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White Paper: Pierre Trudeau's biggest indigenous scandal, swept under the rug

In light of the Liberals' silence as the statues of historic Canadian figures are taken down amid allegations of indigenous oppression, it is perhaps important to note that our incumbent Prime Minister's father wasn't exactly the paragon of indigenous reconciliation himself.

To that end, let's discuss the 1969 White Paper (officially known as the Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian Policy), which was presented to Parliament by the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs , Jean Chrétien (who later became Prime Minister himself) , and by Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau , who had just recently succeeded Pearson. The purpose of this piece of legislation was to eliminate "Indian status" and to render members of the First Nations ordinary Canadian citizens. Beyond this, it also sought to bring the First Nations under the purview of provincial government responsibility, while simultaneously converting the lands of Indian reserves into the private property of bands or their members.

How was this to be accomplished? Simply - by rescinding the Indian Act and all treaties made with First Nations. Shortly after Trudeau's slogan of creating a "Just Society" (which he campaigned on and won in 1968), a CBC television documentary was aired about life on reservations in northern Saskatchewan. The documentary linked the extreme levels of poverty to the Deep South of the United States, labelling it the "Mississippi of Canada" to prompt change on the issue. This calling-to-action first spurred action. To create a Just Society - one where all Canadians would theoretically be equal by elevating abstract individual rights over collective rights (as per Trudeau's philosophy), past injustices would be redressed. Trudeau applied the same perspective to the demands of the Quebec nationalists, opposing them on that similar basis.

The notion that Canada was not a place for one set of rules for some people and another set for others fit well for a unified country of English and French side-by-side, Trudeau argued - so should it equally apply to Canada's indigenous population.

Consequently, 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.”

The document was met with immediate backlash. Harold Cardinal, a young Cree leader from Alberta who rose to national prominence by opposing the White Paper, condemned it succinctly:

"The Indian has reached the end of an era.
The things that we hold sacred, the things that we believe in have been repudiated by the federal government.
But we will not be silenced again, left behind to be absorbed conveniently into the wretched fringes of a society that institutionalizes wretchedness.
The Buckskin Curtain is coming down."

Much like the "Iron Curtain" that divided the communist states of Eastern Europe from the states of Western Europe, Cardinal posited that Canada had acted similarly with its First Nations peoples by the Indian Act and that the White Paper was an attempt to finish the job.

Calling the programme a thinly disguised plot of extermination-through-assimilation, Cardinal added that "The history of Canada is a shameful chronicle of the white man’s disinterest, his deliberate trampling of Indian rights and his repeated betrayal of our trust. Generations of Indians have grown up behind a buckskin curtain of indifference, ignorance and, all too often, plain bigotry. 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."

Cardinal was made into a symbol of indigenous Canada almost overnight. Writing the “The Unjust Society” in response to the Prime Minister's plan and calling for changes in government policy that would allow Aboriginal people to become full participants in Canadian society without having to give up their culture or treaty rights, he subsequently helped produce "Citizens Plus" in 1970, which countered the contents of the Trudeau government's White Paper. It famously stated: "There is nothing more important than our treaties, our lands and the well-being of our future generations."

The Liberals, meanwhile, continued to plummet in the eyes of indigenous Canadians. When one First Nations woman asking Chrétien "When did we lose our identity?", he replied, "When you signed the treaties." The response led to him being booed. A similar incident occurred when an Iroquois woman asked Chrétien, "How can you come here and ask us to become citizens, when we were here long before you?" Unable to adequately respond, Chrétien and Trudeau faced allegations of cultural genocide. Indeed, Cardinal himself called the assumptions of the White Paper "cultural genocide" and argued that Trudeau and Chrétien had changed the traditional American slogan for dealing with indigenous people from "the only good Indian is a dead Indian" to "the only good Indian is a non-Indian."

Unable to continue on, the White Paper was withdrawn in 1970, but not before Trudeau angrily delivered the famous phrase: “We’ll keep them in the ghetto as long as they want.”

Given this knowledge, if we condemn Macdonald and Ryerson, take down the statues of Queen Victoria, Captain Cook, Queen Elizabeth II and other figures that allegedly represent colonialism, what's the excuse for Trudeau Sr. and Chrétien, whose thinking was equally rooted in the cultural beliefs (however wrong they might have been) of the era?

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