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Kelly McParland: Turning a blind eye to Pierre Trudeau's unseemly Indigenous assimilation plan

Macdonald's thinking was rooted in 19th century cultural mores. What was Trudeau’s excuse?


 There is almost exactly a century separating the governments of Sir John A. Macdonald and Pierre E. Trudeau, but not much difference in their approach to Indigenous issues.


 Trudeau’s “Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian Policy, 1969” didn’t propose separating Indigenous children from their parents and isolating them in schools where they could be abused by nuns and priests, but the strategy was the same: the best way to handle the Indian “problem” was to get rid of the idea of being “Indian” in the first place. Better to turn them into regular old Canadians like the rest of us. As Trudeau saw it, assimilation as a strategy was far from dead, it just needed updating.


by one of Trudeau’s ambitious young cabinet up-and-comers, Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development Jean Chrétien. It was a monumental disaster. You can date today’s activism to the backlash generated by Trudeau and Chrétien. It makes educational reading for anyone wondering why so little progress was made between 1867 and 1969 — or today for that matter — or who thinks carting off a few statues and renaming some schools is a solution to anything.


The view taken by Trudeau, he of the “Just Society” and later the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, was that “equality” meant everyone should be governed by the same laws. Canada was no place for one set of rules for some people, and another set for others. That concept might have fit well enough with Trudeau’s own ideas of Canada as a unified country of English and French, but it was anathema to an Indigenous population whose separate identity was fundamental to their concept of themselves.In the ringing tones favoured by governments then and now, the document declared:


“The policies proposed (by the White Paper) 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.


“The treatment resulting from their different status has been often worse, sometimes equal and occasionally better than that accorded to their fellow citizens. What matters is that it has been different.” 


Trudeau’s remedy was far-reaching. Indigenous people would lose their special status and be treated no different than other Canadians. Chrétien’s ministry would disappear, along with the Indian Act. Treaties would be eliminated and responsibility for Indian affairs would be shifted to the provinces, along with temporary financing that would eventually decline “as a matter of principle.”


Control of Indian lands would move to Indigenous communities, along with help and advice in seeing it was “properly developed.” Indigenous people would be brought into a closer working relationship with the business community, while Ottawa would  “encourage private employers to provide opportunities for the Indian people.”


The response was immediate, and beyond anything Trudeau and Chrétien could have imagined. Far from welcoming the elimination of special status, Indigenous leaders saw Ottawa’s plan as yet another attempt to destroy their culture. Harold Cardinal, then a young Cree leader from Alberta, condemned it as another in the injustices meted on Indigenous people by generations of federal leaders.


“Generations of Indians have grown up behind a buckskin curtain of indifference, ignorance and, all too often, plain bigotry,” he wrote. “Now, at a time when our fellow Canadians consider the promise of a Just Society, once more the Indians are betrayed by a programme which offers nothing better than cultural genocide.”


Far from atoning for the injustices of the past, he said, Trudeau’s plan represented a “thinly disguised programme of extermination through assimilation.” Cardinal swiftly rose to a position of importance in an increasingly organized program of resistance. In an extended rebuttal — titled Citizens Plus but popularly known as The Red Paper in terminology language police would certainly denounce today — he challenged its basic notions. Rather than crapping treaties, they should be recognized and honoured; instead of terminating the Indian Act it should be reformed, and Indigenous representation in cabinet made as permanent as that accorded Quebec or Atlantic Canada; the idea that Ottawa could unilaterally alter ownership of Indigenous lands fundamentally violated the view that the land already belonged to natives and was merely held in trust by federal authorities.


The proposals suffered as well from sharp internal contradictions. While its opening paragraphs declared that “To be an Indian is also to be different. It is to speak different languages, draw different pictures, tell different tales and to rely on a set of values,” it then proposed to eradicate that difference. Likewise, it seemed more than a little strange — and demeaning, that the prime minister — the great champion of a strong central government with a unified vision of Canada — was content to relegate native matters to 10 provinces with 10 ministers and 10 varying approaches.


Trudeau’s document was withdrawn a year later. Far from contrite, he delivered one of his patented insults: “We’ll keep them in the ghetto as long as they want,” he shrugged. If Sir John A. Macdonald is to be condemned, certainly Trudeau and Chrétien deserve no less, given they had an additional century of history and experience to draw on, and the knowledge, learning and insight that presumably entailed. Macdonald acted on the best advice available at the time, as did those who followed him. His thinking was rooted in 19th century cultural mores. What was Trudeau’s excuse?



Source: National Post

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