Two Families: Treaties and Government, by Harold Johnson

I Am Listening, Cousin

Book review by Morgan Stavoestrand

In his passionate book, Two Families:  Treaties and Government, Harold Johnson invites the reader to discover an indigenous view of the foundations of the country that has become Canada.  He offers a Cree interpretation of the meaning and significance of Treaty 6 that was signed in 1876 by Aboriginal Chiefs and representatives of the British Crown- an interpretation that has either been ignored or misinterpreted since.

Johnson was born and raised in a Cree community in northern Saskatchewan and begins his book with an intimate introduction.  He presents himself to the reader through his maternal lineage stating the names of his mother, grandmother and great grandmother in order to indicate how he came to be on this earth.  Johnson’s father, a Swedish fisherman and trapper, died when the author was only eight years old.  From that time it was Johnson’s mother who taught him how to survive in a land of rugged forest, muskeg, glacial lakes and Aurora borealis that he calls home stating, “I do not say that I own this land; rather, the land owns me.” 

Johnson continues in this intimate voice by describing the nature of the relationship between First Nations peoples and European settlers that resulted from the treaty agreements.  He calls the reader Kiciwamanawak, or cousin, as his Elders taught him.  According to Cree law, treaties are not merely legal contracts but ceremonies made in good faith in which an Aboriginal nation adopted the European Nation into its family. 

Johnson has learned to navigate both these families.  In addition to his experience as a logger and mine labourer he currently maintains a traditional trapline and also works as a lawyer, having obtained a master’s degree in law from Harvard University.  From this multi-faceted perspective, he engages the reader, his cousin, in a conversation about the ultimately flawed conceptions of sovereignty and property that form the basis of the imbalanced legal relationship with Aboriginal peoples, which he links to the present state of inequality in health and social conditions they endure.  As a way forward, the author ends by proposing a concise legal revision of the Canadian Constitution that would acknowledge the validity of a Cree worldview and restore the treaties to their rightful place as the basis of Aboriginal-European relations in this country.

Harold Johnson’s patient and resolute assertions call into question the dominant legal, academic, administrative, and economic structures around us and how we justify them. I am reminded of a Howard Zinn quote on a bookmark from a local alternative bookstore, “Education can, and should, be dangerous.” Although he speaks directly to Canadians, this book will resonate with anyone willing to question the status quo and anyone concerned about health, justice, and indigenous-settler relations around the globe.

Review Published: September 2009

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