The 1970s

Without the White Paper proposals, Trudeau's government decided instead to address the socio-economic problems faced by Indian reserves across the country. The inequities had been highlighted in a document called the Hawthorn Report that had been presented in the mid-1960s, and of which Canadians were increasingly being reminded in the mass media. A host of new organizations and bureaucracies was created to administer programs that addressed everything from basic housing to disputes over title to land and water.

Virtually all these organizations depended on the federal, provincial, or territorial governments for their funding. This funding structure has created the central dilemma of Aboriginal organizations: how do you conduct tough negotiations with the very authorities on whom you depend to finance your political and bureaucratic operations? More broadly, how can Native people at the community level trust that they are being fairly and honestly represented by their political organizations, when the people employed in those organizations are so dependent on their non-Aboriginal funding sources? A small class of career politicians and technocrats employed in and around band governments and Aboriginal organizations was initially hailed as a breakthrough for Aboriginal involvement in their own affairs but, over time, began increasingly to be perceived as more of an obstacle than a key to progress.

These issues had become especially prominent after the Trudeau regime came to power. Before 1968, activism and politics among Native people were largely conducted on a voluntary basis by self-sacrificing individuals. After that date, however, the development of Aboriginal technocracies opened many career paths for First Nations peoples with political aspirations or seeking employment in the nascent bureaucracies of an Aboriginal civil service.

While this development was a necessary stage in the return of the First Nations to some sort of Aboriginal self-government, the lack of any independent economic base underneath these reforms created much justification for suspicion. What was being done in the name of self-determination of Aboriginal peoples seemed to some like the imposition of a new colonialism or indirect rule. The old hierarchy of non-Aboriginal officialdom in Indian Affairs had simply been replaced by a new kind of top-down hierarchy peopled by a Native bureaucracy. Ultimately, the system would create a new Native managerial elite. In spite of the dedicated and expert public service given by some of their numbers, this elite group was inclined to have class interests that were very different from those of the vast majority of Native people who have remained on the country's socio-economic margins.

The American Indian Movement

This interpretation of the workings of modern-day neo-colonialism in Indian Country was essential to the emergence of the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the late 1960s. AIM began as an association of Indian activists in the twin cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota. It drew its energy largely from the prisons, where Native sisterhoods and brotherhoods lobbied for religious freedom to practice Aboriginal ceremonies conducted by recognized traditionalists. Their activism led to study, prayer, and a growing web of alliances between Native people in prisons and in urban centres with the some of the most traditional people on Indian reserves. These reserve traditionalists were often the primary custodians of the old Aboriginal inheritances of philosophy and spirituality. They also tended to be among the most economically marginalized people in their communities.

Photo of Protest in Support of Wounded Knee, Toronto, ON, 1973.

Protest in Support of Wounded Knee, Toronto, ON, 1973.

Canadian activists show their support for the American Indian Movement's (AIM) standoff with the American government at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.
AO (C 193-3-275, 73113, neg. 12).

AIM's polarizing energy led to a virtual civil war between traditionalists and the federally supported tribal administration on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. That community was the site of AIM's famous 1973 stand at Wounded Knee, the place of the infamous massacre of Siouan elders and children by the American cavalry in 1890. AIM's influence quickly spread to Canada. In 1974, members of the Ojibway Warriors' Society, an AIM-inspired group whose members had taken part in the confrontation at Wounded Knee the previous summer, made a similar stand at Anicinabe Park in Kenora, Ontario. Their leader was Louis Cameron. His own White Dog reserve was among those communities devastated by the pulp and paper industry's mercury pollution of the English-Wabigoon river system. This environmental crisis destroyed the Aboriginal fishery in the region.

1974 - Native People's Caravan

Native protest movements have taken various forms and embraced a wide range of causes. In 1974, a cross-country trek from Vancouver was organized to draw attention to the poor living conditions endured by many Natives in Canada. The Native People's Caravan, as it was called, had a number of demands. Its members supported the repeal of the Indian Act, suggesting that it be replaced by different legislation that recognized Native self-determination and land sovereignty. They also focused on the social, health, and educational problems that Native peoples confronted. The highlight of the march was intended to be the issuing of a manifesto during a rally on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. The government overreacted to the march, calling out the riot police and the military to confront a peaceful protest movement. The government's actions brought further media attention to the event and the demands the Natives were making. The caravan, however, had little practical impact on the amelioration of Native conditions.

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The activism was then channelled into the Native Peoples' Caravan, a protest led by Cameron, which travelled to Ottawa in 1974. On Parliament Hill, riot squads met Cameron's group. The demonstrators, however, remained resolute in their demand for a formal response from federal authorities to their manifesto. They set up a kind of embassy on an island in the Ottawa River to press their issues on the attention of the people and government of Canada.

Among their demands was the request that "the hereditary and treaty rights of all Native Peoples in Canada... be recognized and respected in the constitution of Canada." They wanted an end of the Indian Act and the establishment of "new legislation recognizing our right to self-determination and sovereignty over our lands." The drafters of the document also called for a portion of revenues from Canada's natural resource wealth to go to Native peoples as well as an investigation into alleged corruption in the Department of Indian Affairs. The manifesto concluded with a "demand to an end of the destruction of our Native economies."22

Photo of Occupation of Anishinabe (Anicinabe) Park, Kenora, ON, 1974.

Occupation of Anishinabe (Anicinabe) Park, Kenora, ON, 1974.

In August of 1974, members of the White Dog reserve occupied Anicinabe Park, arguing that the land rightfully belonged to their band.
UM (PC 18, 18-2931-16).

The chief of the National Indian Brotherhood, George Manuel, worked with Louis Cameron in drawing attention to the harsh conditions faced by Native peoples in both reserves and urban milieus. Manuel's careful attentiveness to the more militant wings of Native activism helped to avoid the kind of overt conflict that developed in the United States when AIM split over the corrupt and violent regime of Pine Ridge chief Dick Wilson.

Nevertheless, the underlying inspirations of AIM, which sought to identify the workings of colonialism in the minds and institutions of Native peoples as well as in the workings of the non-Aboriginal power structures, continued to inform much activism in Indian Country in the years ahead. Certainly the activism of AIM and the Mohawk Warriors converged in the work and ideas of Louis Hall. The influence of AIM was also a factor in the actions of the protesters at Gustafsen Lake, British Columbia, and Ipperwash, Ontario, in 1995.

Similarly, the ideas of AIM flowed directly into Canada through the work of Arthur Solomon, who was the first Native elder to be recognized as a chaplain in Canada's penal system. One of Arthur Solomon's daughters, Sister Eva, worked from within the Roman Catholic Church through agencies such as the church-based Aboriginal Rights Coalition. In the mid-1970s, the ideas and inspirations of AIM were also integral to the efforts to establish the Calgary Urban Treaty Indian Alliance, a group devoted to the creation of a proper infrastructure of agencies to assist Native people living in that city. In 1975, it was reported that one of this group's young leaders, Nelson Small Legs Jr., had committed suicide in an extreme act of self-sacrifice. Small Legs was said to have taken his own life to protest the terrible wall of bureaucratic words used to disguise government inaction in the face of degenerating socio-economic conditions for many Native people in urban centres.

AIM's ideals have also influenced Canada in the campaign to release Leonard Peltier from penitentiary in the United States. Peltier was extradited from Canada in 1976 to face murder charges that are based on evidence that his supporters believe is highly dubious. He is thus widely viewed as a political prisoner and a symbol of all that is wrong with Indian policy in Canada and the United States. In 2000, special hearings were held in Toronto with the aim of encouraging President Bill Clinton to grant clemency to Peltier and to release the ailing freedom fighter from jail. Moreover, in a ruling outlining the court's reasons for refusing to allow a First Nations activist, James Pitawankwat, to be extradited back to Canada, an American judge in Portland, Oregon, criticized the Canadian government's handling of the Peltier extradition. The American judge drew attention to the use of "false affidavits" and the failure of Canadian authorities to allow Peltier to invoke the "political offenses exception" in the tainted extradition hearings in Vancouver.

Several hundred current and retired members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States responded to these developments by conducting a protest in front of the White House, the first time that the country's top federal law enforcement officers mounted this kind of overt political demonstration. Their purpose was to pressure Bill Clinton in the closing days of his presidency not to release Peltier. They succeeded in preventing the freeing of an individual who many, including Nelson Mandela and Amnesty International, believe has been wrongfully convicted.

Dene Nation

While the harsher confrontations of the mid-1970s served to call attention to some of the bitterest legacies of colonization, there were other, less sensational, disagreements that nevertheless proved vital in bringing to light scores of infections in the body politic left festering from a century of neglect. One of these emerged through a debate about the construction of an oil and gas pipeline through the Mackenzie Valley in the Northwest Territories.

1974 - Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry

During the 1950s and 1960s, the government had initiated the building of roads in the North, notably the Dempster Highway from Inuvik to Dawson City, in an effort to accommodate demands for the more efficient exploitation of Northern resources. When oil was discovered at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, in 1968, a proposal was made to build a pipeline that would run the length of the Mackenzie River and join existing pipeline systems in the south. Some 3,800 kilometres of land in the Northwest Territories would be affected by the pipeline system, but little thought was given to the consequences of the pipeline for the environment and the people who lived in the region. This indifference changed, however, as public protests led to the establishment of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry in 1974. Headed by Justice Thomas Berger, the inquiry consulted with local people who would be affected by the pipeline and adopted a policy of open communication with the media on the testimony that was presented. The result was intense public interest and debate. Berger recommended that the pipeline project be suspended for 10 years to allow Native peoples a period of adjustment. Although a pipeline from Norman Wells south to Alberta was eventually completed, the proposed Alaska route has never been finished.

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Discoveries of oil and gas in the Beaufort Sea precipitated a series of proposals for a pipeline to transport the petroleum to southern markets. One of the most heavily favoured routes led through Inuvialuit (Western Inuit) and Dene homelands. The prospect of a massive construction project through delicate Northern ecosystems with no obvious benefits for Northerners galvanized an effective opposition in the North among Aboriginal peoples and in the south among environmentalists and academics. The government commissioned a formal enquiry, chaired by Mr. Justice Thomas Berger, in response to the storm of protest.

The Berger inquiry conducted its public hearings not only in Canadian cities but also in the small hamlets and towns along the proposed route of the pipeline. This process enabled local Dene and Inuit trappers to give evidence. Generally, they spoke in their own languages through translators. Most often they commented on their way of life on the land and how their families would be traumatized and overturned if the kind of changes being contemplated were to go ahead without any plans even for their transition to a different kind of economy. These sessions were intensively and sympathetically covered in the Canadian media, facilitating a major transformation among southerners' attitudes towards the North This coverage also opened the doors to a broad audience for the debate on the contemporary meaning of Aboriginal and treaty rights.

1975 - Dene Nation and the Dene Declaration

In response to the furor raised by the Berger Commission and the Mackenzie Valley pipeline dispute, the Indian and Métis organizations of the Northwest Territories sought strength in numbers and united to form the Dene Nation. As a single body, they issued the Dene Declaration, an assertion of their rights to the land, which they argued had never been surrendered. They insisted that any proposed exploitation of either their lands or resources could not proceed until a settlement had been made with them. The declaration was also a statement of the nationhood of the Dene and the desire of the various Native peoples of the Northwest Territories to be considered as one. In the declaration, the Dene claimed their right to independence and self-government as a nation but situated those claims explicitly within the national context of Canada.

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The coming of the Berger inquiry to the Mackenzie Valley helped stimulate activism, especially among the Athapaskan speakers of that region. A key marker of this intellectual and political ferment was the transformation of the Indian Brotherhood of the Northwest Territories into the Dene Nation in 1975. The word Dene simply means "people" in the Athapaskan languages. This use of a Dene word of self-description was consistent with many similar assertions made by other Native groups in that era. The so-called Eskimos of Canada, for instance, insisted that they henceforth be described as Inuit. Similarly, the so-called Montagnais of Quebec and Labrador increasingly used their own word, "Innu," to identify themselves to the outside world.

The Dene Nation announced themselves to the world in a manifesto drawing heavily on the vocabulary introduced by George Manuel in his book, The Fourth World. The authors of the document explained, "our plea to the world is to help us in our struggle to find a place in the world community where we can exercise our right of self-determination as a distinct people and as a nation."23

The emergence of the Dene Nation also marked the growing prominence of Georges Erasmus on Canada's national stage. Like several other important Native activists of his generation, Erasmus worked with the Company of Young Canadians, an experiment in community development initiated under the regime of Prime Minister Lester Pearson. The most prominent member of a powerful political dynasty in Yellowknife, Erasmus displaced James Wah-Shee in 1975 in taking the top political job among the Dene. In the mid-1980s, Erasmus drew on strong backing from the Ontario chiefs to take over the top political job at the Assembly of First Nations in Ottawa. His next success was as co-chair of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which conducted its work between 1991 and 1996.

Photo of Dene Family, ca. 1910.

Dene Family, ca. 1910.

The Dene, who occupied vast lands extending from the Northwest Territories to the northern plains, viewed themselves as a distinct people. This viewpoint was reflected in the Dene Declaration of 1975.
C. Hill-Tout, British North America (London: Archibald Constable, 1907).

By harnessing the language of nationhood to the larger collectivity of Dene people, its leadership anticipated similar developments throughout Indian Country. This change in emphasis from the politics of "brotherhood" to the politics of "nationhood" was best reflected in the emergence of the Assembly of First Nations from the National Indian Brotherhood in 1980. This change was accompanied by "A Declaration of the First Nations." In an affirmation intended to prepare an appropriate Indian posture vis-à-vis the new kind of politics in Canada arising from the imminent patriation of the Canadian constitution, the membership of the AFN declared "The Creator has given us the Right to Govern ourselves and the right to self-determination. The rights and responsibilities given to us by the Creator cannot be altered or taken away by any other Nation."24

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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The Dene Declaration also helped introduce what was later to become a loaded term into Canadian constitutional politics. The Dene described themselves as "a distinct people." In 1983, the report of a major parliamentary committee chaired by Keith Penner used similar language. The Penner report called for constitutional changes to recognize Indian self-government as a "distinct order" of Canadian government.25 The potential of these constitutional proposals, however, ended up not being applied to "the First Nations," another potent term given widened currency by the Penner report. Instead, in 1987, Canada's 11 first ministers unanimously agreed in a closed, all-night bargaining session to recognize Quebec in the constitution as "a distinct society."

The Berger inquiry hearings created the basis for animated exchange between a number of southern academics and Northern activists, including Georges Erasmus, James Wah-Shee, and Steven Kakfwi. In some instances, the education passed to the young southerners employed as researchers on the Berger inquiry helped point them in directions that would see them devote significant professional efforts in future years to establishing the intellectual justification for the recognition and affirmation of Aboriginal and treaty rights in a changing Canada. Among these gifted graduates of the Berger inquiry were Mel Watkins, Peter Russell, Ian Scott, Michael Asch, Ted Chamberlain, and Jean Morisset.

In 1977, Judge Berger issued his report entitled Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland.26 It called for a 10-year moratorium on any pipeline construction until disputes over contested land title in the Northwest Territories could be addressed and resolved. Beyond that, Berger emphasized that the Mackenzie Valley was a homeland for First Nations peoples even as it was also a resource frontier for economic interests centred in the south. In so doing, he placed a new light on a very old process in the history of the Americas. Essentially, he called for a rethinking of the North American faith in economic development that has historically devastated Indigenous peoples and the ecology of their ancestral lands.

Written By

Anthony J. Hall
Professor of Globalization Studies
University of Lethbridge


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