Douglas Treaties translated into First Nations languages nearly 170 years later

By The Canadian Press
February 24, 2017 - 10:05am

VICTORIA — In the English language, a fish is just a fish, but for the Tsartlip First Nation on Vancouver Island, words can vary when referring to catching, preserving or cooking the animal.

Vancouver Island First Nations and researchers at the University of Victoria are now taking a closer look at those differences by translating the Douglas Treaties into the indigenous languages of Sencoten and Lekwungen for the first time nearly 170 years after they were signed.

Elder John Elliott was one of two translators to produce the indigenous-language treaties that were unveiled Thursday, and he said there is a stark contrast in perspectives of land rights and resources.

He said the Sencoten language is a product of their spiritual belief, which informed their way of life and perspective on laws and ownership.

“We have a belief about how each and every one of those species of salmon were made and how they came to be, and how we relate to them through our language and belief system, and all of that was never taken into consideration,” he said, referring to the treaty.

Between 1850 and 1854, then-governor of Vancouver Island James Douglas signed more than a dozen treaties with First Nations on the island.

Unlike other provinces, British Columbia didn’t negotiate agreements with its First Nations, leaving much of province uncovered by treaties.

In the 1990s, the government began a new treaty process that has so far produced five final agreements and seven agreements-in-principle.

The historic treaties, sometimes called the Vancouver Island Treaties, ensured that First Nations could continue living as they always did, but Elliott said that became impossible as settlements expanded beyond Fort Victoria.

“Every time there was another development on our land and in our territories… there is another loss to the connection to a fishery or a hunting location that’s ages old,” he said.

While those practices should be honoured today as rights of First Nations, he said, it will be up to his community to decide whether legal action is necessary.

University of Victoria historian John Lutz said in addition to having an impact on First Nations’ rights today, the translated treaties can help inform relationships between indigenous people and the rest of Canada in the future.

“We have to understand the truth of our past before we can move toward reconciliation,” Lutz said. 

He said by looking at the context, the treaties weren’t a terrible deal for First Nations at the time.

First Nations had to forgo land around Fort Victoria in exchange for hundreds of blankets which carried enormous spiritual and practical value, Lutz said. The majority of their land remained in their hands, and they couldn’t foresee settlers expanding their territories.

Elliot said it’s easy to see now how First Nations interpreted the treaties as peace agreements.

Tensions were growing as settlers cut down forests to build their forts and settlements and a young First Nations man was killed without reason, the elder said.

“Our people understood it to be a peace treaty so that we wouldn’t go burn their fort down,” he said, adding that no one could speak or read English either.

Lutz said there is a sadness in the fact it took until now to translate the documents, when very few First Nations are fluent in their own languages.

But, he said, it’s given cause for First Nations and the broader community to discuss the documents for the first time at a symposium about treaty rights in Victoria this weekend.

“I think we live our lives in this region without understanding that we actually have obligations to the local First Nations through the treaty and they have rights, and they have some obligations to us through the treaty,” he said.

—Follow @Givetash on Twitter.

Linda Givetash, The Canadian Press

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