Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Book Notes: Heidi Bohaker on Doodem and Council Fire

Christmas Day afternoon we got a call from the concierge desk where we live: they had a package for us. We thought we knew what it was, because a relative had promised to drop off a misplaced gift. 

Instead, it was the annual members' book from the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History, Heidi Bohaker's Doodem and Council Fire: Anishinaabe Governance through Alliance. We laughed: they think we need this on Christmas Day? (It had probably come a few days earlier, and the guys at the desk were just catching up with backlog. The cousin came through on Boxing Day) 

But even among the other pile of Christmas gift books (I did well, thanks, hope you did too.), I found myself reading Bohaker. And while I have not finished it, it resonates so closely with the issues raises in the book I had been reading before Christmas, the subject of yesterday's post, Kent McNeil's Flawed Precedent, that I feel obliged to blog it here and now.

It was one of McNeil's key points that Chancellor Boyd, the Ontario judge who presided in the trial court that first heard St. Catherine's Milling, concluded with absolute confidence and no evidence, that the Saulteaux, an Anishinaabe people of northwestern Ontario, lived in a primitive condition without any government or law that a court of law needed to consider or any Canadian government needed to respect. With one or two dissents, the Ontario Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court of Canada, and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council had little trouble accepting Boyd's conclusion as good law.

With my copy of McNeil not even returned to the library, I was able to take up Bohaker. She's a historian at the University of Toronto, and her book is not about cases like St. Catherine's Milling; it is not concerned with the clash between peoples like the Anishinaabe and courts like Boyd's. It is about the Anishinaabe -- a historian's booklength effort to understand and elucidate, in all their sophistication and complication, just how Anishinaabe nations -- like the Saulteaux of St Catherine's Milling -- ran their affairs, settled their differences, allocated their territories, and determined leadership and authority across an enormous territory across the Great Lakes lowlands. It starts with an extraordinarily detailed and well documented account of a ... well, a parliament, that Anishinaabe groups from around Georgian Bay, Lake Ontario and adjacent regions, held somewhere near what is now Parry Sound, Ontario ... in 1642.   

St. Catherine's Milling, and Boyd, and the twists and turns of Canadian law on aboriginal title do not appear in Bohaker's text. Their concerns are irrelevant to the concerns of her history. But there could hardly be a more effective refutation of the assumptions built into St Catherine's Milling than the history recounted in Doodem and Council Fire. Well done, Heidi Bohaker.

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