Indigenous Peoples: from the 1969 White Paper to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and beyond

Joshua Johnson

Indigenous issues within Canada have become an ever-increasing area of political focus and discourse. Last September, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau discussed  “Canada’s Shame” in regards to the country’s historic treatment of Indigenous peoples, while also noting the power of unity and collective participation in overcoming reconciliatory challenges. The Trudeau government has also made numerous high-profile commitments to support Indigenous reconciliation. Some of these commitments have come in the form of agreeing to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), committing to end the Indian Act, and promising to enact all of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 recommendations (TRC).

At the Canada’s Policy Transformations conference, three panellists, Dr. Christa Scholtz (McGill University), Dr. Sheryl Lightfoot (University of British Columbia), and Professor Carol Anne Hilton (Simon Fraser University), each grappled with longstanding Indigenous issues, and put forth thought-provoking arguments for future Indigenous-government relations.

Dr. Scholtz started her presentation with a definition of reconciling, defined as the “action of making something compatible with another.” Dr. Scholtz viewed the 1969 White Paper, which attempted to assimilate Indigenous Canadians (without their consultation), as the catalyst for the Indigenous movement within Canada. After this event, the Government of Canada attempted to engage with Indigenous communities. This marked a major change from past governments who had systematically aimed to eliminate the “Indian Problem”. This change in direction led to historic agreements such as The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, which was the first modern day Self-Governance Agreement, and the recognition of treaty rights under the 1982 Constitution Act. Dr. Scholtz also discussed the relationship of Indigenous groups to the Canadian judicial system through the cases of R v. Sparrow and R v. Van der Peet. Dr. Scholtz ended with an insightful commentary on her belief that the 1982 Constitution Act, coupled with changes in judicial interpretation, may end up defining and creating a more robust form of reconciliation between Indigenous groups and Canada in the next 50 years based on Indigenous rights to resources.

Dr. Sheryl Lightfoot, the Canada Research Chair in Global Indigenous Rights and Politics, focused on the relationship between Canada and Indigenous communities. She summarized the last 50 years as being an era of protest, demonstrated through the Oka Crisis in 1990, Idle No More protests in 2012 and 2013, and numerous other events of Indigenous action. Dr. Lightfoot stated that the federal government, just like in 1969, is currently at another crossroads in defining its relationship with Indigenous groups. Canada’s commitment to adopt UNDRIP, despite contentious issues under the Declaration such as “free, prior, and informed consent”, is seen as a step forward. Additionally, Justin Trudeau’s pledge to enact all 94 recommendations by the TRC, has been viewed positively. Dr. Lightfoot, however, noted the lack of actionable items created from all of these pledges since the Trudeau government took office over two years ago. For example, while 12 recommendations overlap between UNDRIP and the TRC, none have been implemented so far. Further, private member’s Bill C-262, tabled by Federal MP Romeo Saganash in 2016, called for the implementation of UNDRIP and the alignment of Canadian laws with the Declaration. While there has recently been a Liberal commitment to support the bill, it has not moved beyond its first reading over a year and a half later. This lack of moving beyond words was troublesome for Dr. Lightfoot. Despite the next steps in reconciliation being hard, she hopes that the Government of Canada will create a productive future relationship with Indigenous groups across Canada.

Professor Carol Anne Hilton discussed the power shift she believes will happen within Canada in the next 50 years between Indigenous communities, businesses, and governments. She has created the concept of Indigenomics to highlight the importance of an Indigenous relationship coupled with social and economic development. Hilton explained that currently the Indigenous economy in Canada produces roughly 32 billion dollars in combined income, and that she believes we need to prepare for it to reach over 100 billion in the near future. She believes, however, that this growth must also be accompanied with economic reconciliation and the “Four R’s”: recognition, rights and title, representation and resources. Hilton believes that through engagement with Indigenomics, the support of Indigenous rights to an economy guaranteed under UNDRIP, and access to resources, the next 50 years will mark an important change for both Canada and Indigenous communities.

In conclusion, the overall sentiment by the panellists was that the next 50 years will require leadership and major steps by all concerned parties. These steps will require active negotiations and commitments in order to make real progress and not simply fall prey to political games. Yet, there was a significant sense of hope from this panel regarding the next 50 years, and as Justin Trudeau recently stated to the world: “any challenge can be met if we meet it together.”

Joshua Johnson is currently attending the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy & Governance. He holds a First Class Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science and International Politics from Mount Allison University. He wrote his thesis on future approaches for Canadian innovation policy. Josh’s policy interests include intergovernmental relations, international politics, trade policy, and northern affairs. He previously worked for the Yukon Government as an Intergovernmental Relations Analyst and enjoyed his experience with the Council of the Federation as a delegate. Josh also loves the outdoors and has lived in British Columbia, New Brunswick, Yukon, and Ontario.