1969 White Paper on Indian Policy

Although the language of rights is a powerful tool for asserting demands for equality, it is contested, and people can sincerely disagree over the meaning of rights. This tension lay at the heart of one of the most famous events in Canada’s Aboriginal-state relations: the White Paper of 1969. Introduced by the federal government, the White Paper proposed to eliminate Indian status: “The policies proposed recognize the simple reality that the separate legal status of Indians and the policies which have flowed from it have kept the Indian people apart from and behind other Canadians. The Indian people have not been full citizens of the communities and provinces in which they live and have not enjoyed the equality and benefits that such participation offers.” Under the terms of the White Paper, the government planned to surrender its responsibility for Aboriginals to the provinces, repeal the Indian Act, and transfer control of lands to individual Aboriginals.

But its policy was fundamentally flawed: it ignored more than a century of discrimination and handicaps that the state itself had imposed on Aboriginal people. As Peter Russell explains in “Colonization of Indigenous Peoples,”

“Full and equal access for individuals of aboriginal descent to the democratic rights and economic opportunities of the mainstream society – the integrationist approach – was not something to be spurned. This approach, however, held the promise of being part of a postcolonial relationship only if it could be combined with an autonomist approach recognizing the collective right of Aboriginal peoples to survive and develop as distinct, self-governing communities on or in connection with traditional lands and waters … The inadequacy of the liberal, civil-rights approach as the basis for reaching a consensual accommodation with Aboriginal peoples became crystal clear in Canada in 1969.”

Moreover, Ottawa’s approach was profoundly assimilationist and a threat to Aboriginal collective rights. Individual ownership of land, for instance, would have undermined the collective ownership of Aboriginal groups.

The Indian Chiefs of Alberta was at the forefront of Aboriginal resistance to the White Paper. In 1970, it published Citizens Plus (also called the Red Paper), a powerful critique in which it argued that Ottawa’s new policy “offers despair instead of hope” and would condemn future generations of Aboriginal people “to the despair and ugly specter of urban poverty in ghettos.” Citizens Plus played a major role in the government’s decision to retract the White Paper.

The White Paper versus Red Paper dispute contributed to the mobilization of the contemporary Aboriginal rights movement. Four national Aboriginal associations and thirty-three separate provincial organizations emerged in the aftermath of the controversy. Many of these groups were pioneers in organizing Aboriginals beyond the local level for the first time. The Alberta Native Federation, Alberta Native Youth Society, Treaty Voice of Alberta, and the Native Human Rights Association alone were formed between 1968 and 1972. Indian friendship centres multiplied across the province and the country. Essential to this Aboriginal activism was “the expansion of the term ‘aboriginal rights,’ which by 1981 had been revised from its original focus on land rights to include the rights to self-government.” [Long, “Culture, Ideology, and Militancy”]

A key figure in this vibrant new social movement was Harold Cardinal, who was elected chief of the Indian Association of Alberta in 1968 and was later instrumental in creating the National Indian Brotherhood (known today as the Assembly of First Nations). His best-selling 1970 book Unjust Society helped articulate the grievances of Aboriginals and offered a vision for the future. The White Paper, he wrote, was a tool for “cultural genocide.” Cardinal decried Aboriginals’ poor living conditions, lack of educational opportunities, and constant unemployment. He wrote eloquently of an uncaring government, language barriers, bigotry, ignorance, and a cruel double standard on issues such as alcohol: “Let a white man get drunk and miss a day of work … his boss may fire him, but he gets another white man for the job … If the Indian misses a day, the entire race is condemned and categorized as no good; the next worker hired is not likely to be an Indian.”

  • Campbell, Lara, Dominique Clément, and Greg Kealey, eds. Debating Dissent: Canada and the Sixties. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011.
  • Canada. Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian Policy. 1969.
  • Cardinal, Harold. The Unjust Society. Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 1999.
  • Long, David “Culture, Ideology, and Militancy: The Movement of Native Indians in Canada, 1969-91,” In Organizing Dissent: Contemporary Social Movements in Theory and in Practice, ed. W. K. Carroll, 151-70. Toronto: Garamond Press, 1997.
  • Ramos, Howard. “Aboriginal Protest.” In Social Movements, ed. Suzanne Staggenborg, 55-70. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Ramos, Howard. “What Causes Canadian Aboriginal Protest? Examining Resources, Opportunities and Identity, 1951–2000.” Canadian Journal of Sociology 31, 2 (2006): 211-35.
  • Russell, Peter. “Colonization of Indigenous Peoples: The Movement toward New Relationships.” In Parties Long Estranged: Canada and Australia in the Twentieth Century, ed. Margaret MacMillan and Francie McKenzie, 62-95. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2003.

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