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The Trudeau Years, Contemporary Indigenous Relations

indigenous Canadians, Constitution Act, Aboriginal Peoples, Indian Act, indigenous rights

One new element in the Constitution Act of 1982 (as the patriated BNA Act was renamed) stated that “existing aboriginal and treaty rights are recognized and affirmed.” This acknowledgment of aboriginal rights showed the gains that had been made by indigenous Canadians in the 1960s and 1970s. However, these existing rights were neither listed nor defined; the extent of indigenous rights largely remained to be negotiated.

In the 1960s the federal government had favored abolition of the Indian Act and rejection of most indigenous claims upon Canada. In 1973, however, a Supreme Court of Canada ruling (known as the Calder case) suggested that courts would recognize the existence of aboriginal land titles. Canada thereupon declared its readiness to negotiate agreements that would recognize indigenous land titles and rights of self-government. In 1975 the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, which permitted massive hydroelectric development by the government of Quebec, granted substantial powers of self-government to the Cree of the James Bay region in exchange for a massive surrender of land.

Further support for indigenous rights to self-government came in 1977 with a report by Judge Tom Berger on pipeline construction in the Mackenzie River valley. Berger advised against any such development until indigenous claims had been settled. His advice was widely influential.

In recent decades the fundamental aims of indigenous organizations have been to resist assimilation into Canadian society and to defend the autonomy and cultural integrity of indigenous groups. They seek public sympathy by publicizing the poverty, injustice, and marginalization suffered by most indigenous Canadians, frequently appealing to international tribunals and world opinion. In the 1990s this strategy was successful in deterring the government of Quebec from proceeding with James Bay II, a second stage of hydroelectric development in the north.

Failures to respond to indigenous grievances also resulted in several episodes of armed indigenous resistance to Canadian authority. In 1990 Mohawks resisted the development of land they claimed as indigenous property near Oka, Quebec. Heavily armed Mohawks confronted police and troops for months before surrendering.

Indigenous bands and federations (notably the Assembly of First Nations, founded in 1982) have pursued legal actions and government-to-government negotiations seeking recognition of self-government and settlement of land claims. These negotiations have been most successful in the Northwest Territories. Large land settlements were made with the Inuit of the Mackenzie Delta in 1984 and Inuit of the eastern Arctic in 1992.

In the 1980s the Canadian government pledged to transform the Northwest Territories into new regions: One to be called Nunavut, with the Inuit majority, and the other probably Denendeh, with a Dene majority. In each, the indigenous residents would have broad powers of self-government. Nunavut achieved separate territorial status on April 1, 1999, but plans for Denendeh are moving more slowly.

In 1996 the federal government received the report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, the result of a five-year study of indigenous life. Its 400 recommendations covered almost every aspect of indigenous life, calling for new federal departments, an independent tribunal for land claims, and an indigenous parliament to be called the House of First Peoples. The C$30 billion price of the reforms, to be spread over 15 years, received a cool reception from the cost-cutting Liberal government of Prime Minister Jean Chretien. In 1997, however, the government offered an apology and compensation for abuses suffered by generations of indigenous children in publicly funded residential schools.

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