By Richard Leitner, News Staff
To Paul Williams, the War of 1812 bicentennial offers Canada an ideal opportunity to right an historical wrong against First Nations allies who played a key role in repelling Yankee invaders.
The Six Nations lawyer says native leaders agreed to enter the war as a result of “significant promises” from Britain, including that their people would be able to pass freely on land straddling the U.S. border.
The Crown had made a similar promise in the 1794 Jay trade treaty with the Americans and then reiterated the vow in the 1814 Treaty of Ghent, which formally ended the War of 1812.
The commitment was then read aloud to First Nations leaders at a formal council meeting on April 24, 1815 by William Claus, Britain’s deputy superintendent of Indian affairs, and recorded in a wampum belt he presented to them.
Williams says Britain never honoured its word and two centuries later Canada continues to deny First Nations people the right of free passage that the United States gives them south of the border, despite ample evidence in favour of doing so.
This includes the wampum belt, finally returned to the Haudenosaunee-Six Nations Confederacy on April 24 of this year after trading hands several times before winding up at the U.S. Smithsonian Institute, which agreed to repatriate it.
“Wampum has a sacredness because it recalls, among other things, the condolence ceremony that lies at the founding of the Iroquois Confederacy,” he says.
“When you make the commitment on a wampum, it’s a sacred commitment. It’s binding and it’s serious.”
The broken promise makes it hard for Williams to share the celebratory mood of some others about the war’s bicentennial, which he sees as having become “a marketing campaign of sorts,” rather than a commemoration.
He says although the federal government has adopted a theme of “in defence of Canada,” native leaders were just fighting to defend their allies.
“The indigenous nations were not rushing to defend this concept of Canada. It didn’t exist for them at the time,” he says. “They were doing so because they had a relationship of mutual aid and they were doing so because the Crown had made real promises to them.”
Williams says the First Nations more than held up their end of the bargain.
History books, for instance, accord British Major General Sir Isaac Brock much of the fame and glory for the Battle of Queenston Heights on October 13, 1813, but Mohawks played a critical role.
“When Brock got killed, the British withdrew and it was 60 Mohawks who pinned down 1,300 Americans for half an hour until the British decided to come back and fight,” he says, citing the June 1813 Battle of Beaver Dams as another example.
“Beaver Dams was virtually an entire Mohawk battle in which a large American force surrendered. And they would have taken Toronto.”
First Nations also played significant roles in several other key battles, Williams says, including at Chippewa, Chateauguay, Crysler’s Farm and Stoney Creek – where a small contingent helped frighten the Americans into retreating.
Yet he believes there are greater lessons to be learned from how First Nations on either side of the border made peace with each other after the war ended, than from commemorating battles.
Senecas and Tuscaroras on the American side and Mohawks, Onondagas and Cayugas on the Canadian side “reconciled quickly and powerfully” through a condolence ceremony.
“It’s a powerful exercise of mutual compassion in which the causes of hard feelings and sorrow are removed from each other,” he says.
Williams says the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper government could easily repair the harm of the broken border-crossing promise by changing Section 17 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act to list U.S. tribes covered by the Jay and Ghent treaties, giving them the right to enter and live in Canada.
Doing so is more important than ever, he says, because the tightening of security in the wake of 9/11 is creating serious, practical problems for 300 families he knows in 15 Iroquois communities over issues like driver’s licences and healthcare coverage.
Among several examples, he recounts the heart-wrenching dilemma faced by a friend whose father is dying of throat cancer in Tuscarora, N.Y.
“She’s married to a guy at Six Nations; they’ve got a number of kids. She’s been told if she leaves Canada she won’t be allowed back in,’ he says.
Williams says the United States has formally allowed First Nations from this side of the border to enter, live, work and receive government services since 1928 because it respects the treaty promises.
It’s one of the reasons “virtually every skyscraper in New York City has been topped off by Mohawks” from Quebec.
“I am personally in favour of people learning the lessons of history. I’m less inclined to celebrate selective history,” he says when asked how he feels about the bicentennial.
“What’s the most appropriate way to commemorate this war? Keep your promises. Because this one hasn’t been kept and it’s hurting people.”