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Constitutional History
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Aboriginals: Treaties & Relations
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1492 - 1779
1763 - 1791
1764 - 1836
1811 - 1867
1867 - 1870
1871 - 1875
1876 - 1877
1878 - 1898
1899 - 1922
1923 - 1950
1951 - 1981
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Pionniers et Immigrants
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Photo: Senator James Gladstone - Glenbow Archives NA-1524-1
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1951 - 1981: Aboriginal Rights Movement

Upon signing the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in December 1948, Canada's government was forced to re-examine its treatment of Aboriginals for the first time. Voting rights were extended in 1960, and Aboriginal civil rights became an ongoing concern in the 1970s. While there were still many Aboriginal grievances, they would make significant gains during this period.

Topics in this section:

Indian Act Revisions, 1951
The Right To Vote, 1960
White and Red Papers, 1969 - 1970
Drybones Case, 1970
Calder Case, 1973
Berger Commission, 1974 - 1977
James Bay and Northern Québec Agreement, 1975
Other Interesting and Important Documents

Indian Act Revisions, 1951
In 1951, the Indian Act was changed so that many of the most oppressive laws banning key customs - including potlatches, pow-wows or other cultural ceremonies - were no longer effective. Aboriginals were also now allowed to possess and drink alcohol for the first time, but only on their own reserves.

Just as significant were changes made to the act allowing Aboriginals to sue the government over land claims. The provinces gained an increased role in determining Indian status. However, ultimate control over the Aboriginal peoples still resided (and still resides) with the federal government.

The Right to Vote, 1960
In 1958, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker named James Gladstone, a member of Alberta's Blood tribe, as the first Native Senator. Then, in 1960, he gave non-enfranchised Aboriginals the right to vote in federal elections. Despite these moves, though, the federal government was still opposed to the idea of Aboriginal self-government.

In March 1959, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was sent into Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ontario, which, until 1924, had been completely self-governed. The police were there to evict Iroquois chiefs and clan mothers after traditionalists on the reserve seized control and, for all intents and purposes, declared the reserve separate from Canada.

Photo: Alberta tipis, 1970 - Glenbow Archives NA-2864-6300
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White and Red Papers, 1969 - 1970
The year following Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's rise to power in 1968, his government issued a White Paper on Aboriginal policy that argued that Canada shouldn't negotiate any further treaties with the Native peoples. Trudeau believed treaties were something only signed between sovereign nations. His government also did not agree with Aboriginal land right claims, either, because they were too broad and unspecific. Aboriginals feared this stance would undermine their special rights and status within Canadian society.

Aboriginals responded with their own document, named Citizens Plus, in 1970. This became more commonly known as the Red Paper. The Red Paper countered all of the proposals of the White Paper. An Aboriginal delegation, backed by other Canadian citizens, met with the government and successfully convinced it to radically change its policies and positions.

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The White Paper, 1969

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Citizens Plus, also known as The Red Paper, 1970

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The Drybones Case, 1970
In 1969, an Aboriginal man named Joesph Drybones was found drunk in a Yellowknife hotel lobby and was arrested. While the Indian Act now allowed Aboriginals to drink, they could only do so on reserves. At the time, no reserves existed in the Northwest Territories.

Drybones fought his case all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, who found that the police had discriminated against him because of his race when they charged him with drunkenness. This ruling effectively caused the no-drinking clause in the Indian Act to fall into disuse.

The Calder Case, 1973
Frank Arthur Calder, a member of the federal Cabinet, sued the British Columbian government over land claims issues outstanding in the province with the Nisga'a tribe. The issue went to the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled that aboriginal rights to the land did exist, particularly under the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and subsequent government implementation of that proclamation.

This ruling forced Pierre Trudeau's government to reconsider its federal Aboriginal policy once again, which opened the door to discussion on the intent and meaning of all Indian treaties.

The Berger Commission, 1974 - 1977

Photo: Oil Distillation Tower - NAC/ANC WRM 4613
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During the 1960s, new natural gas reserves were found in the Beaufort Sea in the Arctic, and oil companies began to express interest in building a pipeline straight through the fragile ecosystem of the northern Yukon and Mackenzie River Valley. In the mid-1970s, the Berger Commission, led by Thomas Berger, examined the effects of this proposed pipeline. Aboriginals in the region were particularly opposed to the pipeline, for several reasons:

  • Environmental concerns

  • Skepticism about the motives and interests of big business

  • Perceptions that it infringed upon their land rights and special status.

Ultimately, the pipeline was never built.

The James Bay and Northern Québec Agreement, 1975

James Bay Agreement Treaty
James Bay Agreement Treaty


This was, notably, the first major land cession deal signed since the early twentieth century. It gave Inuit and Cree people in northern Québec significant amounts of money - $225 million - and hunting and fishing rights to land that was to be surrendered to the provincial government. The Québec provincial government wanted large portions of land in the northern half of the province for the purposes of building hydroelectric dams.

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James Bay and Northern Québec Native Claims Settlement Act, 1975

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Cree-Naskapi (of Québec) Act, 1984

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