was one of a number of hastily arranged negotiations with Aboriginal peoples along Lake Ontario, drawn up to secure title to land for survey and settlement, and to develop alternative water routes for commercial travel and military use. The Gunshot Treaty would become the 13th in this series of land negotiations.

Prior to The Gunshot Treaty, Carrying Place had been significant to many cultures. Long before Champlain came this way, before the fur traders and before the missionaries of the 17th century, native people portaged their vessels from the great lake across a narrow neck of marshland to the gentler waters of the bay that would someday be called Quinte. By and large, the region remained free of Caucasians until the 1780s.

It is not known what the first people who lived here called this portage route. The Mississauga First Nation called it “de-ga-bun-wa-kwa,” meaning “I pick up my canoe”. English-speaking Europeans called it the Carrying Place and the name stuck.

In the decades that followed The Gunshot Treaty, Carrying Place became a commercial route connected by a stagecoach service operated by Asa Weller and a major shipping route with the construction of the Murray Canal in the late 1880s. But in the 1780s, it was simply a well-known landmark, ideally suited as a gathering place for treaty talks.

Treaty negotiations were guided by an over-arching British approach dictated by the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which attempted to standardize administrative policies when acquiring land from Aboriginal peoples in North America. Implicit in the British policy was the notion that First Nations retained traditional hunting and fishing rights and that settlement land would have to be secured from the First Nations people, through agreements and purchase. Although the policy fell short of actually recognizing Aboriginal ownership of the land, it was for its time a surprisingly enlightened diplomatic departure from the usual land grabs by Europeans who claimed title by simple discovery or conquest. Despite good intentions, The Gunshot Treaty and its sister agreements proved nonetheless to be both landmarks and landmines in relations with First Nations.

The September, 1787 land talks were first experiments in cross-cultural communication. Despite the presence of interpreter Nathanial Lines, the British desire to firmly secure land title was foreign to a communal society where individual private ownership was unknown. The translation of English words such as “surrender” of land title was more broadly understood as “shared” in the Ojibway language. The retention of the right to hunt, fish and travel undisturbed through islands and waterways of the Bay of Quinte as they always had, with yearly ceremonies and gifts from the British, sounded to some Mississauga chiefs as more of an annual rental of land rights rather than an outright purchase. And because it was not possible to complete the surveys until a treaty had been negotiated, the descriptions of land covered by the treaty were left blank pending a survey to begin later.

The Gunshot Treaty took its name from its terms. It covered lands as far as a gunshot could be heard on a clear day. But to add to the ambiguity, it’s not certain whether the gunshot was from a musket or a cannon.

For the British representatives, led by Sir John Johnson, the General of Indian Affairs for British North America, the Gunshot Treaty was essentially a treaty that covered most of present-day Eastern Ontario.

In return for the land, the Mississauga received approximately £2,000 and goods such as muskets, ammunition, tobacco, laced hats and enough red cloth for 12 coats. The land agreement was to last as long as “you see the sun in the sky, as the rivers flow and the grass grows”. Even today, the Gunshot Treaty is a challenging and bewildering read.

“This is one of the worst treaties in Canada,” says Dave Mowat, a First Nations councillor and local historian in the Mississauga community of Alderville, north of Cobourg, Ontario.

“There’s no honour in these treaties even though both parties attempted to honour their understanding of them. These agreements had no defined land descriptions within them and it has fallen to academics to sort out the details. Native oral traditions have been scoffed at, but these agreements did allow for settlement that couldn’t be contained.”

Both parties remained unsettled by their bargain. Seven years later, in 1794, British officials declared the Gunshot Treaty invalid, and over the next decade, representatives of the Crown attempted to finalize matters while at the same time coyly trying to determine Aboriginal understandings of the earlier land talks.

At a May 22 meeting in 1798, Peter Russell, the Administrator for the Province of Upper Canada, was chided by Chief Yellowhead of the Chippewa nation from Lake Simcoe for not seeming to remember the British had already purchased land they were discussing.

“If you white people forget your transaction with us,” stated the chief, “we do not. The lands you have just now shew [show] to us, belong to you. We have nothing to do with it. We have sold it to our Great Father the King, as was well paid for it. Therefore, make your mind at ease.”

In June 1806, First Nations and British officials gathered at the Credit River to negotiate a more detailed and defined settlement which became known as Treaty 13A. It wasn’t much of an improvement on the Gunshot Treaty as it used boundary references “a maple tree blazed on four sides at the distance of three miles and three quarters in a straight line from the mouth of the Etobicoke River”.

Uncertainties continued to plague additional treaties that built upon these first vague purchases, but nonetheless, they steadily added to the lands assumed by the British for settlement.

By 1923, the federal government and the Ontario provincial government had inherited the land claim files with all their problems. A three-person Commission headed by Toronto lawyer, A. S. Williams, recommended additional cash payments of $30,000 for lands covered by the Gunshot Treaty and another $700,000 as payment for the seven townships around Lake Simcoe, saying that the claims by Aboriginal peoples had been pursued for over 70 years.

The Williams’ Treaties would also add their own layer of complexity to land claim settlements. The lands they covered overlapped with earlier treaties, bands involved in the earlier treaties were not part of the 1923 discussions, while hunting and fishing rights along with reserve lands were not covered in the settlement.

In June 1995, the Ontario Archives purchased a significant collection of private papers titled The A. E. Williams/United Indian Bands of Chippewas and Mississauga Papers. These documents, which related to the Gunshot Treaty were written documents based on Aboriginal oral tradition. They provided a unique perspective of the First Nations’ understanding of the early treaties. The documents were completed in 1927 when members of the Walpole Band near Wallaceburg, Ontario prepared a paper on their treaty and Aboriginal rights.

The research included testimony given in March 1837 to a British Commission by native interpretor Shaw-Wun-Dais (1795-1875), also known as John Sunday, who told the story of the treaty as handed down through the generations of his ancestors.

“The Governor,” Sunday testified, “asked for land because his people were coming from the East. They were very poor and hungry and some were starving. This is the reason he asked us for the land. The Governor stated that although the government wanted the land, it was not intended that the fish and game rights be excluded or they (the First Nations people) be deprived of their privileges of hunting, trapping and fishing, as it was a source of their living and sustenance. The Indians were to have first rights to all rivers, creeks, lakes and no white men could order them off.”

Sunday expressed to the Commission the desire of his people to have a written record of their land title and their worry about future losses of their land.

In a twist of history, the Gunshot Treaty and other early land claims reverberated across the country over 180 years later.

In 1969, the Nisga’a people of the Nass Valley in northern British Columbia took the federal government before the Supreme Court of Canada to press settlement of their land claim. They argued that they had never surrendered their land through a treaty and had never been defeated by conquest. They also argued that early British treaties with First Nations had clearly indicated a recognition by the English government that Aboriginal peoples had at least some traditional rights to their land, and this territory would have to be purchased to secure title.

The Nisga’a didn’t win their case. But they didn’t lose it either. The split decision of the Supreme Court was enough to force the federal and provincial governments to begin to negotiate land claims. After decades of talks with the federal government, the British Columbia government and the Nisga’a, a final settlement came into effect in May 2000. The settlement allowed for cash compensation, self-government and Nisga’a ownership of land and resources such as timber, salmon stocks, and subsurface resources.

Land claim settlements are now a part of government policy. They remain slow, complicated processes subject to the changing priorities and interests of governing political parties.

Although they were deeply flawed and their shortcomings still resonate in Aboriginal communities, early treaties such as the Gunshot Treaty signed at Carrying Place, established legal precedents.

The Mississauga people of the Bay of Quinte were re-located to Alderville and to this day, they are still fighting for lands they believe they lost in these early treaties.

“Intrusion and encroachment were the words of the day,” says Aboriginal historian Dave Mowat. “The treaties drove our people out of traditional areas, swallowed up traditional lands, and traditional economies were destroyed. It changed the nature of the people. How does the concept of Indian ownership go from ownership to just fishing rights? Our people never understood that they were giving up these rights… It’s a painful history.”

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