Canada’s Forgotten Founders: The Modern Significance of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Application for Membership in the League of Nations

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Law, Social Justice & Global Development
(An Electronic Law Journal)

Canada’s Forgotten Founders: The Modern Significance of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Application for Membership in the League of Nations

Grace Li Xiu Woo

PhD Candidate,

Universit de Montreal, Canada

This is a refereed article published on: 30 April 2003

Citation: Woo, G, ‘Canada’s Forgotten Founders: The Modern Significance of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Application for Membership in the League of Nations’, 2003 (1) Law, Social Justice & Global Development Journal


In the 1920’s the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, also known as the Iroquois Six Nations from Grand River Ontario, applied for membership in the League of Nations. They maintained that they were independent allies, not subjects, of Britain. In their view, Canada’s Department of Indian Affairs was exceeding its jurisdiction under section.91(24) of the British North America Act when it tried to enforce its laws on their territory and the use of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police against them was an invasion. The international response to this incident set a significant precedent whose effects are felt to this day in the complaints of unrepresented peoples at the United Nations and in the constitutional dilemmas confronted by Canada concerning the political status of Aboriginal nations. This paper suggests that the final colonisation of the Haudenosaunee was the product of a malfunction during the decolonisation of Canada. Procedural decision-making was shielded from public scrutiny and left in the control of unelected officials, both within the British Empire and at the League. As a consequence, Duncan Campbell Scott, the Deputy-Superintendent of Indian Affairs whose policies were at issue, was able to manipulate elected representatives and avoid public accountability. The Haudenosaunee were never given an opportunity to formally present their case or to respond to Scott’s allegations that were put forward as the official Canadian position. This left Scott free to depose their traditional government without raising the suspicions of a bewildered and misinformed public. The experience of the Six Nations Haudenosaunee impugns the integrity of the historical process through which Canada was defined as a modern state and raises serious questions concerning the need for reform, both internally, and at the international level.

Keywords: British Empire, Deskaheh, Canada, Constitution, Colonialism, Confederation, Diplomacy, Haudenosaunee, Identity Formation, Imperialism, Indian Affairs, Indigenous, International Law, Iroquois Confederacy, League of Nations, Nation, Six Nations, State, Two Row Wampum

Author’s Note

The author is currently a doctoral candidate at the Universit de Montreal. This article is a resume of research conducted for a Masters in International Law at the University of Quebec, Montreal, Canada. She would like to thank the large number of people who havce helped with the research. The opinions and perspectives developed are her own.

‘England conquered half the world in successive fits of absence of mind.’
Sir John Seeley, Professor of History
Cambridge University 1869 – 1895
- Dawson (1937: 196) -

1. Introduction.

Countries like Canada that are a product of the colonial process, are faced with a paradox. We have been attempting to reorient our laws to accord with modern equality rights without bothering to reevaluate the way our history was constructed during the age of imperial expansion and aggression. This paper seeks to address some of the resulting ambiguity by raising awareness of one pivotal event. Though omitted from most accounts of the 20th century, it deserves a prominent place in our collective memory, not only because of the light it casts on the development of Canada’s national identity, but also because it provides a key to understanding why success eludes our well-meaning attempts to achieve both international peace and a solution for complex Indigenous rights issues.

In 1923 the Haudenosaunee Confederacy applied for membership in the League of Nations1. Better known to the English as the ‘Iroquois Six Nations of Grand River’ (now in Ontario), they were driven to take this initiative out of exasperation with the intrusive policies of Canada’s Department of Indian Affairs. The Netherlands, Persia, Panama, Estonia and the Republic of Ireland all supported formal consideration of their application – or at least of the issue of whether or not it was receivable. However, Canadian officials did not want their actions subjected to external review. They were already facing court action for losing over CAD160, 000 of Six Nations trust funds through unauthorized investments2 and they had difficulty finding the evidence they needed to defend the legality of their policies, so they played on popular stereotypes to ridicule the Haudenosaunee claims. Through these means, they were able to engage the intervention of Britain, which was also potentially liable for financial mismanagement3. The international dominance enjoyed by the British Empire at that time gave it the power needed to pressure Haudenosaunee supporters and prevent formal presentation of the evidence and legal arguments that favoured their claims. As a result, both the Canadian public and the international community were excluded from the decision-making process and this influential Indigenous confederation was denied the opportunity to participate in world affairs on parity with other nations.
The facts surrounding this incident are difficult to untangle from presumptions that are firmly established in our cultural mythology concerning the foundation of both Canada and the modern international order. Those involved - the coloniser and the colonised – see each other in such radically different terms that we do not even use the same words to describe our past and present selves. Yet, the perspective of the colonised is confirmed by the coloniser’s archival records. In considering the significance of what happened, it is worth remembering that most modern Canadians were born in or immigrated to Canada after the events recounted in this paper took place. We see ourselves as an alternative to the United States and we have few ties to people who can remember that back in the 1920’s, the ‘Dominion’ still held colonial status under English law. In those years, the immigrant majority came predominantly from Britain. As ‘loyal subjects’, they had no desire to leave the protection of the imperial ‘motherland’. Their submissive mind set and hierarchical belief system contrasted sharply with the egalitarian philosophy of the Haudenosaunee, who used archival evidence to substantiate their claim to full independence. As they argued in their petitions, the ‘Six Nations’ had never been conquered and they had never accepted alien sovereignty. Since the time of first contact, they had always insisted that they were allies, not subjects, of Britain.
Now that British imperialism has faded to a distant memory, scholars are taking a second look at the past. The primacy accorded to equality, both in the field of international human rights and in the Canadian constitution, castes a different light on how the modern world took shape and it appears increasingly likely that we have underestimated the depth of the philosophical conflict involved in early Anglo-Indigenous encounters. The League of Nations incident is just one of many points of cultural collision. Yet, with the perspective afforded by time, the broad significance of the actions taken by Canada’s Department of Indian Affairs to depose4 the traditional Haudenosaunee government is becoming increasingly apparent. These events occurred at the very moment when the Dominion of Canada was taking its first tentative steps towards establishing a limited autonomy of its own. And so, in this case at least, self-determination for Canada was achieved, not in cooperation with Indigenous peoples (contrary to Canada, 1993 Partners in Confederation), but rather at the expense of their traditional autonomy.

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