Professor John Borrows, University of Victoria Faculty of Law: "Why Are We Here? :The Metaphysics of Indian Treaties"

Treaties are an integral part of our world's political landscape, says professor John Borrows, one of Canada's leading native legal scholars, a 2003 winner of the National Aboriginal Achievement Award, and a member of the Faculty of Law at the University of Victoria. Borrows is Anishinabe and grew up on the Chippewa Nawash reserve located near Georgian Bay, Ontario. He holds an LL.B. from U of T, graduating in the Class of 1991, as well as an L.L.M. and D. Jur. earned in 1994. On February 24 he gave this year's Public Lecture on Law and Diversity at Flavelle House. The topic? Why Are We Here?: The Metaphysics of Indian Treaties.

Prof. John BorrowsTreaties of any sort can be a complicated business, perhaps especially so in the context of Canadian indigenous peoples and the Crown. But they embody some of the highest aspirations for peace, friendship and respect, observed Borrows. These aspirations are what underlie the aboriginal conception of treaties, setting out obligations to the Creator and others in a framework of reciprocity and mutual exchange. In this way, continued Borrows, a view of treaties as both limiting and authorizing activity is an important perspective to remember when considering their implications for contemporary justice issues. Borrows insisted that the signing and implementation of treaties must be viewed as mutual, that is, both sides should benefit from their existence: It allows Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples to equally participate in the process of justice reform with the knowledge that neither should be subordinated or privileged in relation to this issue.

Easier said than done, however, acknowledged Borrows, because the language of the original treaties was often arcane and of course always in English. The result was that the nuances of aboriginal intention were often lost in the hard type of the treaty parchment. To understand fully what was agreed upon the oral traditions and perspectives of the Elders must be taken into account to determine the treaties meanings. In his lecture Borrows was quick to point out that this perspective does not mean the treaties are therefore invalid, but rather that there is an inherent mutuality upon which the treaty relationship is built.

Read the complete text of Prof. Borrows' lecture (PDF format).