Alex McKay- Treaty Canoe Artist Statement

Treaty Canoe Artist’s Statement A. McKay

Treaty Canoe (1999, 12’x24”x32”), is built much like a birch bark canoe, except a ‘skin’ of papier-mâché treaties replaces the bark hull. It is made from cedar, red, white, black & yellow ribbon, glue, ink and linen paper.

Treaty Canoe speaks of mutual, sacred bonds of honour and makes clear that we are all treaty people. When exhibited it hangs by a thread balanced on a pivot point above its centre thwart. It responds to the slightest breeze of passers-by, rocking and turning. Lit from above the craft becomes translucent; in casting a shadow it becomes two canoes, floating in the same current on separate but parallel courses, evoking the Two Row Wampum.

Using dip-pen and ink, treaties were ‘transcribed’ performatively by many hands from machine-printed text onto hand-made linen paper to create facsimile documents. In a decolonizing gesture volunteer ‘scribes’, most of whom had never read a treaty before, undertook a close reading and transcription before reluctantly and poignantly signing the contracts in the stead of their original faithful negotiators.

The transcription process becomes a kind of historical re-enactment, a kind of performative time travel. It transports the participants back to the moment of negotiation, coaxing them to ask questions about cultural and linguistic differences, and opposing values.

Invariably these ‘scribes’ choose to transcribe a treaty from where their ancestors originally settled, where they themselves were born, or where they live now, thus learning whose traditional territory (much un-ceded) they occupy. The scribes also begin to question the fairness of the treaty, reflecting on the conditions under which it was negotiated, the crosscultural differences in languages and understanding of terms (even the term ‘treaty’ itself), the disparity between oral and textual authority and concepts of land and property, not to mention the issue of whether the terms of the treaty as printed have actually been kept. The canoe, Indigenous technology, is a national cultural icon. Our cultural myth asserts that through paddling the canoe we can have an unmediated experience of wild ‘nature’ and by becoming part of nature, ‘Indigenize’ ourselves, becoming, in turn, more fully Canadian. Ironically this is done without the majority of Canadians being engaged in any sort of positive relationship with Indigenous people, and with no understanding that they are on someone else’s traditional territory, or in someone else’s sovereign nation.

Marrying treaties to a canoe is an attempt to decolonize the canoe: to question the cultural myths and to point to a relationship where parties treat with honour, as equals, allies, and trading partners, reaching agreements to share the land, resources, and the wealth flowing from them to the mutual benefit of all signatories.

Treaty Canoe is, of course, text. Its sister piece, the megaphone Treaty of Niagara 1764, (birch bark, copper wire, red paint, about 24 x 12 inches, 1999) is all but mute. The Treaty of Niagara, which affirmed Indigenous sovereignty, was negotiated with the many Indigenous nations present following The Royal Proclamation of 1763.

Treaty of Niagara 1764 was inspired in part by Rebecca Bellmore’s performative work Ayumee-aawach Oomama-mowan: Speaking to Their Mother, print historian D.F. Mackenzie’s work on The Treaty of Waitangi entitled The Sociology of Text: Oral Culture, Literacy, and Print in Early New Zealand ( and John Borrows’s Wampum at Niagara. ( These two scholarly works address the authority of oral tradition in law and reveal that Indigenous sovereignty was never relinquished, while Bellmore’s work asserts the authority of Indigenous voice in the flesh, in the spirit, on the land, in the here and now. Unable to speak for Indigenous people, I humbly offer this simple tool, so I can stand aside, and listen.


Exhibited with Treaty Canoe is a Two Row flag, referencing the Two Row Treaty, depicting two canoes traveling down the same river, each steering its own course, and an HBC point blanket, evoking the corporate foundations of Canada and the historic economic ties between Indigenous nations and Settlers.

The presence of The Treaty of Niagara 1764 as a symbol of Indigenous sovereignty - that is my attempt at uttering something that beyond my full understanding, but feel I should both give voice (acknowledge) to as fact, and listen to further understand- is paramount to understanding Treaty Canoe. Treaty Canoe is a Settler canoe, addressing the Settler problem: that we see the world through the ideology of the colonial lens. Treaty is a noun, not a verb. A Treaty is not a divorce, but a marriage. Treaties are not ‘bills of sale’, but the basis of an ongoing relationship and continual negotiation for the mutual benefit of all parties. They are the founding documents of what is still a poorly-defined country and make clear that We are all Treaty People.

Treaty Canoe as an Avatar

Treaty Canoe is a manifestation of an intent, a desire for a spirit of understanding and change.


That spirit needs to be in many places, so Treaty Canoe II was editioned in 2013 at Kent University, Canterbury, UK. It is of the same size, materials and process, but has many different treaties in many languages, including The Treaty of Waitangi in Maori. How it resonates in the UK, at the heart of empire, is something we are still sorting out. Treaty Canoe Replica (2018, below, with Silver Dollar, after E. Hahn 1933, behind it) is a 1/7 scale (about 50 cm long) model made to be inserted into the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford University. Sadly this project fell through, so I am finding new ways of bringing Treaty Canoe, as Replica, into environs it would otherwise be difficult to achieve. And lastly, in 2012, with Indigenous ally and childhood friend Tory James (self-declared ‘Champion’ of Treaty Canoe), we began Voyageur (unfinished - bottom left) a 19-foot seaworthy edition to be paddled, by volunteers, in, around, and across Turtle Island, spreading the word that We are all Treaty People. Replica below middle with Silver Dollar after E. Hahn behind it, Treaty Canoe at Osgoode Hall below right Recently Dermot Wilson, also long-time Treaty Canoe facilitator and ally has, with many Settler and Indigenous allies from the North Bay Region, joined what was to become The Treaty Canoe Project to form a group to paddle and guide Voyageur to Ottawa for the 150th, but it seems this is not the time to assert Settler voices in the present dialogue, for our Canada Council for the Arts Reconciliation/150th grant application was unsuccessful. It is time to listen to Indigenous voices in the spirit of We are all Treaty People.



Laura Peers, Address (Welcome delivered at the University of Kent, United Kingdom, October 2013) [unpublished].

Buchanan, Ruth & Jeffrey G. Hewitt, “Treaty Canoe” in Jessie Hohmann and Daniel Joyce, eds, International Law's Objects(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018) 491.