Our Responsibility to History

Chief Deskaheh laid the wampum belt across the lectern. "We are a nation in the world" he told the audience gathered at the grand hall on Sussex Drive.  This past July, on behalf of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy he represents, "we presented a belt similar to this in Geneva to seek ... relationship with other countries."

The work we are doing confronting the legacy of residential schools raises some awkward questions about Canada’s history. How did we not know such systematic abuses were being committed right up to the 1990s? What else from Canada’s history has been forgotten, intentionally or otherwise? 

The nations that were here before are still here. The process by which we came to forget them is bound up with the process by which we became a nation. As we set out to remember, it raises awkward questions for the country we hold dear.

What responsibility do we have to history, when it challenges us? The event our organization hosted with the Haudenosaunee Confederacy to bring Chief Deskaheh to Ottawa offers some answers.

The history of Canada’s foreign policy is bound up with the history of forgetting other nations in our land.  Chief Deskaheh’s story shows us how.


The first time Canada ever attended a diplomatic conference or signed a treaty in its own right came in 1919 with the end of World War One.  National self-determination was the driving principle behind the creation of the League of Nations the following year.


It didn’t take long for another nation on Canadian soil to assert a right to self-determination as well.  100 years ago, the Six Nations at Grand River entrusted a Cayuga chief called Deskaheh to visit the League in its new headquarters in Geneva.  His mandate was to claim self-determination for the Haudenosaunee Confederacy based on the hundreds of years that government had run its own affairs and negotiated treaties its own name. 


The government of the Netherlands honoured a treaty it had signed with the Haudenosaunee and offered Chief Deskaheh the opportunity to address the League.  The idea was worth discussing at a minimum.  But the government of MacKenzie King objected, asserting Canada’s brand-new claim to an independent foreign policy over any other voice for this land on the international stage.


Chief Deskaheh was denied entry to the Palais des Nations in Geneva.  But five member-states supported his right to speak and a makeshift event was organized to hear the first indigenous leader ever to address a multilateral body.  He was barred from returning to Canada and died in exile.  Worse, the Mackenzie King government cracked down on the Haudenosaunee and disempowered a government that had been operating for hundreds of years.


On November 20, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy showed up at the Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa and reasserted their claim to an international voice.  The current Chief Deskaheh told us how the UN welcomed him and the Haudenosaunee back to Geneva this past summer to celebrate the centenary of the 1923 visit.  The Chair of the UN’s Expert Committee on the Rights of Indigenous People, Sheryl Lightfoot, told us a movement is afoot to recognize the Haudenosaunee and all other indigenous nations as governments with their own unique status at the UN. 


Historians, politicians, diplomats and scholars all discussed what lessons this chapter of foreign policy history has for our nations today.  What does it mean that the government responsible for the worst abuses of residential schools was the one that first developed Canada’s traditions of multilateral diplomacy? Who speaks for the people of this land in international relations today?  Where do their rights reside, and who is accountable for ensure they are respected?


These are hard discussions because they force us to look critically at a nation we are proud to call our own.  I love Canada but the way it was built harmed many. The harms occurred within recent memory, not some distant past.  This was the Canada we know and love.  This is us.


What responsibility do we have toward our history? We owe it an honest and open exploration of the past so that we can understand the present.  I was proud that the Network for Democratic Solidarity could help the Haudenosaunee Confederacy host that debate in the shadow of Parliament Hill.

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  • Marc Lemieux
    commented 2024-02-06 09:46:51 -0500
    An incredible journey to Geneva. I once proudly worked at the Palais Wilson, never imagining such “Canadian” behavior. So many authors need to revise their books on international relations. Tell us more about this UN effort at dignity and reconciliation.
  • Charlotte Tookenay
    commented 2023-12-07 00:00:05 -0500
    Bring smiles to the innocent on focusing of great vision, within the witness of change. Many great blessings of friendship of joining your voice of a higher good for everyone.
    Chi miigwetch Thank you
  • Ben Rowswell
    published this page in Remembering Project Blog 2023-12-05 13:23:21 -0500
  • Ben Rowswell
    published this page in Remembering Project Blog 2023-12-05 13:23:21 -0500