The Canadian Invation of Haudenosaunee Territory

6. The Canadian Invasion of Haudenosaunee Territory

Charles Stewart, the new Superintendent of Indian Affairs under the MacKenzie King administration, does not seem to have understood the political complexity of the office he was charged with at first.

What happened next illustrates the illusory nature of representative government in Canada at the time, as well as the need for a neutral arbiter when there is a serious power imbalance between the parties. On December 4, 1922, Stewart, accompanied by Scott, travelled to Brantford to negotiate the appointment of a tribunal to settle Canada’s differences with the Six Nations. After meeting all day at the local YMCA the Department of Indian Affairs made an offer to negotiate their differences with the ‘Six Nations’. Haudenosaunee law and custom requires ratification of important decisions by the people and, after discussing what had been offered, the Confederacy council decided to accept. They also appointed seven constables to co-operate with Ontario police on the question of liquor control, which had been a topic of concern at the Brantford meeting.

However, before they could send in their letter confirming acceptance of the terms Canada had offered, their Grand River territory was subjected to a three-day raid by the newly created Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). The RCMP were accompanied by Inland Revenue Officers and claimed to be looking for illicit alcohol. The home of Deskaheh, who was characterized by Canadian authorities as the main troublemaker, was searched although he was a notorious tea-totaler.

All that was found on the whole reserve was one still (which may have been planted), a small bottle of moonshine and some mash and, despite rumours inspired by popular stories of Indian wars, the only shots that were fired were those of the police. There are no records to show who gave the order for this raid that undermined Stewart’s public efforts; but the RCMP, whose future was in question, were looking for a role for themselves and they were routinely forwarding reports on the Six Nations to Scott.

  1. The Haudenosaunee Quest for Intervention by the League of Nations

Though the Haudenosaunee had some awareness of Canada’s internal confusion over who was in control, they did not consider it their business and, as their previous appeals to British authorities had demonstrated, they had no means of addressing it in any event.

However, Canada had just been accorded a seat at the League of Nations, having overcome exclusion from the International Labour Organization which had initially proposed that ‘No member, together with its Dominions and Colonies, whether self-governing or not, shall be entitled to nominate more than one member’. In the wake of World War I, international relations were closely followed by the Canadian public and developments received detailed coverage on the front page of the Brantford Expositor. The Haudenosaunee expected the new institutions to be functional. They responded to Canada’s invasive action by addressing a petition to the Queen of the Netherlands, delivered within days to the Dutch Chargé d’Affaires in Washington D.C.

They were already familiar with the League’s rules. They knew they needed a sponsor in order to appeal to the League. The Netherlands was the first European power with which they had established diplomatic relations back in the early 1600s and HA van Karnebeek, the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, had been President of the League Assembly in 1921. Their petition stated that the ‘Six Nations’ were an ‘organized self-governing people’ in need of protection from ‘this aggression of our Canadian neighbours’. Both the Haudenosaunee and the Netherlands appear to have interpreted the wording of the League of Nations’ Covenant literally, expecting the new organization to resolve the issues involved openly and in accord with the principles of international law.

Canada’s reaction was scattered and contradictory in keeping with the ambiguity of its status at the time. As a ‘dominion’ the country was still a colony according to British law. Though it had won a seat at the I.L.O. and the League of Nations, it did not have its own diplomatic representation in other states, not even in Washington D.C. and despite the prominent role of Canadian men and resources in World War I, Canada did not have the right to sign the Treaty of Versailles that ended the war. As leader of the Liberal Party, Prime Minister Mackenzie King was attempting to maintain a delicate political balance between Ontario Tories who were proud of their Imperial ties and a general wariness, especially in Quebec, about being dragged into Britain’s over-seas conflicts.

At the particular moment when the Haudenosaunee were trying to defend their autonomy, Mackenzie King was involved in his own quest for Canadian self-determination, attempting to wrest permission from Britain to sign the Halibut Treaty with the United States. Though Britain continued to be very much involved in Canadian diplomatic negotiations, a precedent was finally set on March 23, 1923 when this treaty took effect without Britain’s signature.

That very same month Canada, on advice from the department of Indian Affairs, turned the screws a notch tighter on the Haudenosaunee by unilaterally appointing Colonel Andrew C. Thompson as a one-man commission to investigate the complaints that the Haudenosaunee had been making so insistently against Dominion interference with their business. This, after months, years even, spent attempting to establish a neutral and mutually acceptable arbitration panel. As far as the Haudenosaunee application at the League was concerned, Mackenzie King was content to let Britain flex its muscles on Canada’s behalf. Despite his on-going struggle to establish Dominion autonomy, Canada was, after all, still a part of the British Empire.

The Foreign Office in London pressured the Netherlands to discourage presentation of the Six Nation’s petition. With Sir Eric Drummond, a British diplomat, serving as the League’s Secretary General, procedural formalities were improvised. Ignoring the right to file a writ, which had long been a long-established part of the British system of justice, Drummond insisted that Canada should have the right to reply before the Haudenosaunee complaint was formally registered. At that time Mackenzie King was attempting to handle international matters on his own and he thought so little of External Affairs that staff inherited from the previous Conservative administration was still in place.

The task of drafting Canada’s response fell to Sir Joseph Pope, described as a ‘thorough-going colonial with no use for equality of status and such like nonsense’ (Stacey, 1981, p 6). Needless to say, Pope’s principal adviser was Duncan Campbell Scott. His indignant response created such a diplomatic embarrassment that the Netherlands decided to withdraw from the situation despite its belief in the merits of a formal legal treatment of the issues. The Haudenosaunee were not even given a copy of Canada’s reply. They had to rely on unofficial communications to keep track of the progress of their case.

With the Netherlands removed from the scene, the League’s secretariat hoped that no country would ask to place the ‘Six Nations’ appeal on the agenda. However, Deskaheh and Decker soon arrived in Geneva to file a formal request for League membership. Since the secretariat would not accept their petition, they circulated copies under the title The Redman’s Appeal for Justice to all of the members. Many states were annoyed by Canada’s attempt to delete Article 10 from the League’s Covenant requiring members to protect each other from external aggression and this may have inspired the support the Haudenosaunee eventually received. On September 27, 1923, delegates representing Estonia, Ireland, Panama and Persia signed a letter asking for communication of the Six Nations’ petition to the League’s assembly.

When informed that the matter could not be dealt with because the assembly’s session was almost over, the Persian delegate sent a telegram asking for consideration by the League’s council. This time the request was rejected on the grounds that there was no Canadian delegate present and the matter was put over for another year on the basis of arguments put forward, not by the members, but rather by the British dominated administration. Britain used the break to bring diplomatic pressure to bear on the countries that had supported the Six Nations. One by one over the following months their governments devised excuses, suggesting that their representatives at the League had acted without proper instructions.

  1. The Deposition of the Haudenosaunee Government

Back in Canada, the final steps needed to depose the traditional government of the Six Nations Haudenosaunee were quietly and carefully put into place. Duncan Campbell Scott prepared a response to The Redman’s Appeal for Justice even though it had never been formally accepted at the League. In February 1924, the secretariat distributed Scott’s defence of Canada’s policies to the members of the League’s council, despite the fact that filing of the petition it was responding to had never been allowed. Once again a copy was not sent to the Six Nations themselves and they were given no opportunity to reply to the official critique of their unregistered complaints.

Back at Grand River, the Haudenosaunee continued with business as usual. There is no indication that they knew the end was near. In August 1924, the report of the ‘Thompson Commission’, which had been boycotted by most of the people on the reserve, was released to the Canadian public with its recommendations in favour of the department of Indian Affairs. A bewildered RCMP. was asked to provide reinforcements to police the Six Nations at this time; but their reports indicate that everything was ‘quiet and orderly’ as usual. Despite the Confederacy’s indignant protests over this unauthorized police presence, they do not seem to have realized what was about to occur. Prime Minister Mackenzie King and Governor-General Lord Byng of Vimy had quietly signed Order in Council dated September 17, 1924 mandating the replacement of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Council with a band council elected under Canada’s Indian Act.

The local Indian Agent kept the order under wraps at first, but when the Haudenosaunee Council learned of it, they cabled Deskaheh in Geneva in alarm. The League received a copy of the telegram, but did nothing. Scott was free to proceed with his plan.

On 21 October 1924, the very same day that ratifications of the Halibut Treaty were exchanged, Canada’s Department of Indian Affairs proceeded to hold elections on the Six Nations reserve. The event was boycotted by the majority of the people on the electoral list. Only 26 ballots were cast. The traditional council had more than 30 regular members and though it continued to meet, it was unable to conduct business as usual because Canada had control of their trust funds. With no access to the money needed to pay for road tenders, school repairs and other community business, management was wrested from their hands and placed under Canada’s control. And though the Six Nations people continue their protest in various ways to this day their dispute with Canada has never been resolved. The majority of the people continue to boycott both band council and Canadian elections. Traditionalists continue to insist that they are independent. And Canada has never paid compensation for unauthorized investments made with Six Nations trust funds, though even Colonel Thompson acknowledged that there had been injustice on this count.

And so, it was that the first steps in the decolonization of Canada were accompanied by the final colonization of the Haudenosaunee people. It was not until 1931 with the Statute of Westminster that Canada and the other dominions achieved parity with Britain in the British Empire — a level of independence somewhat inferior to that claimed by the Haudenosaunee in relation to Britain throughout the post-contact centuries. And though the Six Nations had a defined territory, a population, a government and a proven, centuries-old history of diplomatic relations with other nations, it was another decade before the nature of a state was defined in international law. By then the department of Indian Affairs was able to point comfortably at its self-imposed band council to claim that the traditional Haudenosaunee Confederacy council, which still continued to meet, did not represent the Six Nations people.

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