In 1969, a young and inexperienced minister of Indian affairs in the Trudeau cabinet named Jean Chrétien presented a proposal for sweeping policy changes that soon had become known as the White Paper. It called for the dismantling of the Department of Indian Affairs, the elimination of the federal Indian Act, and the municipalization of reserves under provincial laws of private property. As Sally Weaver and others have argued, the real impetus behind these initiatives was not so much any authentic concern for Indian people but rather Trudeau's crusade to counter the separatist drift of nationalism in Quebec. The goal was to emphasize the equality of all individual Canadian citizens.The effort to remove the institutional machinery of special status for Indian people announced the beginnings of a struggle to remake the constitution of Canada in a struggle that continues yet.
The government's response to the Hawthorn Report and the general climate of social reform in the 1960s was a document that the federal authorities widely regarded as revolutionary in approach. The existing policies for the administration of Natives in Canada were clearly not working to the satisfaction of either the government or the Aboriginal peoples, and a new set of ideas was proposed in a "White Paper" released in 1969. The White Paper proposed that the British North America Act be amended to eliminate any distinctions between Natives and other Canadians, that the Indian Act be repealed altogether, that the Department of Indian Affairs be scrapped, and that Natives should take over complete administration of their reserves. Federal responsibilities were to be passed on to the provinces, and Natives henceforth were to be considered as individual citizens. In effect, any special status that Natives had possessed was to be revoked, and treaties were to be abandoned as irrelevant. Native peoples viewed these proposals both as an abandonment of treaty rights as compensation for lands and as another attempt at assimilation. The Alberta Indian Association articulated the response of most Native groups in a report entitled Citizens Plus, which stated that Natives did not require wardship, but that their peoples' special status did necessitate recognition as did the rights established by treaties. The federal government eventually abandoned the White Paper in the face of almost unanimous and strident opposition from Aboriginal communities.
Trudeau's White Paper was interpreted in some circles as a breakthrough. Even some Native leaders supported the initiative to bring Indian treaties to an end.But the prevailing view in Indian Country, as articulated particularly by Harold Cardinal in The Unjust Society and Dave Courchene in Wahbung: Our Tomorrows, was to reject the initiative. These authors argued that the White Paper employed the liberal language of the American civil rights movement mischievously and misleadingly. The real purpose, they proposed, was to step up the assimilationist thrust of the old "civilization" mission. The object of this mission has long been the disappearance of Indians as Indians, or, in other words, as Walter Dieter argued in 1969 in his capacity as president of the National Indian Brotherhood, to advance "cultural genocide." The concerted resistance of Aboriginal peoples across the country eventually forced the Trudeau regime to abandon, at least in theory, most of the proposals in the White Paper policy. However, the debate also established the basic framework of modern-day Aboriginal politics.