King Lear


General Introduction
by Suzanne Keeptwo

Starting in 1701, in what was to eventually become Canada, the British Crown entered into treaties between First Nations and non-Aboriginal peoples. A treaty is a formal agreement - made by negotiation - between two or more political authorities (i.e. states or sovereign nations in reference to peace, alliance, commerce, or other international relations). These official documents took the form of the European written contract as well as the First Nations wampum belt and/or oral history keeping. The most relevant of the treaty's provisions focused on the issue of land, especially those negotiated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The treaty agreements are understood differently by the First Nations and the federal government of this land. The latter regards the historical treaty as a contract – which can be disputed or renegotiated (i.e. Agreements-in-Principle - that are not legally binding) - whereas First Nations consider the treaty as a covenant – a sacred promise. First Nations believe that the treaties agreed upon were land-sharing agreements. The Federal Government view the treaties as land surrender agreements.

From an Aboriginal perspective, the true force of their treaties with the Crown is rooted in what was actually said at the time of the negotiations, often through the use of an interpreter. Ceremonial custom such as the smoking of the sacred pipe or the presentation of elaborately beaded wampum symbolized the First Nations cultures’ highest level of law making and diplomacy.The true spirit and intent of the treaties with the Crown rest with traditional Knowledge Keepers deeply committed to the oral histories of their nations.

The Royal Proclamation of 1763 outlines the basic principles for treaty making with Aboriginal peoples. This document established the constitutional foundations of Canada after the government of France withdrew its territorial claims to North America. Section 35 of the Constitution Act of 1982, a document describing itself as "the supreme law of Canada", introduced several amendments to the British North America Act of 1867. The Aboriginal rights clause clearly recognizes and affirms "existing Aboriginal and treaty rights", which corresponds with the First Nations traditional Knowledge Keepers’ account that the treaties are to last "as long as the sun shines and the water flows."

In Canada, the term Confederation refers to the union of the three British North American colonies of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Canada to become the Dominion of Canada on July 1, 1867. The three colonies were made into the four provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Quebec. The other provinces and territories entered Confederation later. Canadian Confederation is sometimes referred to as the "birth of Canada."

Click here for a map of historical First Nations Treaties.

Wampum is composed of tiny, polished shell fragments in the form of a cylindrical bead, threaded into strands, or woven into geometrically patterned sashes, or belts. The various patterns symbolically represent a ceremonial pledge such as a marriage, or treaty negotiation.  To formally accept wampum was to agree to honor the principles embodied in its beaded design. Thereafter, the wampum served as a visual reminder and record of what was agreed upon. The use of wampum spread widely throughout eastern North America in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries as a document of permanent relationships. The "Gus-Wen-Tah" (Two Row Wampum) of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy defines how the two distinct peoples relate to each other and agree to coexist.

Various Forms of Treaties

Treaties: Treaties have been negotiated in Canada between First Nations and the Crown in both the pre-Confederation and post-Confederation eras. Pre-Confederation Treaties include the Peace and Friendship Treaties on the East Coast, the Treaty of Swegatchy (Southern Quebec), the Murray Treaty of 1760 (Quebec), the Upper Canada Treaties (Southern Ontario), the Robinson Treaties (Ontario), the Douglas Treaties (Vancouver Island), the Selkirk Treaty (Manitoba) and the Manitoulin Island Treaties (Ontario). Since Confederation, the Government of Canada has signed the Numbered Treaties (1871-1930) of the Western provinces and the Williams Treaty (1923). Treaties have also been signed more recently with the negotiation of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement in 1975 and the Nisga’a Treaty of 1999.

Covenant Chain: Since the early 1600s, a series of treaties and alliances were negotiated over the centuries between the Dutch, the French, then the English and the League of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy) as well as other First Nations. One of the first official agreements was a three-link silver chain made to symbolize the link of "Peace, Friendship and Respect" between the Haudenosaunee and the Crown. The concept of the Covenant Chain continued until 1753, when the Kanien'kehá:ka (Mohawk People), cheated out of their homeland, declared the chain had been severed. In a 1755 council between the Haudenosaunee and the British, the concept was renewed and re-stated. It was determined that their new "Covenant Chain of Love and Friendship" would be “strengthened and brightened” by a meeting between the two nations each year. The concept of the Covenant Chain only lasted into the early 1800s. The Haudenosaunee negotiations are symbolized by the Two Row Wampum Treaty and the Silver Covenant Chain and recognized as international law.

Click here for Mohawk Nation Official Statement regarding treaties in response to Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.

Peace & Friendship Treaties (1725-1779): In 1713, the French lost jurisdiction over the present day maritime provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to the British. Subsequently, throughout the 18th century, the British Crown negotiated Peace and Friendship treaties with the Wabanaki Confederacy -  a historical confederation of five distinct Algonquian language-speaking peoples residing in present day New England, the Canadian Maritimes and southern Quebec.These treaties were signed in order to resolve periods of imperial war or local conflicts. The Peace and Friendship Treaties did not involve any surrendering of traditional territories or rights to resources the First Nations communities were dependent upon.

Upper Canada Land Surrenders (1781-1836): As the colonial presence grew, treaties became the strategy used by the Crown to promote settlement and resource development while clearing lands of Aboriginal title. The instrumental Royal Proclamation of 1763 established the process to be used for British acquisition of clear title to “Indian” lands. Land was to be made available for the settlement of the United Empire Loyalists, and for the Crown's military allies, the Haudenosaunee. These land surrenders are called the Upper Canada Treaties.The Niagara region in present day southern Ontario was the first land to be surrendered based on the terms of the Royal Proclamation. The Mississaugas were given 300 suits of clothing in exchange to “share” the land.

Robinson Treaties (1850-1862): The concept of the reserve system became firmly established in 1850 by Crown representative William Benjamin Robinson who secured agreement to cede 129,500 square kilometers of land north of the upper Great Lakes. Known as the Robinson-Huron and Robinson-Superior treaties, 21 reserves were created. This land was promised to be held for the "use and benefit" of the respective First Nations whose leaders' names were listed on the agreements. The Crown committed to the continued use of the traditional territory for purposes of hunting and fishing. This promise was the first of its kind in a treaty; Robinson explained the arrangement was to ensure the “Indians” could not make future claims of support in return for loss of their usual means of survival.

The William Treaties (1923): This series of treaties covers a large area in central Ontario, from the Quebec border along the Ottawa River to the Lake Ontario shoreline. Signatories to the treaties were the Anishinabek of Rice Lake, Mud Lake, Lake Scugog, Alderville, Christian Island, Georgina Island and Rama. These negotiations involved both the federal government of Canada and the provincial government of Ontario and did not secure hunting and fishing rights, nor did they guarantee possession of reserves. This has led to serious problems. For example, areas covered by the Williams Treaties overlapped with the Rice Lake Purchase (in which these rights were guaranteed).

Impact of Treaties: First Nations peoples were not always convinced that making treaties with the British Crown was in their best interest but it was generally made clear that non-native newcomers would soon be taking control of most of their lands whether or not treaty deals were reached. First Nations bands had the option to resist the invasion of outsiders by fighting, perhaps ineffectively, or they could accept some government assurances about making adjustments to the immense changes that were inevitably coming.

An ongoing effort is required to understand the conditions upon which the treaties were signed in order to clarify the opposing interpretations of different cultures that sanctioned the treaties. First Nations and government officials must rediscover the original intentions at the basis of treaty agreements and determine how the various parties formulated the bargains. The following questions could be useful in this pursuit: how were the terms of the agreements interpreted for First Nations peoples in their native tongue? How might “sacred promises” be honoured in the current experience of Canada?

It was in present day Ontario and the Prairie provinces where the question of land tenure was strongly founded on the negotiation of Indian treaties. Elsewhere in the country non-native settlement proceeded without prior purchase of Aboriginal title by the Crown. Throughout most of the 20th century there has been little acknowledgement by mainstream politicians to address the legal fact that Aboriginal title has never been ceded over large parts of this country.


King Lear: Historical Background (Britain)
by David Dean

Shakespeare wrote King Lear sometime in 1605 and he used the play to explore some of the hot issues of the day. One of these was the nature of kingship and the kingdom itself. England’s famous monarch, Elizabeth I, had died in 1603 and the new ruler was her cousin James VI of Scotland (now James I of England). James’ great hope was that those two ancient enemies, England and Scotland, would be united as a new kingdom of Great Britain but there was much opposition to the idea of the Union and it ultimately failed. James had to be content with ruling three kingdoms: Scotland, England (including Wales), and Ireland (conquered and colonized by the English). It is not surprising then that Shakespeare thought the story of an ancient British king, troubled by succession issues and a divided kingdom, would be appealing to an audience.

James believed in the divine right of kings - that it was God’s will that he should be king and only God could punish him for wrongdoing. He argued that kings were like fathers to their people and just as children should offer unquestioned love and loyalty to their parents, so too should the king’s subjects to their monarch. James also believed that pomp and ceremony were essential to being a strong ruler and at the time of the play rumours were already spreading that James had spent more on food, entertainment, jewels and clothes in just two years than Elizabeth had done in ten. Soon Parliament would not only be debating the issue of the Union but voicing anger at what some saw as a horrible waste of tax-payers' money.

Besides cultural and ethnic differences – English, Welsh, Scots and Irish - there were different religious affiliations in the kingdoms. In most of Ireland, the Scottish highlands and scattered regions of England, the people were Catholic. Everyone else was Protestant, but there were different types. In England the majority Anglicans accepted the rule of bishops but in Scotland the majority Presbyterians rejected bishops. Others – often called Separatists and Puritans - dreamt of no church structure at all. James attempted reconciliation at the 1604 Hampton Court conference but the only lasting achievement was agreement to produce the King James Version of the Bible. Defeated in their desire to revolutionize the church, some of the more radical Protestants eventually followed earlier colonists to North America and established Plymouth Colony in New England in the 1620s.

How fragile the kingdom was, and how far some were willing to go in the name of religion, was brought home on 5 November 1605 when a Catholic plot to blow up the King and Parliament was uncovered. Was the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot divine intervention or simply luck? This was the question everyone asked not only about major events such as the Plot, but about their own nature, their daily lives and their individual experiences: are our futures shaped by fate or providence or do our thoughts and actions determine outcomes?

These questions troubled many as they wrestled with the consequences of a rising population and diminishing economic resources in early 17th century society. The streets of towns and villages seemed full of beggars and the destitute poor; their numbers had led to the making of a revolutionary Poor Law in 1601 which established houses of correction, mixing work with punishment. Popular pamphlets regaled readers with stories of beggars who pretended to be disabled or mad or who turned to violence and theft, while guidebooks taught wealthier folk how to avoid being tricked and duped out of their money and goods. Harvest failures, enclosures (privatization) of common land, and plague, which closed the playhouses in the summer of 1605, all contributed to a climate of uncertainty, fear and unrest. Heaths, moors and forests were said to be dangerous places to travel. Any unusual event such as a sudden hailstorm or thunderstorm, unusually cold or hot temperatures or the eclipses of the sun and moon that occurred in the autumn of 1605, were seen as divine indications of displeasure or portents of bad things to come.

Shakespeare knew that a play warning about the dangers of a divided kingdom would be popular, particularly with King James who saw it at Whitehall on St. Stephen’s Day (26 December) 1606.  Seeing Lear and Edgar become beggars that day would have had a special meaning, not only because of deepening poverty in the country, but because this, the day after Christmas, was traditionally when the poor were to be treated generously. Those who had seen, or would soon see, the public performances at The Globe would be thinking about these and other issues that Shakespeare raises and the questions he asks. What is the nature of a kingdom, its ruler and its government? What is the relationship between the appearance and the reality of power? How far does loyalty to a king or to a father go? What is the best way to settle an uncertain succession? What is the fairest way for children to inherit? Can there be wisdom and honesty in madness or in the poor? How do we discover who is truly loyal or honest or good or sane, and who not? Can we change our natures or are we governed by them? Shakespeare spoke of and to his time, and also to ours.