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Chapter 11. First Nations from Indian Act to Idle No More

11.8 WWI to 1970

Jennifer Pettit, Department of Humanities, Mount Royal University

At the same time these events were transpiring, over 4,000 Indigenous people fought in World War I (see Section 6.12).[1] They returned, not to significant progress for First Nations, but to a country in which some of their lands had been taken without their permission and in which they were still not entitled to vote. While the Canadian economy was strong in the 1920s, by the 1930s the Great Depression hit and the Department of Indian Affairs was reduced to a branch of the Department of Mines and Resources. When WWII broke out, Indigenous peoples once again volunteered in significant numbers. This time, however, they returned to a Canada with a burgeoning concern for the conditions facing First Nations. As a result, in 1946 Parliament created a Special Joint Committee of the Senate and the House of Commons to undertake a study of the Indian Act. Unlike earlier commissions, the Joint Committee also sought feedback and consultation with Indigenous associations such as the North American Indian Brotherhood and the Indian Association of Alberta. When they reported in 1948, the Committee recommended a number of changes, including allowing Indigenous peoples to vote in federal elections; creating a treaty claims commission; enacting self-government; giving title of reserve lands to Indigenous peoples; and encouraging integration rather than assimilation. In the end, the federal government ignored many of these recommendations. There were, however, some changes made to the Indian Act in 1951, including lifting the ban on Indigenous dances and ceremonies, permitting Indigenous groups to pursue land claims, and increasing the powers of chiefs and band councils. However, it would not be until the 1960s that significant changes in the relationship between the federal government and Canada’s First Nations would begin to transpire.

“Citizens Plus” — the 1960s

The Hawthorn Report

The decade of the 1960s saw significant changes begin to take place. The right to vote in federal elections was extended to Indigenous peoples in 1960, and in 1961 the compulsory enfranchisement provisions were dropped from the Indian Act. A stand-alone Department of Indian Affairs was created in 1966. Another significant event was the Hawthorn-Tremblay Report entitled A Survey of the Contemporary Indians of Canada: Economic, Political, Educational Needs and Policies. Based on a series of cross-Canada consultations, the 1966-1967 Hawthorn Report concluded that Canada’s First Nations were marginalized and disadvantaged due to misguided government policies like the residential school system (which the Report recommended closing). Hawthorn argued that Indigenous peoples needed to be treated as “Citizens Plus” and provided with the resources required for self-determination. As a result of this report, the Canadian government decided to take policies in an entirely new direction, which were outlined in the White Paper of 1969.

The White Paper and the Red Paper

In the White Paper, the stated goal of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien, Minister for Indian Affairs, was to achieve greater equality for Canada’s First Nations. The White Paper called for an end to Indian status, the closure of the Department of Indian Affairs, the dismantling of the Indian Act, the conversion of reserve lands to private property, and immediate integration. While the federal government believed this to be desirable, Indigenous groups across Canada were outraged, and argued that forced assimilation was not the means to achieve equity and that the White Paper had not addressed their concerns. They responded with a document called Citizens Plus, which became known as the Red Paper. In the Red Paper, Indigenous peoples stressed the importance of land and upholding the promises made in the treaties, and called for political organization. In response, the government withdrew the White Paper in 1970.

Over 200 years has passed since the passage of the Royal Proclamation of 1763, and yet the deeply flawed Indian Act still remains in effect today. Altough there has been some progress, such as the entrenchment of Aboriginal and treaty rights in the 1982 Constitution and the 2008 Federal Government apology for residential schools, much remains to be done. The fight for this recognition has unfolded in a number of ways: peaceful movements like Idle No More; violent clashes such as the events at Oka; issues such as land claims reconsidered in the courts; and consultations that were part of studies, such as the 1996 Royal Commission and the more recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission (discussed in Sections 11.9 and 11.11).

Key Points

  • Aboriginal leaders were finally able to secure Ottawa’s interest in their complaints shortly after the Second World War.
  • Recommendations arising from the 1948 Special Joint Committee were acted on incrementally, first by ending the ban on the sun dance and potlatch, removing the sanctions against legal claims against Canada, and devolving authority to band leadership.
  • Winning the franchise in 1960 was followed by the Hawthorn Report of 1966-1967, which adopted the approach of “Citizens Plus.”
  • Motivated to act, the Trudeau administration in 1969 issued the White Paper, which was instantly rejected by Aboriginal leaders as assimilative. They responded with the Red Paper.
  • Issues that were identified decades earlier remained off the table and continue to be avoided by Canadian governments.

  1. Canada, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, “Aboriginal Contributions During the First World War,” last modified October 24, 2014, https://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1414152378639/1414152548341.

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