The North American Experience

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

While these northern negotiations were underway, the Federal and Provincial governments were themselves negotiating terms for the final legal separation of Canada from the United Kingdom. Amendments to the national constitution, including for the first time a chapter on human rights, were sent to London for approval by the British government in 1980. In drafting these amendments, Canadian leaders were preoccupied with meeting the concerns of Canada’s Francophone minority society in Quebec, but indigenous peoples launched a nationwide campaign to have their rights included as well. Indigenous leaders eventually spent a year in London, and convinced British parliamentarians to delay their approval of the new Canadian constitutions until it included a specific provision on indigenous peoples. Last-minute negotiations between Federal and Provincial governments and indigenous leaders produced the text which is now contained in section 35 of the Constitution Act 1982 – “the existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed”.

Part of the constitutional agreement with indigenous leaders was a commitment to negotiate further constitutional amendments clarifying the meaning of section 35. Federal, Provincial and indigenous leaders met several times between 1983 and 1987 without reaching an agreement. Federal and Provincial leaders then made a separate agreement to give greater autonomy to Quebec (the “Meech Lake Accord”). To become part of the constitution, this would have required the approval of all ten Provincial assemblies. Indigenous leaders worked to defeat the Accord and one of them, an elected member of the assembly for the Province of Manitoba, finally succeeded in blocking its approval by that Province. While this embittered relations between indigenous peoples and Quebec, it publicly demonstrated indigenous peoples’ growing political power.

In August 1990, there was an armed confrontation between members of the Mohawk Nation and Quebec police, leading to the mobilization of the Canadian Army. Public support for the Mohawk helped persuade the Federal government to invite indigenous leaders to participate in the next round of Federal-Provincial constitutional negotiations. In 1992 a new package of constitutional proposals (the “Charlottetown Accord”) was agreed by Federal, Provincial, and indigenous leaders, which would have guaranteed internal autonomy and national-level representation to indigenous peoples. This time, the agreement was submitted to a national referendum rather than the Provincial assemblies. It was nonetheless defeated.

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