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Native Rights Movement

Harold CardinalNative Rights movements have taken on momentum in recent decades. Although the beginning of the movement is difficult to pinpoint, the seeds were sown with the Hawthorn report. Hawthorn was an Anthropologist from the University of British Columbia who was hired to examine the social and economic circumstances of Native communities. The report was released in 1966 and 1967. It clearly illustrated that Aboriginal people were in the lowest economic level of Canadian society. The report denounced the government’s actions and said that they should abandon all forced assimilation practices.

In 1960, First Nations gained the right to vote in Canadian General Elections without giving up their status. Prior to this, only those who became enfranchised (stripped of identity and status) were allowed the right to vote in Canadian General Elections.

The White Paper was a proposal by the federal government that started a torrent of changes throughout Canada with regard to Aboriginal people. It was introduced in 1969 and its intention was immediately evident. The Trudeau government wanted to repeal the Indian Act and replace it with a land act. They wanted to terminate treaties and within five years call for the elimination of Indian Affairs. It was eventually withdrawn from the order papers, but it fueled a movement that continues today.

Organization was the key to Native Rights movements. In response to the White Paper the National Indian Brotherhood formed. The leadership was composed of dedicated First Nations from across the country. Dave Courchane (President of the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood), Harold Cardinal (President of the Indian Association of Alberta), and Walter Deiter (President of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indians) joined together to form a solid leadership that many First Nations continued to follow into the future.

1969 was also a year that the Supreme Court of Canada was asked to rule on the Calder case. The case was named after Dr. Calder who from 1949 served as a Member of the Legislative Assembly in British Columbia for 26 years. He is recognized as the first First Nations individual to be elected to any Canadian Parliament. Calder is a case that went before the courts in the Province of British Columbia and eventually to the Supreme Court of Canada. The case was unsuccessful, because the Judges split on the issue of whether the Nisga’a Aboriginal title had been extinguished by Colonial law prior to British Columbia entering confederation. However, the ruling asserted with six of the seven judges recognizing that Aboriginal title existed when the Europeans entered that territory. This was a major victory for Aboriginal rights in Canada and opened the door for many Native rights issues.

During this period in time the Métis were organizing throughout the west and rekindling the fires of nationhood. Their first struggle would be to become recognized as a distinct Aboriginal people. The lobbying power of the Métis led to the inclusion of Métis in the definition of an Aboriginal person within the Constitutional Act of 1982.

In the summer of 1990, Native rights came to a head once again. Oka was the setting of a confrontation that was brewing for many years. The Iroquois community of Kahnawake objected to the proposed expansion of a near-by golf course. The Oka Golf Club wanted to expand their golf course to 18 holes. The Kahnawake community began to occupy the lands of the proposed golf course expansion. The confrontation was extremely tense, but it set a new tone for Native Rights in Canada. In the fall sitting of Parliament, the Mulroney government called for a new national agenda for Native people. A new era had begun.

White, Jerry P., and Paul Maxim, Nicholas Spence. Permission to Develop. Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing, 2004.

Brizinski, Peggy. Knots in a String. Saskatoon: University Extension Press, 1993.


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