Seven centuries before Confederation, there was the Haudenosaunee Confederacy

The confederacy of six First Nations has worked for hundreds of years to create and sustain the common good — through a process in which “everyone has a voice”

white pine
The white pine is symbol of the unity of the six nations that make up the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. (Wikimedia Commons)

To read this article in Mohawk, click here

“We have governed ourselves, as Haudenosaunee people or Iroquoian people, since August 31, 1142,” says David Newhouse, an Onondaga member of the Six Nations of the Grand River and chair of the Chanie Wenjack School for Indigenous Studies, at Trent University. “That was the date of the first meeting of the confederacy.”

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy — called the Iroquois Confederacy by the French and the League of Five Nations by the British — brought together the Mohawk, Onondaga, Seneca, Cayuga, and Oneida after a period of war between the nations. Tuscarora Nation joined in 1722.

According to oral tradition, the confederacy was formed by a Huron man who convinced the nations to put down their weapons and bury them under a tree, later known as the Great Tree of Peace, planted at the Onondaga Nation. Among the nations, this man came to be known as the Peacemaker.

“He created a council that consists of representatives from each of the five nations,” says Newhouse. “There was a series of 50 representatives, 50 chiefs who came together in council to talk about events, issues that affected all of them, and they attempted to create a common good. They worked according to a document called the Gayanashagowa, which in English translates to the ‘Great Law of Peace.’”

The criteria for becoming a chief in the confederacy, according to the Great Law of Peace, include patience, honesty, thick skin, tenderness, and the ability to deliberate calmly and to be a mentor and spiritual guide. A chief must also be a member of the longhouse and a fluent speaker of one of the nation’s languages.

An 1885 English translation of the law, by farmer and Onondaga chief Seth Newhouse (David’s great-grandfather), states that “their hearts shall be full of peace and good will and their minds filled with a yearning for the welfare of the people of the Confederacy.”

In Haudenosaunee tradition, women select leaders, identifying promising young men who could become chiefs and young women who could become clan mothers and then mentoring them in the language and customs. “The great law is problematic, in one sense,” Newhouse says, “in that women cannot become chiefs … when we think in the 21st-century feminist lens, then it doesn’t fit.”

Consensus plays a vital role in Haudenosaunee governance. The women in the clan agree on whom to put forth, and then the men are given a chance to voice any concerns. If those concerns are found to be valid, the women decide together on another candidate. Once the clan is in agreement, they consult with their nation. Only then is he condoled by the confederacy.

“Everyone has a voice in our process,” says Kanonhsyonne Jan Hill, associate vice-principal of Indigenous initiatives and reconciliation at Queen’s University and “seat warming” clan mother in the Turtle Clan of the longhouse at Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory. “When we meet as women, all the women have a voice, and when we stand that man up in front of the men, all the men have a voice from youngest to oldest — everyone.”

Newhouse says the Canadian government imposed the elected band council system on the Six Nations of the Grand River community in 1924.

“The government called in the RCMP and locked the council-house door and forced elections,” Newhouse says. “That removed the chiefs from any position of governance authority at Six Nations, and Canada would only deal with the elected council. They didn’t stop the confederacy from existing, but they didn’t have any power in the Canadian governance system.”

The imposition of the European electoral process came through a piece of 1869 legislation called “An Act for the gradual enfranchisement of Indians,” which stated that “the Governor may order that the Chiefs of any tribe, band or body of Indians shall be elected by the male members of each Indian Settlement of the full age of twenty-one years.”

The Indian Act later laid out requirements for the composition of the band council: “[it] shall consist of one chief, and one councillor for every one hundred members of the band, but the number of councillors shall not be less than two nor more than twelve and no band shall have more than one chief.”

“The longhouse people” — such as those who occupy the Haudenosaunee Confederacy council — “are the signatories to any agreements and treaties, not the band council,” says Hill. “Basically, what the longhouse has said is that the band council is an arm of the Canadian government, and they’re in place to administer the policies and the funding that comes from Indian Affairs, but they can’t go against Indian Affairs policies.”

The 50 spots that make up the council consist of nine chiefs from the Mohawks, nine from the Oneida, 14 from the Onondaga, 10 from the Cayuga, and eight from the Seneca. Just 37 of those positions are currently filled.

“The biggest reason is that we can’t identify men with the qualities and qualifications,” Hill says. “We just have to find people who are willing to do the work, who are of good quality and good character.” SOURCE

Andrew Coyne: The question of what is Trudeau hiding is not going to go away

The issues involved in the SNC-Lavalin affair are too important to be treated flippantly. This isn’t some question of policy on which people of goodwill can differ

Another campaign begun in the shadow of scandal. The first weeks of the 2015 election campaign were dominated by the trial of Sen. Mike Duffy, at much subsequent cost to Stephen Harper’s re-election chances. Whether or not the latest revelations in the SNC-Lavalin affair prove to be as consequential to the current campaign, the implications are deeply troubling.

Not only is the RCMP reported to have been inquiring into the affair, in which the prime minister and other government officials attempted to interfere in a criminal prosecution, as a possible case of obstruction of justice, but investigators have apparently been prevented from gathering evidence from key witnesses — obstructed, if you will — by the government’s continuing refusal to release them from the bonds of cabinet confidentiality.

No, it’s not yet a formal criminal investigation, and yes, whatever else you want to call it has been “paused” until after the election — a protocol installed after the 2006 campaign, which was knocked sideways by the revelation that the RCMP was investigating the then minister of finance. No doubt that will be of some relief to the Liberal campaign, but it does leave the public in a bind: it would be a hell of a thing to re-elect the government only to have its top officials charged afterward with serious crimes.

And the questions — the first from a reporter, immediately after Justin Trudeau’s opening statement: “what is your government trying to hide?” — are not going to go away. Seven months after the scandal first came to light, they boil down to one: why not lift the obligation to keep cabinet conversations secret if it will help police get to the bottom of the matter?

This is not, after all, the first time the subject has come up. While the prime minister made a great show of waiving cabinet confidentiality earlier this year with regard to his former attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, the waiver applied only to discussions that took place while she was still in the job, and only to those in which she took part. The ethics commissioner reported last month that nine witnesses with evidence relevant to his inquiry had been kept silent by the same restriction.

Cabinet confidentiality is an important principle — ministers could not otherwise speak frankly on sensitive matters — that ought not to be taken lightly. But it is not as important as the rule of law. It might be invoked for reasons of state — or, more often, to spare governments political embarrassment — but it cannot be extended to cover discussions of potential crimes.

Or at any rate it should not. Maybe Trudeau, as he insists, did nothing wrong, legally or ethically. If so, the witnesses will presumably exonerate him. But if not, all the more reason why they should be allowed to tell police what they know.

Former Canadian Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould arrives to give her testimony about the SNC-LAVALIN affair before a justice committee hearing on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Feb. 27, 2019. LARS HAGBERG / AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Certainly it is within his power to do so. The explanation, offered both to the ethics commissioner and the RCMP, that it was a decision of the clerk of the privy council, even if true, will not wash. The clerk works for the prime minister, not the other way around. Whatever power the prime minister chooses to delegate he can also choose to take back.

The prime minister, in any event, long ago undermined any principled defence of his position by his readiness to go public with his side of the same conversations. It is no part of the doctrine of cabinet confidentiality that it should be strictly applied to material that might incriminate government officials, but may be relaxed where it shows them in a better light.

I say all this in the vain hope that the question will be considered on its merits, and not merely as a matter of optics, or polling, or tactics. We have an unfortunate tendency in our trade to cover the campaign, rather than the election — who’s up, who’s down, how the parties are or should be positioning themselves on a given issue, as opposed to what’s right, what’s wrong, and which party’s position is closest to the truth.

Cabinet confidentiality is an important principle. But it is not as important as the rule of law

But the issues involved in the SNC-Lavalin affair are too important to be treated so flippantly. This isn’t about whether to raise or lower taxes or some other question of policy on which people of goodwill can differ, but whether we are to have an impartial system of justice, or one in which powerful corporations can wriggle out of prosecution by lobbying the right politicians. MORE

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Public security and public interest: which public? Who decides?

This blog is part two of a series looking at corporate interference in democracy and quashing of public protest. Read the first one here.

We’re seeing a number of questionable actions coming from different arms of government under the guise of ‘public security’ and ‘public interest’, like Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s “war room” and the RCMP handing information with Enbridge about land and water protectors blocking pipelines in BC.


Premier Jason Kenney (left, photo: The Star) and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale (right, photo: CBC). These two are at the helm of different public institutions that inappropriately use public resources to support the unjust and unsustainable fossil fuel industry.

‘Public security’ is a tricky phrase. Canada has treaty responsibilities that it is not living up to, and CSIS is actively supporting the suppression of Indigenous land defenders to the benefit of private interests like Enbridge and a broad network of fossil fuel companies. Canada has consistently for 152 years tried to quash the full realization of a treaty-based relationship with Indigenous nations, and consistently removed Indigenous nations from their land through legislation, culture of dispossession, and force (and before confederation Canada’s predecessors were doing the same). Black communities have been criminalized and surveilled since slavery – even in Canada. Two great reads on these topics include Policing Indigenous Movements by Andrew Crosby and Geoffry Monaghan, which captures modern surveillance and criminalization of Indigenous land and water protectors, and Policing Black Lives by Robyn Maynard, which is a “comprehensive account of nearly four hundred years of state-sanctioned surveillance, criminalization and punishment of Black lives in Canada.”

I am generally skeptical of the phrase ‘general public’ because there are so many diverse communities with particular histories, needs, and visions. When the government uses this term to justify its actions we should be equally cautious. Whose interests are they really protecting? Whose are being set aside in favour of a particular public? Are the interests being served even public at all?

There are loads of communities and groups that are not being served by the surveilling of climate justice movements – primarily the people who are trying to have their needs met through that movement, like Indigenous peoples, fishers, farmers, women, coastal communities, and beyond. Just last week the joint review panel for the massive Teck tar sands mine said the project would be ‘in the public interest’ even though the report says the mine would likely “significantly” and “irreparably” harm Indigenous communities and local ecology.

When governments and government institutions use their power to decide which public gets to be secure, we need to look deeply at whose interests are being served and use our power as a movement to name those interests. In these cases, CSIS, the RCMP, and the Premier of Alberta are using their power to serve the interests of the fossil fuel industry at the expense of everyone and their ability to participate in democracy.

What can we do? Be on guard for corporate rhetoric

We’re seeing that politicians, police forces, and just about any democratic institution in Canada is susceptible to manipulation by corporate interests. The way these institutions describe Canada’s current reality and the actions we must take to address our challenges matter a lot – these are the stories of who we are as a society and who we can become.

Please help us see the RCMP investigation report released – send an email to Minister Ralph Goodale and RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki!

If these stories are always tainted with industry interests, the only stories available to the masses will be those that include fossil fuels, mass exploitation of Indigenous lands and resources, and continued social division, racism, and xenophobia. MORE

Defending our right to protest

Image: Sally B. Tuck/Flickr

CSIS is unlawfully monitoring water protectors and climate justice activists, according to BCCLA. This kind of police surveillance is not new, but it is deplorable.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is using public funds to launch a new project within his fossil fuel lobby “War Room” to diminish effective social action for rapid and just transition away from fossil fuels.

These activities are examples of the diverse ways that corporate interests have manipulated democratic institutions.


BC Civil Liberties Association lawyer Meghan McDermott at a press conference announcing the release of these heavily redacted documents showing that CSIS was tracking civil society organizations and passing information to Enbridge.  Photo credit: Canadian Press.

Democratic institutions of all kinds are being misused for the interests of fossil fuel companies. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is using public funds and public service employee capacity to think about how to root out and crush groups that are building a movement toward a sustainable future that provides opportunity and care for all people. His is not the first government to try to paint those working for a fossil-free future as deviants, criminals, or traitors – in 2012 Joe Oliver, then-Minister of Natural Resources, labelled us “radical groups” seeking to “hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda.” The irony of this statement is not lost on me.

Joe Oliver’s statements were really formative for me personally – they came immediately after the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations in Durban in 2011, which I attended as a youth delegate. There I had witnessed Canada backed out on the Kyoto Protocol, and announce the approval of a $9B tar sands mine (it was then shelved in 2014 and purchased by CNRL in 2018). I remember standing in the airport in Toronto waiting for my luggage, exhausted from the disappointment that is international climate negotiations, and reading the news, and I saw this op-ed where Oliver slandered people like me for doing our best to stop fossil fuel interests from torching the planet with impunity. A few months later, the accusation that all climate activism was being funded by foreign interests came into vogue.

So it’s not very surprising to me that since the Harper era, police and security forces like the RCMP and CSIS have been used to track water protectors and climate justice activists and organizations, and other right-wing governments have taken up the mantle of accusing climate justice movements of being funded by foreign ideologues. Not surprising, but anti-democratic and disturbing.

Case 1: CSIS and RCMP sharing information with Enbridge

n brief, the BC Civil Liberties Association made a complaint to the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) in 2014 alleging that CSIS was monitoring groups like #IdleNoMore, Dogwood Initiative, and the Sierra Club of BC because they had been active in the struggle against the Northern Gateway Pipeline. Heavily redacted documents from this case were recently released and show that many more organizations were being monitored than initially thought (including the Council of Canadians). The monitoring results were being shared with Enbridge, the company behind the pipeline. CSIS is only meant to monitor groups undertaking activities that pose a threat to ‘public security’, and as BCCLA argues in the released documents none of the groups have any history “whatsoever of advocating, encouraging or participating in violent or other criminal activity.”  MORE

‘Uncharted territory’: How a Mountie union could transform the famous force

How the RCMP’s efforts to protect its public image have worked

An author and criminologist explain how the RCMP’s efforts to protect its image in the media have provided a protective coating strong enough to withstand a history of scandals and controversies. (3:00)  SOURCE

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Pipelines over People: Canadian First Nations Policing Comes under Scrutiny


Unist’ot’en.camp

Declarations and pledges are all well and good, but when it comes to protecting rights and safety, action is what counts. And where the rights and safety of Canada’s indigenous populations are concerned, so far, the government and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP, often known as “Mounties”) have shown a preference for protecting pipelines over people.

Earlier this month, NPQ reported that Canada’s two-year National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) released a report, representing many hours of work and hundreds of pages of data and recommendations. The report confirmed for Canada’s settler government what indigenous peoples already knew: that the violence against indigenous (or First Nations) women and girls, and the failure of government and police to prevent or investigate these crimes, was tantamount to genocide.

Among the report’s 231 Calls for Justice were five demands related to the extractive and development industries, pursuant to the report’s recognition that “resource extraction projects can exacerbate the problem of violence against Indigenous women and girls.”

At the same time, the dispute over the fracked gas pipeline planned through Wet’suwet’en territory in British Columbia proceeds as though this context—the tradition of colonial violence against First Nations people—were not relevant. NPQ has covered this dispute since January, when RCMP invaded unceded lands to enforce an injunction against the checkpoint constructed by the Unist’ot’en clan to protect their land. The Wet’suwet’en challenged the injunction in court, and this week, judges will announce their decision.

It has not been lost on First Nations that the government seems to spend more resources on protecting the pipeline than protecting their people. Dylan Mazur, a community lawyer with the BC Civil Liberties Association, says northern BC communities often complain they are “over-policed and under-protected.”

First Nations member Jacquie Bowes and hereditary chief Na’Moks both remember investigations of MMIWG that lasted months with little visible action, while within days of a threat to the pipeline, trucks full of police streamed into their communities. A “Community-Industry Safety Office” has been established on Wet’suwet’en land and is consistently staffed by over a dozen officers, says Na’Moks, whose English name is John Ridsdale.

“They’ve put more money into watching us, labelling us and monitoring us than into searching for local murdered and missing women,” he said. “They’re out there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and they’re not helping our people.” Almost half of missing persons cases in northern British Columbia have not been investigated properly.

The tribe’s court case against the injunction is pending this week, and land defenders at the Unist’ot’en camp have issued calls for support. Their head lawyer Michael Lee Ross issued a nine-part argument for the BC Supreme Court to uphold indigenous law on unceded lands. His points acknowledge important contextual information about indigenous disputes, including:

  • “The existing interim injunction should be dissolved because it already has caused irreparable harm by…interfering in hereditary governance by funding and consulting with divisive groups.”
  • “Indigenous legal orders have jurisdiction on Indigenous lands, Aboriginal Rights and Title have not been ceded or surrendered on Wet’suwet’en Yintah and it is the responsibility of a just and equitable court to reconcile Wet’suwet’en law with the common law and accept some of the burden for this reconciliation. For most of Canada’s legal history Indigenous people have been forced to translate and shape their legal rights in a court system that has repeatedly dispossessed them of those same rights. The burden of reconciliation now falls upon the court, to recognize and affirm Indigenous laws that predate Canada and to reconcile these with non-Indigenous legal perspectives.” MORE

How Indigenous leadership is protecting communities from climate disasters

Image result for the conversation: How Indigenous leadership is protecting communities from climate disasters
A wildfire burns on a logging road in central British Columbia in August 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

“The fires were never a threat to us. It was the state that was the threat.”

In two short sentences Chief Joe Alphonse, Tribal Chair of the Tsilhqot’in National Government, conveyed to a House of Commons committee a central insight of disaster studies. The environment does not create disasters — people do.

In 2017, British Columbia experienced the first of two successive years of record-breaking wildfires. On July 7, following 130 lightning strikes, fires (amplified by climate change) tore through the B.C. interior, consumed 760,000 hectares of Tsilhqot’in territory and engulfed three of six Tsilhqot’in communities.

The provincial wildfire response that followed revealed how people — through policies, practices and laws — leave some communities more vulnerable to disasters. It was a striking example of law’s role in disaster, which I mapped in relation to the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire. After the 2017 wildfires, I worked with the Tsilhqot’in Nation to document its communities’ experiences with wildfire.

Unequal vulnerability

Decades of research has documented that social factors such as race, gender, ability and poverty contribute to the harms suffered during disasters. Laws and policies that continually marginalize people and communities during ordinary times make these same people vulnerable to disaster.

Wildfire map for the Tsilhqot’in territory during the summer of 2017. Tsilhqot’in National GovernmentAuthor provided

This theory was tested the summer of 2017 when fires raged through Tsilhqot’in territory. The wildfires revealed the inadequacy of existing laws and the ongoing legacy of colonial policies as key culprits in the vulnerability of the Tsilhqot’in during the wildfire response. Confusion and conflict over legal jurisdiction were central and enduring themes of the wildfire response.

Read more: How will Canada manage its wildfires in the future?


Jurisdiction is fundamental to self-determining Indigenous peoples. It is also fundamental to understanding how multiple levels of government and agencies involved in emergency management work together to keep people safe during a crisis. Jurisdiction answers the question: Who gets to decide? MORE