Trudeau’s plan to strip indigenous groups of their special status detonated an explosion of indigenous independence. The 1969 White Paper crystallized the mobilization of aboriginal leadership across Canada
The Boston Tea Party and American Revolution have the advantage of high drama when it comes to celebrating powerful historic reminders of how government’s imperious over-reaching can foment rebellious change for the better. A Canadian “white paper” comes off as colourless as it sounds.
And yet it was a “white paper” that fomented crucial, rebellious change in Canada. Today, Canadians recognize that reconciliation with indigenous peoples and celebration of their culture is a cornerstone of what we should be feting for Canada’s sesquicentennial (what’s a 150th birthday without an indigenous drum ceremony?). But a mere 50 years ago, then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau was ready to throw in the towel on indigenous rights, armed with a “white paper” in hand.
During Trudeau’s first term as prime minister, his ministers floated discussion policy papers (called “white papers,” for their white covers) aimed at sparking public debate on how to achieve the “just society” that Trudeau envisioned for Canada.
The “Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian policy (The White Paper, 1969)” argued that a just society for indigenous people could be achieved through desegregation: the scrapping of Ottawa’s department of Indian Affairs; the scrubbing of all references to “Indians” in Canadian laws; and the rescinding of any “special status” for indigenous peoples.
At the time, Trudeau said: “We can go on adding bricks of discrimination around the ghetto in which they live and at the same time perhaps helping them preserve certain cultural traits and certain ancestral rights. Or we can say you’re at a crossroad—the time is now to decide whether the Indians will be a race apart in Canada or whether it will be Canadians of full status.”
The white paper, it could be said, sought to acknowledge the failure of segregated aboriginal rights, by explicitly eliminating them, through desegregation. For Trudeau, it turned out to be a Trojan Horse of his own making.
Although the minister responsible, Jean Chrétien, was told that this was the change aboriginal leaders were seeking, aboriginal leaders and then the provinces went berserk after the 1969 white paper’s release. Assimilation was not how to achieve equality, they argued. In fact, special status was exactly what indigenous leaders sought.
The threat of losing their special status detonated an explosion of indigenous independence. In British Columbia, indigenous leaders quickly gathered in Kamloops to organize against the white paper. The paper effectively crystallized the mobilization of aboriginal leadership across Canada. It changed Canada for good.
The pan-Canadian aboriginal political protest—backed by the provinces—resulted in the proposal being shelved. But the ideas therein were not rejected until 1973, when Trudeau responded to the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in Calder v. Attorney General of British Columbia —a case that established that aboriginal peoples and their lands attract special legal rights.
After digesting the Calder decision, Trudeau established the indigenous claims process in 1974 that remains in place today. Through these processes, Ottawa negotiates with aboriginal groups about their claims to their special status rights. By so doing, Canada reversed the white paper’s premise, opting to pursue equality through the fulfillment of indigenous legal rights. Trudeau later entrenched these rights in the 1982 re-patriated Constitution.
As such, when it came to indigenous rights, Trudeau was more Lyndon Johnson on civil rights than Lincoln on slavery — he became a convert.
Today, Canadians take it for granted that our governments and prime minsters must honour their constitutional obligations to aboriginal peoples. But around Canada’s centennial, the opposite was true. For a time, Trudeau Sr. sought to extinguish aboriginal rights. At our 150th, we see the legacy of that effort, in remembering the 1969 white paper: all that was wrong with it, and all that it has changed.
Michael Bryant is the former Ontario Attorney General and Minister of Aboriginal Rights