These debates led to a flurry of activity in the early 1980s. When the Trudeau government initiated discussions over the patriation of the constitution, Aboriginal leaders argued (unsuccessfully at first) that they should be represented alongside the provincial premiers at the talks. Failing that, they argued that a section should be added to the proposed Constitution Act that would recognize the existence of Aboriginal rights. These arguments met with considerable resistance from several of the provincial premiers, who in turn argued that no clear definition of Aboriginal rights existed and that agreeing to entrench them in the constitution was tantamount to signing a blank cheque. After some intensive lobbying and considerable debate in the mass media, the government agreed to something of a compromise. Section 35 of the Constitution Act (1982) was created, stating: "The existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed." The next sentence was a clearer victory for the Aboriginal leadership, who had long worked to get beyond the narrow definitions of The Indian Act. "In this Act," it went on, "'aboriginal peoples of Canada' includes the Indian, Inuit and Metis people of Canada."

Photo of the signing of the Constitution Act, 1982

Repatriating the Constitution, Ottawa, ON, Apr. 1982

Queen Elizabeth II signs the Constitution Act, 1982. The Queen is accompanied by (left to right) Gerald Regan, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Michael Pitfield, and Michael Kirby.
NAC (PA-140705, photo by Robert Cooper).

1983 - Penner Report

The hopes of Native leaders that self-government for Aboriginal peoples could be realized were at their highest in 1983 with the release of the report of the Special Parliamentary Committee on Indian Self-Government. The committee, chaired by Liberal MP Keith Penner, stated that Native communities would prefer self-government rather than representation in Canadian legislative bodies.  The committee thus recommended that the Indian Act and the Department of Indian Affairs be phased out over an extended time period and replaced by local governments established by Native peoples themselves. Such recommendations, however, required the co-operation of the provincial legislatures, many of which were unwilling to opt for such a radical change. In 1984, the Penner Report fell to the wayside with the election of a Conservative government  that was more concerned with finding  a solution to the constitutional quagmire than addressing Aboriginal rights.

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In that same year, a special parliamentary committee chaired by Liberal MP Keith Penner addressed the question of self-government. Its report, issued in 1983, recommended that the government should recognize that Aboriginal people had a right to self-government and that such a right should be included in the Constitution Act as a safeguard. It also recommended that the Indian Affairs department be replaced by a Ministry of State for First Nations Relations as a final break with the old paternalistic and assimilationist policy. The government appeared ready to move on the proposals, but a draft bill died when an election was called in 1984 and the Liberal government was defeated at the polls.

1990 - Elijah Harper Defeats the Meech Lake Accord

Attempts to achieve Native self-government encountered a stumbling block with the election of a Conservative national government in 1984. Concentration was focused on the constitutional problem, and federal attention was directed toward the negotiation of the Meech Lake Accord. Under the accord, which had been agreed upon by the Prime Minister and the provincial premiers, the province of Quebec would be constitutionally recognized as a distinct society. For it to take effect, however, the agreement required ratification by the provincial legislatures within three years. Native representatives had been shut out of the constitutional discussions, and Native leaders were discouraged by this evidence that their concerns were less important than those of other special groups in Canada. Elijah Harper, an NDP member of the Manitoba Legislature and Chief of the Oji-Cree band of Red Sucker Lake, objected to the government's actions and was in a position to do something about it. With time running out, Harper chose to withhold his vote from the unanimous consent required to override the standard parliamentary procedure and allow a vote on the accord to be held. Supported in his actions by the Speaker of the Manitoba Legislature, Harper prevented Manitoba from considering the accord, thereby effectively defeating it. In doing so, he served notice that the Aboriginal peoples of Canada would not be ignored in the constitutional restructuring of the nation. Harper's defeat of Meech Lake took place in June of 1990, adding to the emotional tension during the Oka crisis in Quebec that began the next month.

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Meanwhile, Native leaders were pursuing changes in another forum. Although they had been excluded from the first round of constitutional talks, Native delegates attended the 1983 First Ministers’ Conference but were unable to convince the politicians to recognize their arguments about self-government. At the third conference in 1987, frustration mounted when the ministers devised the Meech Lake Accord, a constitutional proposal that recognized Quebec as a distinct society. Why were politicians willing to acknowledge Quebec’s claims, when similar calls from Native leaders went unheeded? When the Manitoba Legislature met to ratify the Accord, Elijah Harper, a representative from northern Manitoba, and the sole Native member of the house, refused to vote. Without unanimous consent of the provinces by the deadline date, the Meech Lake Accord died. Native people across the country acclaimed Elijah Harper as a hero.

Written By

Kerry Abel
Adjunct Professor
Carleton University
This is a brief description of Kerry Abel

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