The late Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau once told Aboriginal leaders there would be bloodshed if they attempted to establish their own sovereign governments. His son, current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, says Aboriginal people in Canada have a “right to self-determination, including the inherent right of self-government.” Furthermore, he says, his government is committed to “a renewed, nation-to-nation, government-to-government, and Inuit-Crown relationship based on recognition of rights, respect, co-operation, and partnership as the foundation for transformative change.”
Pierre Trudeau expressed his hard-line position against Aboriginal self-government many times as prime minister. After fighting Quebec francophone nationalism all of his political life, there was no way he was going to roll over to demands for Aboriginal nationalism. He despised ethnic nationalism on principle and besides, he knew that negotiating self-government with Aboriginals would only embolden Quebec separatists to make similar demands.
His stark warning of a bloody confrontation came at a 1983 meeting in Ottawa between Trudeau and members of his cabinet and Aboriginal political leaders. There was to be a televised meeting the next morning, and the prime minister wanted to be briefed on the direction the discussions would take.
Ojibway poet and writer Duke Redbird was there representing the Native Council of Canada (today’s Congress of Aboriginal Peoples). He recalled the conversation during a 1996 interview when I was conducting research for my book on the place of Aboriginal people in modern Canadian society. Redbird, who later became a reporter and producer at Toronto’s CityTV, told Trudeau natives were interested in self-determination. The prime minister noted that self-determination was then being fought for in Algeria, Ireland, South Africa, Libya and other countries around the world. “But then he said something to the effect that self-determination is broad and requires great sacrifice and he wanted to know how much blood was the native leadership prepared to shed for this idea because his government would not accept self-determination by native people,” Redbird recalled.
Trudeau was adamant that the question of self-determination and/or self-government was a non-starter. He said, according to Redbird, that “if we were determined to pursue [it]…we’d better be determined to fight for it because his government was not prepared to negotiate it.”
Redbird said the message he and other Aboriginal leaders took away from the meeting was that “we’d better be very responsible about what we tell our constituents because anybody’s blood is going to be on our conscience and our hands if we are pushing the people to do something when we know very well that the final result can only be bloodshed and that it will be our people’s blood that’s going to be shed.”
During another meeting involving Aboriginal leaders that same year, Trudeau listened patiently as Nisga’a Chief James Gosnell claimed that God had given pieces of land to all races throughout the world and Aboriginals were given the entire Western Hemisphere, from the tip of South America to the North Pole. “It has always been our belief that God gave us the land,” Gosnell said, “and we say that no one can take our title away except He who gave it to us to begin with.”
Trudeau responded by asking if God had told the hundreds of Aboriginal tribes in the Americas where the boundaries of their lands ended and others began. “God never said that the frontier of France runs along the Rhine or somewhere west of Alsace-Lorraine where the German-speaking people of France live,” he said. “I don’t know any part of the world where history isn’t constantly rewritten by migrations and immigrants and fights between countries changing frontiers and I don’t think you can expect North America or the whole of the Western Hemisphere to settle things differently than they have been settled everywhere else, hopefully peacefully here.”
The prime minister made it clear that his government was prepared to use military force to defeat Aboriginal nationalism if necessary – as he had done to quell Quebec separatist violence during the FLQ crisis of October, 1970.
Trudeau the first and second are alike in their flair for political theatre and understanding of the power of celebrity in politics, but on the fundamental philosophical issue of ethnic nationalism – at least as it applies to Aboriginals – they could not be farther apart
In a policy paper released on July 14, Justin Trudeau’s government said: “Recognition of the inherent jurisdiction and legal orders of Indigenous nations is therefore the starting point of discussions aimed at interactions between federal, provincial, territorial, and Indigenous jurisdictions and laws.” The paper adds that “we will continue the process of decolonization and hasten the end of its legacy wherever it remains in our laws and policies.”
Contrast that with what his father said in Vancouver on August 8, 1969, when he was arguing in support of his controversial White Paper on Aboriginal policy which would allow people living on the reserves to own their homes, get a loan from the bank, and not have a faceless bureaucrat in Ottawa determine how their possessions should be distributed after their death: “We have set the Indians apart as a race. We’ve set them apart in our laws. We’ve set them apart in the ways the governments will deal with them. They’re not citizens of the province as the rest of us are….They have been set apart in law. They have been set apart in the relations with government and they’ve been set apart socially too.
“We can go on treating the Indians as having a special status. 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 crossroads – the time is now to decide whether the Indians will be a race apart in Canada or whether [they] will be Canadians of full status.”
In another speech he gave in support of his White Paper in 1969, Trudeau said: “It’s inconceivable … for one section of the society to have a treaty with the other section of the society. We must be all equal under the law and we must not sign treaties among ourselves…. I don’t think that we should encourage Indians to feel these treaties should last forever within Canada….They should become Canadians as all other Canadians.”
While the elder Trudeau presided over the 1982 constitutional amendments recognizing certain existing Aboriginal rights, the right to self-government was not among them. That hasn’t stopped the courts and subsequent governments from using the 1982 amendments to justify a dramatic expansion of Aboriginal rights, including a right to self-government.
Trudeau the younger is going even further by advocating an unprecedented “nation-to-nation” relationship. Not once, since Canada became a nation in 1867, has there been a “nation-to-nation” relationship with Aboriginal people in any part of Canada. Nothing in the official record or newspaper reports about the numbered treaties signed between the government of Canada and the Aboriginal tribes living in the vast territories controlled by the Hudson’s Bay Company from 1670 to 1870 describes them as “nation-to-nation” arrangements.
The total population of Canada when the first of the seven numbered treaties of 1871-1877 was negotiated was approximately 3.8 million. The total Aboriginal population at the time, according to the official census, was a little more than 100,000 – roughly 2.6 percent of the total. About 40,000 Aboriginals – less than half the population of Montreal at that time – lived on the lands between Thunder Bay and the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains the Canadian government had purchased from the Hudson’s Bay Company.
At one point during the negotiations at the Northwest Angle of the Lake of the Woods leading up to the signing of Treaty #3 in October, 1873, the chiefs asked if some of their children who were living in the United States would be allowed to return to Canada and live on the land that was being reserved for the Ojibways.
“I told them that the treaty was not for American Indians,” Lieutenant-Governor Alexander Morris – who negotiated four of the seven numbered treaties of 1871-1877 – wrote later, “but any bona fide British Indians of the class they mentioned who should within two years be found resident on British soil would be recognized.”
Lieut.-Gov. Morris told the Crees at Fort Carlton, Saskatchewan, that “once the Queen approves a Chief or Councillor he cannot be removed unless he behaves badly.” He also said the Queen “expects Indians and whites to obey her laws. She expects them to live at peace with other Indians and with the white men.”
After each treaty was signed, the chiefs were given red uniforms, silver medals, and a Union Jack to fly over their lodges to show that they were now officers of the Queen. The absolute sovereignty of the Crown, embodied in the Government of Canada, was beyond dispute.
According to the 2011 Census, of the 33,476,688 people in Canada only 697,510 (two percent) were registered Indians. The total Aboriginal population – status and non-status Indians, Metis and Inuit – was 1,400,685 (4.3 percent). That’s slightly less than the 4.5 percent of Canadians who identified themselves as being of Italian origin.
If today’s Prime Minister Trudeau succeeds in establishing a “nation-to-nation” relationship with Aboriginals that will be a slap in the face to his father who advocated that they should be “Canadians of full status” rather than continuing to live as “a race apart in Canada.”