In the wake of the recent passing of Pierre Trudeau, much evaluation has taken place regarding the former prime minister's place and influence in Canadian history. Most of the analysis has revolved around his distinct and colorful personality, his push for bilingualism, his belief in multiculturalism, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and his dealings with Quebec and the West. In the rush to analyze these important facets of Trudeau's era, little has been said regarding his historic dealings with Canada's Aboriginal peoples. This is unfortunate, as Trudeau laid much of the groundwork that has led to the current climate of the vast social and political change in Canada regarding Aboriginal people and their rights.
Of particular note are three important events: the 1969 White Paper proposals, Trudeau's reaction to the watershed 1973 Calder case, and the entrenchment of Aboriginal rights in the 1982 Constitution.
The 1969 White Paper of Indian policy was the Trudeau government's attempt to formally integrate First Nation's people into mainstream Canadian society. It is surprising today to consider exactly what Trudeau and his minister for Indian Affairs, Jean Chretien, were proposing: to eliminate the Indian Act, the Department of Indian Affairs, the treaties, and Indian status in one daring stroke. By abrogating what lawfully kept Indian people special and distinct, it was thought by the Trudeau government that Indian people would then be free to join the rest of Canadian society as economic and political equals.
On the surface it would appear that Trudeau was prepared to do whatever was necessary to force Indian people to escape the plight of poverty they faced in 1960s Canada. If this meant radically altering the status quo, with the result being a massive paradigm shift, then so be it. If it worked, then so much the better for everyone concerned, especially Indian people. The Trudeau end would justify the Machiavellian means.
What is often forgotten about Trudeau, however, is that he sincerely wanted to help Indian people who, as a whole, lived in desperate squalor on a reserve archipelago across Canada. The liberal ideas and positive wording of the White Paper proposals show this. Trudeau, ever the philosopher-king, wanted Indian suffering to end and was prepared to resort to radical yet humanitarian action to make this so. The method might be questioned but not the intent.
The fact that Trudeau listened to heightened pan-Indian protest against the White Paper and subsequently dropped the proposals, showed his willingness to listen to the very First Nations people he wanted to help. Indian people wanted change but on their terms, with their input. Trudeau's acquiescence in 1972 to the idea of Indian control of Indian education, showed just how far he was willing to go to let Indian people control their own destiny. No previous prime minister came close to matching such progressive action on Indian issues.
Trudeau's willingness to act in a positive way on Aboriginal issues became evident again in the wake of the Calder case ruling in 1973. The Supreme Court of Canada had, in a landmark decision, opened the door to the fact that Aboriginal rights to the land might still exist where it had not been officially extinguished. What was Trudeau's reaction to this surprising finding by Canada's highest court? He could have taken a hard-line stance against this quasi-victory for Indian people? (Nisga'a people who had brought the case forward had actually lost the case in a tie decision but the principle of unresolved Aboriginal title remained). Trudeau chose the high road. Recognizing the legal realities of the situation, he opened the Office For Native Claims in 1974. The cornerstone was now in place for a lawful settling of comprehensive and specific Indian land claims across Canada, a process that continues into the new millennium.
Although Trudeau may not have realized the full social and politicalimplications of this recognition of Aboriginal land rights on the rest of Canada, he still had the vision and elan to do what he believed was right, in light of the Calder implications. That he chose to do so only five years after the White Paper is extraordinary.
The 1982 constitutional changes are further evidence of Trudeau's respect for Aboriginal people and their rights. The old Canadian Constitution mentioned Indian people in one place, Section 91 (24). It was there stated that Indian people were the responsibility of the federal government and that was it. Canada's new Constitution, repatriated to Canada in 1982 by the Trudeau government, was to go light years beyond this ephemeral mention. Sections 25 and 35 (and subsequent revisions to these sections) were to recognize and constitutionally protect historic Aboriginal rights, treaties, and future land claims. Once again, Trudeau had stuck his neck out. He had fought tooth and nail all his life against recognition of special status for Quebec and any other province, yet he was willing to recognize the historic rights of Aboriginal peoples, which predated European influence in Canada. The cornerstone for legal recognition of Aboriginal self government, and recognition of other Aboriginal rights like fishing were now in place, constitutionally protected. The magnitude of this bold and prescient action has reverberated across Canada ever since.
Like any politician, Pierre Trudeau made his mistakes. Aboriginal people also have their reasons to criticize him. The initial slow pace of the land claims process and the long reluctance to admit to the inherent right of Aboriginal self government are two problems that can be attributed, at least partially, to him. At this time of his passing, however, let the big picture not be forgotten. This man of vision led Canada away from the old assimiliationist model regarding First Nations people. A new era of settled land claims, Aboriginal self government, and a burgeoningrecognition of other Aboriginal rights was made possibly by Pierre Elliot Trudeau. May this man of vision and action rest in peace, and may his contributions to the future of Canada's third solitude not be forgotten.
William G. Lindsay