Resistance and Assimilation

This is a bit different from my regular posts. I am attaching a paper I completed for a course I took this spring on Reconciliation issues in the Graduate Liberal Studies program at Simon Fraser University. 

It was a challenging course led by Dr. Eldon Yellowhorn, an archeology professor at SFU. Coincidentally, Dr Yellowhorn grew up on the Piikani First Nation near Brocket Alberta, about 130 kilometres from my home town in Taber. He was outstanding; guiding us through some very difficult topics with a careful, thoughtful, and scholarly perspective. Needless to say, I spent as much time unlearning as I did learning. Learning more about such a complex issue is challenging but always worthwhile.

It was invaluable. 

I served as Executive Assistant to Hon. Judd Buchanan, Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, from August 1974 to June of !976. I wanted, in this research, to better understand the tumultuous years that preceded Buchanan’s time as Minister and my time on his staff, to understand more clearly the forces at play over that time. 

Needless to say I wish I had been more knowledgeable of the issues we faced at the time, more sensitive to the history of Canada’s relationship with the Indigenous peoples and more empathetic to their point of view. At the age of 26, I had little capacity to understand all that was happening; like most, I just tried to do my best. 

This paper captures a period of great turmoil in the relationship of Indigenous peoples and Canada. I have let the source documents largely speak for themselves. They speak to where we were and perhaps reflect how far we’ve come in the long process we call reconciliation.

Resistance and Assimilation

In a few short years between 1966 and 1971, the strained, uncomfortable restrictive relationship between the federal government and Canada’s indigenous peoples was rocked by events that forever changed the nature of that relationship. It started with the Hawthorn Report, forever memorialized by a positive affirmation of the need to raise the status of Indigenous peoples, to see them as Citizens Plus. The report concluded that policies of the past century had failed, Indigenous peoples were Citizens Minus, deprived of services and rights that all Canadians received, wards of the state. The policy goal to assimilate Indigenous peoples into the Canadian mainstream was also deemed a failure. That policy of assimilation was brought into focus by the Trudeau government’s policy announcement in the 1969 White Paper, contradicting its own multi-year study.

The battle lines over assimilation were clearly drawn. The forceful reaction and the overwhelming resistance to this policy by Indigenous people and their emerging political leaders forced the withdrawal of the White Paper in 1971. For the first time, disparate indigenous political organizations coalesced; an intellectual and policy framework was formed and agreed upon, bringing unity and power that surprised almost everyone. This small, almost forgotten marginal one percent of the population had fought the Trudeau government to a standstill and force a complete abandonment of one of the cornerstones of the new Trudeau government. In a few short years, events had completely changed the policy landscape, the possibilities and the options available to both government and the indigenous peoples.

The Hawthorne Report 

In October 1966, the first volume of the Hawthorne Report was published. Entitled A Survey of the Contemporary Indians of Canada, the report was the most comprehensive study to date of important aspects of the troubled relationship between Canada and the Indigenous people who occupied the land before the settlers arrived. One year before Canada’s centennial, such a study was long overdue, for the first time offering comprehensive data, substantial research and rigorous scholarship on an issue that was defined by conjecture, controversy and polarized opinion, not an adequate means of creating public policy at the best of times. 

The study was commissioned by Hon. Arthur Laing, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration in 1964. H.B. Hawthorne, an anthropologist at the University of British Columbia, and M.A.Tremblay, an anthropologist/sociologist from Laval University, were tasked with undertaking ‘a study of the social, educational and economic situation of the Indians of Canada and to offer recommendations where it appeared benefits might be gained’.(1) 

Arthur Laing was a senior member in the Cabinet of Lester Pearson at the time of the commissioning of the report. He later presided over a reorganization of department responsibilities and when the report was delivered two years later, he received it as Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, a position he held until July 1968. 

The ‘Indian problem’ had become a serious public issue bringing attention to a public disgrace, a stain on Canada’s reputation and on the federal government’s failure to improve the lives of people specifically placed under its care. This marginalized population – less than 250,000 status Indians in 1969 – and the plight of Canada’s indigenous peoples moved onto the public agenda, hotly debated. (2)

Canadians became deeply critical of the treatment of Indigenous peoples and, in advance of the 1967 centennial, the federal government was pushed to do something about the deplorable conditions. A study in 1963 showed that per capita income of Indigenous peoples was half of that of other Canadians, that one third of indigenous people were on public assistance versus just three percent of Canadians, and shockingly that, if one included deaths in the first year, the average Indigenous male lived to only 35 years of age and the average indigenous female lived to only 34 years of age, compared to national averages of men (64) and women (60).(3)

The Hawthorn study was the first major attempt by Canada to study the issue, gather serious data, analyze the reasons behind these horrendous gaps and recommend solutions – to show government resolve in dealing with the problems faced by Canada’s indigenous peoples and finding solutions. 

The research findings that were announced in 1966 were clear, stark and beyond dispute; Indians in the mid-sixties were, as the report called it, Citizens Minus. The goal of assimilation had failed not the least because there was a long record of neglect, of the federal government treating Indians as less than Canadians; present policies offered little hope for the future.(4)  

Hawthorn chose a bold and proactive approach; “to review the arguments establishing the right of Indians to be citizens plus, and to spell out some of the ways in which this status can be given practical meaning. The argument presents facts and legal and political decisions leading to the conclusion that the right derives from promises made to them, from expectations they were encouraged to hold, and from the simple fact that they once occupied and used a country to which others came to gain enormous wealth in which Indians have shared little.”(5) 

The report is remembered mostly for this comprehensive research and for its startling recommendation – Indigenous people should be considered Citizens Plus. It was a memorable statement; for the first time, a government commissioned report backed up by authoritative and comprehensive research from establishment academics declared that Canada’s indigenous peoples should be seen as Citizens Plus, worthy of more rights/benefits/services/privileges of Canadian citizenship than non-Indigenous Canadians. 

The Commission findings were startling. Part one of the Report focused on economic development, trying to discern why Canada’s indigenous communities had fallen so far behind the rest of Canada, and subsequently, what might be done to close the gap. Part two focused on education and local government was released in 1969, much too late to have any impact on the new Trudeau Government and its policy review. Inconsistent leadership also impaired the report’s chances of success; from 1963 when the commission was initiated to 1969 when the final report was released, the department had been led by seven ministers, leaving it orphaned without a committed, knowledgeable sponsor and champion.(6) 

Using a sample of representative bands across Canada, the researchers found that Indigenous people earned less than one-quarter of Canadians, resulting from rampant underemployment and unemployment. The gap was even wider when researchers took into account that about one-third of Indigenous income came from publicly funded subsidies such as welfare, unemployment insurance, family allowances and funds from bands themselves.(7)

Researchers looked at the level of education of Indians. One of many findings is startling; the number of students who had achieved a grade ten level of education was less than 5% on all reserves surveyed, fewer than 5% were still in school at the age of 16. This lack of education, exacerbated by the major problems of isolation, small reserves, federal underfunding of education on and off reserve and reliance on the residential school system was an appalling failure of both policy and administration.(8) This was a direct condemnation of the Indian Affairs branch programs to provide on-reserve education to Indians and of the contracted-out education provided by church operated residential schools. As further proof of the failure of the federal government’s provision of education, in another study in 1969, only 800 Indigenous students were enrolled in post-secondary education, further reinforcing Hawthorn’s observations documenting the failure of education support for Indigenous peoples. (8)  

The Commission pointed a finger directly at the Federal Government for its dereliction of responsibilities. The Indian Affairs branch was inadequately funded and staffed, programs were haphazard and badly managed, and the staff were seen as impediments to advancing the cause of Indigenous peoples. The report strongly recommended a transformation of the Indian Affairs branch: “should act as a national conscience to see that social and economic equality is achieved between Indians and Whites. This role includes the persistent advocacy of Indian needs, the persistent exposure of shortcomings in the governmental treatment that Indians receive, and persistent removal of ethnic tensions between Indians and Whites.”(9) 

The plight of reserve-based Indians was made worse by the fact that provincial governments generally viewed all Indians as wards of the federal government, people they did not have any obligation to serve. The federal government helped jointly fund new provincial programs but did not provide commensurate funding to the Indian Affairs branch to ensure such services of the same value and quality were made available to indigenous peoples. Hawthorn noted the lack of any capacity or interest by staff to bridge this gap or seek to engage the provincial governments to provide services. Provincial governments did not extend any of the growing number of new modern provincial services to Indians, further widening the gap on all levels of health, education and social services.(10) 

A further challenge for all was the wide diversity of the state of economic well-being of individual bands across Canada; some larger urban-adjacent bands were doing well, some bands were more generously endowed with resources for harvesting and commercial sale of natural resources which provided employment and band income. Most bands were, by design when they were set, remote, desolate, isolated and lacking any economic viability. When treaties were signed, the lands chosen for reserves were the leftovers; isolated reserves on marginal land and in isolated areas away from towns and cities – doomed to failure. 

There was the challenge of band governance. Much of the research on band governance dealt with the role of the Indian Agent, the role of the band council, an artificial governance system that ignored traditional band governance. It simply wasn’t working for the members of the band.

A final challenge that was not addressed by Hawthorn was the issue of land claims. Outside its mandate, the Hawthorn Commission did not engage in the complex issue of land claims for areas where no treaty had been signed, nor did it engage in any analysis of whether the federal government had lived up to its obligations, even though the issue overshadowed every aspect of the relationship between Canada and indigenous peoples. 

The Report offered 91 recommendations for the federal government to begin to right the many wrongs that had been inflicted on the Indigenous community under its responsibility.(11)

The concept of Citizens Plus was an important contribution of the Hawthorn report to the conversation. Popularizing and legitimizing the idea of Citizens Plus, the report, its intellectual rigour, the extensive research results and the innovative perspective for changes put forward – offered creative options for a more positive and productive relationship among Canada’s indigenous communities and the people of Canada. 

Hawthorn’s report rejected the policy of assimilation, the cornerstone of Canadian government policy for a century: “The research group do not think that the Indian should be required to assimilate, neither in order to receive what he now needs nor at any future time’ (12).

The report was quickly forgotten, superseded by events bigger than the issue of Indigenous peoples. Lester Pearson, the Liberal Prime Minister, announced his intention to retire in December 1967, setting a leadership vote for spring 1968. The leadership question consumed the governing Liberal Party and all policy deliberations and decisions were put on hold, especially contentious ones. 

In April 1968, Pierre Trudeau, the Liberal Justice Minister and a relative newcomer to Federal politics, was elected Leader and Prime Minister. He quickly called an election and was rewarded with a majority government in late June, 1968. In the span of less than two years, a new leader, an election, a new government and a new Cabinet transformed the whole framework of Liberal government and its policy in many controversial areas. 

The White Paper

The Hawthorn report was lost in these bigger events. Trudeau was by training and inclination a constitutional lawyer, he was well read in the philosophical issues surrounding the tensions between individual rights and collective responsibilities, the core issue of political governance. He had successfully campaigned on ‘The Just Society’, the cornerstone of which was his conception that all Canadians should be individuals and treated as equals; his personal philosophy of ‘reason over passion’ became the intellectual anchors of his government.

The largest challenge to Trudeau’s view was the rising sentiment for a separate Quebec based on its unique language and culture. Indians, identified as Citizens Plus, would become another attempt to define a separate and distinct entity. Their cause became caught up in that greater battle of Francophones in Quebec who wanted to be distinct.(13) 

Inexplicably, in the formation of his cabinet, Trudeau put two ministers in charge of creating a new federal policy for Indians, Jean Chretien and Robert Andras. They immediately set to work to develop a new policy towards Indigenous peoples in Canada with extensive consultations that culminated in a major conference with Indigenous leaders in late April and early May 1969. 

The policies emerging in the White Paper had been the culmination of an extensive debate and policy decisions, deliberations separated from the public consultations and confined to a select few within the federal government: “…developed within the upper reaches of the federal government, under tight secrecy common to the policy making process. The policy makers were minister, their advisers and senior public servants, and although the policy making group included almost fifty people during the peak period, less than twenty played a major part in shaping the policy.”(14) 

The policy making process was further complicated by a new approach to policymaking in the Trudeau regime, by internal divisions within the Department, conflicts with the Privy Council office and the Prime Minister’s office. The imposition of this new complicated policy decision process developed by the new Trudeau government consisted of major consultations with a newly created cabinet committee system with which long time public servants were unfamiliar. The ministers, Chretien and Andras, were assigned overlapping and vague responsibilities for the consultative and policy making process and for managing the progress of the White Paper through the cabinet decision-making process. They developed strong and starkly different, often conflicting, views of the way forward, differences that were sometimes aired in public and caused confusion amongst all participants.(15) In the end, the result satisfied few.

Jean Chretien tabled the Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian Policy in the House of Commons on June 25, 1969. The core policy directions were summed up;

True equality presupposes that the Indian people have the right to full and

equal participation in the cultural, social, economic and political life of


The government believes that the framework within which individual Indians

and bands could achieve full participation requires:

1. that the legislative and constitutional bases of discrimination be


2 that there be positive recognition by everyone of the unique contribution

of Indian culture to Canadian life;

3. that services come through the same channels and from the same

government agencies for all Canadians;

4 that those who are furthest behind be helped most;

5. that lawful obligations be recognized; 

6 that control of Indian lands be transferred to the Indian people.

The Government would be prepared to take the following steps to create

this framework:

1. Propose to Parliament that the Indian Act be repealed and take such

legislative steps as may be necessary to enable Indians to control Indian

lands and to acquire title to them.

2. Propose to the governments of the provinces that they take over the

same responsibility for Indians that they have for other citizens in their

provinces. The take-over would be accompanied by the transfer to the

provinces of federal funds normally provided for Indian programs,

augmented as may be necessary.

3. Make substantial funds available for Indian economic development as an

interim measure.

4. Wind up that part of the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern

Development which deals with Indian Affairs. The residual responsibilities

of the Federal Government for programs in the field of Indian affairs would

be transferred to other appropriate federal departments.

In addition, the Government will appoint a Commissioner to consult with the

Indians and to study and recommend acceptable procedures for the

adjudication of claims. (16)

The Minister ended his speech by offering a rosy picture of the future and extending the smallest of olive branches – an expressed willingness to respond to offers of cooperation from Indians and the provinces:

The new policy looks to a better future for all Indian people wherever they

may be. The measures for implementation are straightforward. They

require discussion, consultation and negotiation with the Indian people 

individuals, bands and associations and with provincial governments.

Success will depend upon the co-operation and assistance of the Indians

and the provinces. The Government seeks this cooperation and will respond      when it is offered. (17)

The White paper was an audacious attempt to achieve full, complete and final assimilation of Canada’s indigenous peoples and to end forever any special relationship between the indigenous people of Canada and the Canadian Government. Citizens Minus was the reality, Citizens Plus was the discarded Hawthorn dream, assimilation was the way forward. The goal was to ensure that indigenous people were equal, no positive or negative discrimination allowed; no distinctions, no deviations: “This Government believes in equality. It believes that all men and women have equal rights. It is determined that all shall be treated fairly and that no one shall be shut out of Canadian life, and especially that no one shall be shut out because of his race.” (18)

The Prime Minster was blunt in his defence of his Just Society principle and its manifestation in the White Paper. In a speech in August in Vancouver, just a few months after the White paper had been tabled, he made the government’s position crystal clear:

 “…we’re at a crossroads, we can go on treating the Indians as having a special status; we can go on adding bricks of discrimination around the ghetto in which they live and, at the same time, perhaps helping them preserve certain cultural traits and certain ancestral rights or we can say: “You’re at a crossroads, the time is now to decide whether the Indians will be a race apart in Canada or whether they will be Canadians of full status.”

….a group of Canadians with which we have treaties, a group of Canadians who have, as many of them claim, aboriginal rights; or whether we will say forget the past and begin today.….this is a tremendously difficult choice because if one of the things the Indian bands very often refer to are their aboriginal rights and In our policy the way we propose it we won’t recognize aboriginal rights. 

….We will recognize treaty rights, we will recognize forms of contract which have been made with the Indian people by the Crown. And we will try to bring justice in that area. And this will mean that perhaps they shouldn’t go on forever. 

…..It’s inconceivable I think for one section of the society to have a treaty with the other section of the society. We must be all equal under the law and we must not sign treaties amongst ourselves and many of these treaties indeed would have less and less significance in the future anyhow. 

….They should become Canadians as all other Canadians…whether they be Indians or English Canadians or French Canadians or Maritimers and this is the only basis on which I see our society can develop as equals. But aboriginal rights this really means saying we were here before you, you came and you took the land from us and perhaps you cheated us by giving us some worthless things in return for vast expanses of land. And we want to re-open this question. We want you to preserve our aboriginal rights and to restore them to us. Our answer may not be the right one and may not be one which is accepted but it will be up to all of you people to make your minds up and to choose for or against it and to discuss it with the Indians. Our answer is no. We can’t recognize aboriginal rights because no society can be built, on historical “might-have-beens”. (19)

He went out of his way to trivialize the treaties reducing them to a dispute over unpaid bills for twine and gunpowder: 

“… things that in the past that were covered by the treaties like – things like so much twine or so much gunpowder and which haven’t been paid, this must be paid. But I don’t think that we should encourage the Indians to feel that their treaties should last forever within Canada so that they’ll be able to receive their twine and their gunpowder.” (20)

The position of the Trudeau government could not have been more clearly expressed, there was no ambiguity, no flowery phrases, no vacuous gestures. There would be no serious debate, the answer was NO. The Prime Minister had clearly, publicly and unequivocally endorsed the White Paper. 

Resistance and The Red Paper

When, in June 1969, Indian Affairs and Northern Development Minister Chretien unveiled the White Paper, it became immediately evident that the ‘consultations’ in the previous year and the significant final meeting in late April were more for performance than substance. The direction of the White Paper had been decided months earlier in Cabinet, final details were being negotiated in secret by Ottawa officials. The White Paper was starkly different, almost eerily contrary in every respect, from the policy and program suggestions of the Indigenous leaders.(21) Indigenous political leaders were rebuffed, their recommendations and the recommendations of the Hawthorn Report were ignored by the White Paper. Consultation was seen by Indigenous leadership as another cynical fraud.

The drafters of the White Paper had anticipated the expected negative reaction and treated it as a communications issue, they were surprised by the vehemence of the response.(22) Reaction to the White Paper and the dismissal of every Indigenous recommendation was swift, vocal and furiously negative.

Harold Cardinal, the head of the Indian Association of Alberta was amongst the most critical. In less than a year, the Indian Chiefs of Alberta released a rebuttal, Citizens Plus, popularly known as the Red Paper, offering their view of the White Paper and another proposal for creating a new relationship with Canada.

The Red Paper was endorsed and adopted by the National Indian Brotherhood presented to the federal government on June 3, 1970 and presented to the federal Cabinet at a public meeting the next day. It was an historic event, the culmination of a coming together of many diverse and fledgling Indigenous political organizations and their neophyte leaders to confront the most powerful Canadian elected leaders – people exercising direct control over every aspect of their lives: “it was an affirmation of faith in their Indian identity. After a century of being engulfed by a white tidal wave, they were still here, they were still different, and they were not about to themselves be pushed into oblivion.”(23)

Cardinal, a key author of the Paper also published a scathing reply to Trudeau’s cavalier dismissal of Indigenous claims. His book, The Unjust Society, was a passionate rebuttal, not just to the White Paper but to the Trudeau vision of a Just society as it was inflicted upon Indigenous peoples and the whole history of government disregard for Indigenous peoples. He described the White Paper and the new policy direction of the Trudeau Government as cultural genocide: “a thinly disguised programme of extermination through assimilation.”(24)

Cardinal affirmed the desire of the Indigenous peoples of Canada to be proud members of Canadian society. He often said he wanted Canada’s indigenous peoples to be a ‘red tile in the Canadian mosaic’: “always I find that as Indian people, we share hopes for a better Canada, a better future and a better deal. We share hopes the Canadian society will accept us as we are and listen to what we have to say.”(25) 

Alan Cairns noted two major themes of the controversy over the White Paper. First, the White Paper ignored and rejected all the recommendations made by Indigenous organizations in extensive consultations leaving an overwhelming feeling of distrust by Indigenous leaders. Second, the Prime Minister was completely involved, playing a leading role and further accentuating the enormous stakes involved. There was little hope for Indigenous leaders to press for change, especially given that he was so intimately involved with the creation of the policy embodied in the White Paper and had so publicly supported it: “Trudeau reported that he had spent more time on Indian policy than on any other issue in his first year in office.” (26)

The defeat of the White Paper

The most obvious unintended consequence of the White Paper, was how it galvanized the nascent Indigenous leadership and created a solidarity that had ever existed before.(27) Public meetings to explain the policy to indigenous groups across the country became heated and confrontational. It wasn’t just the Indigenous leadership that rejected the White Paper, several provincial governments expressed concern about accepting new responsibilities and the attendant costs to expanded programs.  The opposition spilled over into the media and, by the time Parliament began to debate the issue, reservations and criticisms were mounting. Through the fall of 1969 opposition grew, the articulation of opposition was coalescing. The Red Paper was released in 1970. Other provincial Indian organizations, especially Manitoba and British Columbia waded into the fray; in June 1970, the National Indian Brotherhood, in a meeting with the Prime Minister and his Cabinet in Ottawa on June 4, 1970, publicly rejected the The White Paper and ceremoniously replaced it with the Red Paper

Prime Minister Trudeau responded; in impromptu comments he opened the door that he had closed so firmly less than a year previously. He acknowledged that he may have been naive, may have had ‘the prejudices of small ‘l’ liberals and white men at that who thought that equality meant the same law for everybody’. He also made it clear that the White Paper and all it represented would not be forced upon the Indigenous peoples ‘We won’t force any solution on you, because we are not looking for any solution’.(28)

Trudeau’s statement was followed up by a statement by Minister Jean Chretien in the spring of 1971 in a speech at Queen’s University; ‘ the government does not intend to force progress along the directions set out in the policy proposals of June 1969. The future direction will be that which emerges in meetings between Government and Indian representatives and people’.(29)  

The White Paper was quietly withdrawn in 1971 after Chretien’s speech.  Pierre Trudeau was said to have remarked: “We’ll keep them in the ghetto as long as they want.”(30)

The Courts become players – Drybones and Calder. 

The courts over the years had not played a major role in shaping the relationship between the federal Government and Indigenous people. If anything, their impact added to the repression of Indigenous peoples. One of the reasons for this “was an amendment to the Indian Act in 1927 that made it an offence for Indians to raise money for the purpose of suing in the courts to establish Aboriginal title to their land. This provision of the Indian Act remained in force until 1951.”(31)

While the controversy over the White Paper and the assimilationist policy it advocated was playing out in the public domain, the courts were engaged in a similar but more sedate looking judicial controversy. In April 1967, Joseph Drybones was apprehended for drunkenness in a public place and charged under the Indian Act which had extensive prohibitions against alcohol purchase, consumption and behaviour for Indians. These prohibitions were different from those for Canadians under the Criminal code. The court was asked to decide if prosecuting Drybones under the Indian Act violated his rights under the Canadian Bill of Rights which protected his right to equality before the law.

In June 1967, the NWT territorial court acquitted Drybones, in August the NWT court of Appeal affirmed the acquittal. In November 1969, the Supreme Court of Canada also affirmed the acquittal in a 6-3 decision. The SCC affirmed that the specific provisions of the Indian Act relating to alcohol prohibitions for Indians were discriminatory and therefore inoperative because they violated sections of the Canadian Bill of Rights and therefore discriminated against Indians because of their race.(32) The court did not widen their decision to include other provisions of the Indian Act but the implications for further challenges were clear. For lawmakers, a significant section of the Indian act was now stricken from the Act as “inoperative”; the obvious question was how many other pieces of the Indian Act might now be subject to judicial review under the Canadian Bill of Rights and, indeed, whether the whole Indian Act would be declared inoperative – null and void – for conflicting with The Canadian Bill of Rights.

Such issues must have been on the minds of the Trudeau cabinet, particularly given Prime Minister Trudeau’s long career as a constitutional scholar and former minister of Justice. In that context, the White Paper recommendations aligned with the Drybones decision, the Supreme Court of Canada had clearly indicated that all Canadians should be treated equally before the law – The Canadian Bill of Rights. The White Paper sought to do just that. 

Another important legal case, the Calder case, was winding its way through the court system. The Nisga’a nation had a long history of seeking affirmation of its aboriginal title and rights to traditional Nisga’a territory. 

In 1969, Frank Calder brought an action against the province of British Columbia to affirm the rights and title of the Nisga’a. After defeats in BC provincial court and on appeal to the BC court of Appeal, Calder applied to the Supreme Court of Canada in a final appeal. The case was heard in November of 1971. While the decision on whether the Nisga’a had title to their lands by right of their indigenous occupation before settlers arrived, was not announced until January, 1973, the unresolved issue was a dark cloud looming over the federal government, particularly given the White Paper and Trudeau’s dismissal of aboriginal claims in areas where claims had not been settled by treaty and his cavalier treatment of claims in treaty areas as flights over ‘twine and gunpowder’.(33)

While the direction the courts would take on various disputes between indigenous groups over their various conflict was uncertain, one thing was certain, the courts had become pivotal players in adjudicating issues related to Indigenous peoples. The federal government had been shown, by both the Indigenous peoples and now by the courts, that it could not act unilaterally in making policy that impacted Indigenous peoples. 


The five years from 1966 to 1971 were tumultuous and surprising, given the previous 100 years of dominance and servitude. After half a century, it is possible to make a few preliminary observations about these pivotal events. 

First, the fundamental research gathered by the Hawthorn report provided a basis for all much that happened. Arthur Laing initiated a serious study, albeit by mainstream white academics. Validated by the rational, academic, intellectual process, the results were irrefutable. Hawthorn had taken the discussion of the ‘Indian problem’ out of the context of opinion and moved it into the more measured and rational discussion of cause/effect, options, measurable results, and scientific rationality. 

Second, whether by design of by luck, the Hawthorn report created an instantly understandable trope. Canada’s indigenous peoples were told they were Citizens Minus and they deserved to be Citizens Plus. That was an easy concept for both Indigenous and ordinary Canadians to grasp. It appealed to people who had no idea what circumstances were like on reserves, no interaction with one percent of the population that had been mostly confined to reserves, people who had mostly been defined by Hollywood. 

Third, by expanding the discussion to the notion of Citizens Plus, Hawthorn opened the door for the emerging Indigenous leadership to think bigger, to not just ask for adherence to treaties and promises but to demand more, to demand a rightful place in Canadian society that recognized their uniqueness as first nations. Harold Cardinal and the Indian Association of Alberta paid homage to Hawthorn by titling the Red Paper ‘Citizens Plus’. 

Fourth, the White Paper accelerated the growth to full maturity of the small Indigenous leadership cadre, a process achieved almost overnight without the long, evolutionary growth pains usually associated with such processes. It also facilitated cohesion and solidarity; in the face of such an overwhelming and stark threat to their survival posed by the White Paper and Trudeau’s unequivocal ultimatums, petty differences amongst individual Indigenous organizations faded to insignificance. Within a year, the Red Paper, a compelling, logical and forceful denunciation of the White Paper. a thoughtful policy option to replace it, was endorsed by the National Indian Brotherhood, a monumental achievement for such a young organization.

The fight over the White Paper, coming immediately after the celebration of Canada’s centennial and in such stark contrast to the celebration of a century of  lofty achievements, brought the plight of Indigenous peoples out of the shadows and into the public square. Canadians, unfamiliar with the long history of subjugation and neglect, were profoundly shocked to be shown the appalling statistics that defined the life of Canada’s Indigenous peoples. It stood in stark contrast to the smug image of Canada promoted during the centennial celebrations. Public pressure profoundly affected the federal government. It was so contrary to Trudeau’s notion of a Just Society; Harold Cardinal captured the awful reality in his book, aptly and ironically named the Unjust Society. 

The defeat of the White Paper, the humiliating withdrawal of the centrepiece of the Trudeau government’s policy and the dawning realization by both Trudeau and Chretien that they had completely misunderstood the history of Canada’s aboriginal peoples – Indians, Metis and Inuit – was unprecedented. Trudeau had been personally involved in all stages of the policy development, he acknowledged such when he noted that he had spent more time on this issue than any other. A proud man, a constitutional lawyer, a philosopher, a thoughtful intellectual, he had been found wanting and had to admit as much in his discussion with the National Indian Brotherhood in Ottawa in June 1970. He was not used to being wrong, or being so publicly exposed for being wrong.

The withdrawal of the White Paper was the final nail in the intellectual coffin of assimilation. While that didn’t end the discrimination, the attempt to make “good little brown white men”, it opened the doors to a complete rethinking of Canada’s relationship with the Indigenous peoples. It gave Canada’s indigenous people hope, power and a bigger vision. Resistance had paid off. Resistance was fertile. A new relationship was possible, the door was open to new opportunities.  


Yet, 50 years later, even with all the progress made, the life of an Indigenous person is still starkly different from that of the ordinary Canadian. Indigenous people in Canada are still Citizens Minus.

Harry Slade, BC’s Indian Claims Commissioner outlined the yawning gap:

  • First Nations, Metis and Inuit youth make up 52% of all foster children under 14 in Canada, yet the represent only 5% of Canada’s youth.
  • Indigenous men and women represent 5% of Canada’s adult population, yet 28% of all male incarcerations are Indigenous men, 43% are indigenous women.
  • In Saskatchewan 92% of the male youth and 98% of the female youth in custody are Indigenous. Across Canada, Indigenous youth in custody are 46% but only 5% of the general population.
  • Almost two thirds of food bank users are Indigenous. Again, disproportionate to their size in the Canadian population.
  • One quarter of children in First Nations communities live in poverty. 
  • Suicide rates among First Nations youth are 5 to 7 times higher than national averages. 
  • Tuberculosis rates in Indigenous communities are 34 times higher than the national average.

The statistics on housing, clean water, general health, education attainment levels are all equally alarming.

Almost 50 years ago, the Hawthorn report published equally alarming statistics. Little has changed where it truly matters, in Indigenous peoples daily lives. The health and well being of Canada’s indigenous peoples and prospects for a promising future for their children are still dismal. 

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3 Responses to Resistance and Assimilation

  1. Elaine says:

    Excellent paper, Bob. Your perspective is particularly valuable given your experience in the department way back when. Reconciliation is a long road – we as a country are getting there. Keep it up Canada and Indigenous peoples.

  2. suzy venuta says:

    Thank you so much for this Bob. This has given me lots to think about and mill over- food for thought as they say. I know what you have written will stay in my mind and heart, and that is a gift. Thank you.

  3. Graeme says:

    Hello Bob: This truly a very illuminating piece for this little grey-haired immigrant. T’is a subject I’ve really only been on the fringe of and though I have tried through the years and through my career to understand I remain quite baffled.

    As a journalist, newspaper editor and publisher I worked in the northern communities, avoided politics (I was a newcomer) and failed to really understand the plight of the indigenous population. I visited the reserves, I reported on events, I made friends and so on. At Mobil, I worked with our landmen/women and supported their efforts in native communities and so forth.

    Thanks for your work here. I remain dumbfounded and think that few really talk about this subject. We have the Truth and Reconcliaton Report, we have the unmarked graves, we have the Pope.

    Now what?

    Warm regards —Graeme


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