As Long as This Land Shall Last: René Fumoleau’s history of Treaty 8 and Treaty 11

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Here’s a rare thing: a history book written expressly for the Indigenous people of the N.W.T. 

The occasion was the Paulette case in 1973, when Francois Paulette and 16 other N.W.T. chiefs went to court to claim aboriginal land title in order to thwart the Mackenzie Valley Gas Pipeline. They argued that the First Nations who signed Treaties 8 and 11 had not knowingly handed over any rights to the land. 

N.W.T. Justice William Morrow held six weeks of hearings throughout the Mackenzie Valley to determine whether this was true. Turns out, the issue of giving up land to the coming white folks hadn’t really come up during treaty signing, though the actual text of the treaties is explicit about this. The chiefs won the case, paving the way for a new land claims process. 

Observing the Paulette case, it must have occurred to René Fumoleau that it might be nice if people in the N.W.T. could actually see the treaty documents (his book recounts several historical requests by First Nations to get their hands on the papers, but it seems there were never enough copies around). “Very few read it then; most have not read it yet,” he writes of Treaty 11 in As Long as This Land Shall Last, which he published in 1973.

Fumoleau was born in France. He arrived in the N.W.T. in 1953, aged 27, as a Catholic priest with the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (he never left; he’s now in an N.W.T. retirement home). In addition to this book, he’s well known for the thousands of historical photographs he took (and donated to the N.W.T. Archives) as well as some books of poetry and a recorded oral history of his life among the Dene. 

He’s also an astute historian. 

In writing the story of how Treaty 8 (1900) and Treaty 11 (1921) came to be, Fumoleau dug into the archives of the federal government, the RCMP, the Hudson Bay Company and the Catholic priests. More importantly, he gathered the recollections of the Dene, Chipewyan and Gwich’in First Nations members, and their descendants, who recall the treaty signings vividly. 

The signing of the treaties, as any Canadian is aware, was an expedient for white people who wanted to get at the riches of the land without moral trouble. But reading this book, if indeed any of them ever did, must have been a dark experience for those white men who took part in this elaborate charade. 

To choose the most stark example, here’s a quote from RCMP Inspector W.V. Bruce, interviewed in 1972, who was with the Treaty 11 party in 1921 and whose official report was lost. “I understood all that was going on and I’m quite sure that the Indians did. Y’see. And if they hadn’t have, I’m quite sure that old Bishop Breynat would have known that they did. I don’t think there was any, could have been any misinterpretation or misunderstanding of what was said. Now, whether the Indian mind might have taken a different interpretation of what was said or meant, I, naturally enough, I can’t say that. But personally I’d say no.”

Here’s the recollection of Jimmy Bruneau, who was at the treaty signing in Fort Rae in 1921 and later became chief. “We made an agreement, but land was never mentioned … a person must be crazy to accept five dollars to give up his land … It was never mentioned that there will be such things as reserves in the future, nor that the treaty was against the land.”

The story of Treaties 8 and 11 is not a pretty one. A crew of white men arrived in a boat with flour, bacon, tea and a stack of one dollar bills and persuaded people to add their signatures to a piece of paper they couldn’t read and that they’d never see again (Fumoleau presents evidence that some signatures were forged). Several First Nation chiefs sought guarantees for the right to hunt, trap and fish forever, and were apparently given them, only to find an unchecked invasion of white trappers into their homelands in the following years, as fur prices peaked.

“The land issue was never mentioned,” Fumoleau writes, of one such signing. “Land ownership was not considered an issue,” he writes at another.

This is a pretty thick read. It’s pure history, told chronologically, and is not organized around any central argument or character (though some great characters do emerge, such as Father Breynat, who, after persuading the First Nations to sign the treaties, made it his life’s mission to insist that the federal government actually live up to their promises). 

But this book is valuable for the picture it paints of the days when the treaties were signed and for the evenhandedness with which it presents the facts (Fumoleau describes the treaty signings in each community so you can skim to the ones of interest). Though Fumoleau’s heart is obviously with the people fighting to control their land, he never editorializes, not that he needs to. “The tribes have no very distinctive characteristics, and as far as we could learn no traditions of any import,” we read in the succinct final report of the Treaty 8 commission. “Our journey from point to point was so hurried that we are not in a position to give any description of the country ceded which would be of value.” 

The book includes full texts of both treaties (about four pages each, also found here and here) and I was surprised to find that the title of this book was not taken from either. It comes from Chief Monfwi of Fort Rae (now Behchokǫ̀), who was evidently a hard and careful bargainer, though the treaty he signed had come ready-made from Ottawa and included none of his modifications. “As long as this land shall last, it will be exactly as I have said,” his daughter recounts him saying. Similar phrases are quoted from nearly every signatory chief in this book, suggesting a rhetorical flourish the treaty commissioner oft resorted to.

Thanks partly to this book, those words will be remembered.

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