The North American Experience

By The International Labour Organization
A brief history: Canada Cont.

The legal status and political influence of indigenous peoples in Canada underwent a significant transformation beginning in 1960. This was the first year that all indigenous peoples in southern Canada were legally eligible to vote in national elections; indigenous peoples in the Canadian Arctic won that right two years later. (Note 4) Canadian leaders meanwhile focused national attention on the development of the north, and several enormous mining and hydroelectric projects were planned in areas inhabited by indigenous peoples, but not covered by any treaty. In 1969, the Federal government announced its intention of eliminating the special legal status of indigenous peoples, including rights based on treaties and millenary possession of traditional lands. Indigenous leaders organized nationwide protests, forcing the Federal government to withdraw its policy statement.

In 1973, the Supreme Court of Canada acted on a land claim by the Nisga people of British Columbia. Half the judges thought that the Nisga had legally-enforceable rights to their traditional lands, which they had never agreed to sell. The other judges argued that the Nisga had lost their land rights when Canadian officials authorized settlers to build homes in the territory a century earlier. Federal government officials were surprised that the supreme court came one vote short of upholding millenary rights to land, and, rather than await the outcome of further court tests, offered to negotiate the settlement of claims by indigenous peoples.

The fallowing year, another court decision forced the government of Canada into its first major negotiated land claims settlement. The regional (“Provincial”) government of Quebec had begun construction of a hydroelectric complex at James Bay, in a territory still occupied and used by several indigenous Cree-speaking communities. The Crees were able to convince a Provincial court judge to order a halt to the work, based on their claim of millenary rights. Although the judge’s order was quickly overturned by a higher Provincial court, both the Province and the Federal government realized that there were risks in ignoring the Crees, and agreed to negotiate with them.

The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement was the first of five major land claims agreements to be made with the indigenous peoples of northern Canada between 1975 and 1993, and it set the pattern for all the others. Often referred to as “modern treaties”, these agreements set aside roughly 18% of northern Canada for the exclusive use of indigenous peoples, as well as mineral rights to about 3% of the total region. They include arrangements for local self-government and co-management of wildlife and fisheries by indigenous peoples. It was also agreed that Nanuvut, the northernmost part of Canada, will become a separate Province in 1999. Although the Province of Nanuvut will have a non-racial government, indigenous people will make up more than four-fifths of its population, and therefore control the elected legislature.

Next page in history Native index