Caitlyn Kasper: We Are All Treaty People
By Erin Blondeau
What does Indigenous sovereignty truly look like?
Imagine a world where Indigenous rights are not tokenized, where leaders are hereditary and community-based, and relationships with the land are front and center in people’s minds. Imagine a world where the Indian Act is abolished, and the laws of our ancestral treaties are restored.
Matriarch Movement podcast host Shayla Oulette Stonechild met with Caitlyn Kasper to discuss the Indian Act, laws and legislature, and what a return to Indigenous governance would look like.
Originally from Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation in the land now known as Ontario, Kasper works as an Indigenous senior staff lawyer with Aboriginal Legal Services in Toronto. In this interview, Stonechild discusses the extraordinary time in history in which we live––a time filled with juxtapositions of Indigenous resurgence and overt racism that has not dwindled in the centuries since colonization. We are living in unprecedented times as Indigenous peoples, and Kasper recognizes this as well.
“We are trying to deal with ‘reconciliation’, which really doesn’t mean anything,” Kasper explained, “but we are finally starting to recognize and reconcile the process of colonization that we went through, and also reconciling our own histories.”
As Indigenous people, it can be difficult to recognize internalized colonization and eurocentric values that can be misaligned with the values of our ancestors. But as we have heard from Kasper and other inspirational Matriarchs, we are experiencing a collective awakening.
“We were never taught, and never spoke about, a lot of the horrors of the residential school system, the sixties scoop, all the fears and prejudices that have been put on us from settler society. We are coming to terms with that past and trying to create a better future for ourselves and trying to assert our rights.”
This assertion of our inherent rights (which are internationally recognized by the United Nations in a document known as UNDRIP) often comes alongside the term “reconciliation,” which can be a source of pain and frustration for many Indigenous people as it is often used in virtue signaling. According to Kasper, reconciliation is not a power issue; it is a framework for people to understand what has happened in the past. The problem is that there aren’t actions tied to it.
One action in particular that Kasper would like to see is an abolishment of the Indian Act, and a return to the original treaties that were signed by Indigenous groups and the Canadian government during colonization. As Indigenous people, we need to work to understand treaties on a deeper level so that we can teach it to our children.
Holding onto our power
Kasper unpacked for us the complicated relationship between Indigenous nations and the Canadian government, ruled by the racist legislature known as the Indian Act. Though abolishing the Indian Act would be difficult as it outlines how Indigenous people have elected governments (which are funded by the Canadian government), we could benefit from a return to traditional Indigenous governance systems.
Hereditary leaders were the norm in many Indigenous societies, but were replaced by band, chief and council. This has created a reciprocal relationship between Indigenous groups and Canadian government, and a power structure that is difficult to step away from. If we were to end the Indian Act, we would end those forms of governance that give Indigenous people power under Canadian law. Because of this, there would need to be a return to hereditary leaders and treaties, and a recognition of their power. This return to Indigenous sovereignty could mean more protection of our individual cultures, which are not honoured by the Indian Act.
“At the end of the day, the treaties are the true law that we have inherited by our ancestors that we have rights to,” Kasper said.
We must remember that Indigenous people have inherent rights to land, hunt, fish, and gather, yet many lifeways that come along with colonization are in direct conflict with these inherent rights.
“How do we live in harmony, how do we take care of ourselves, each other, our youth? Nothing that we do, effects fundamentally, non-indigenous groups and societies in the sense of mining and mass logging,” Kasper explains, “...[while] non-indigenous groups, the decisions made by their government, can drastically affect indigenous communities.”
Just as Kasper describes, we recognize that there is a continuous power imbalance in Canada, and Indigenous sovereignty means tipping those scales.
As an actionable step, Kasper wants settlers to let go of their power and allow nations to hold on to their own sovereignty, but it doesn’t seem like non-Indigenous people are ready to do this.