The Native People’s Caravan was a cross-country mobile protest that took place in 1974. Its main purpose was to raise awareness about the poor living conditions and discrimination experienced by Indigenous peoples in Canada. It travelled from Vancouver to Ottawa, where the subsequent occupation of a vacant warehouse on Victoria Island, near Parliament Hill, extended into 1975. The caravan brought various Indigenous groups together in protest of broken treaties, as well as a lack of government-supported education, housing and health care. As a result, meetings between Cabinet ministers and Indigenous leaders became more frequent. The protest is remembered as an important turning point in Indigenous activism in Canada.
Indigenous political activism came to prominence in the 20th century with organizations such as Native Brotherhood BC and work by activists such as Fred Loft (1861–1934). However, the late 1960s and early 1970s are generally considered to be the period when Indigenous activism captured public attention across North America. This is known as the Red Power Movement.
In 1969, the federal government released a document known as the White Paper, which proposed the unilateral termination of Indian Status. This would remove the Crown’s fiduciary responsibility to Status people, and terminate their various rights and exemptions, including reserve land holdings. The 1969 White Paper would have eradicated all legal frameworks for redress of Indigenous land taken by the federal government. It also would have prevented Indigenous control of education and undermined efforts toward language revitalization and reparation of other trauma caused by residential schools. Though the 1969 White Paper was eventually withdrawn, it became a catalyst for greater political activism among Indigenous peoples and organizations in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
For example, the occupation of Anicinabe Park in Kenora, Ontario, in 1974 and the road blockade in Cache Creek, British Columbia that same year brought attention to issues concerning Aboriginal title and traditional territories, as well as access to resources, education and better living conditions. Some Indigenous peoples in Canada also participated in the American Indian Movement (AIM) — a grassroots movement to address the systemic discrimination against Native Americans in the United States — in an effort to protect pan-Indigenous rights.
Native People’s Caravan
During this time of heightened political action, a group of Indigenous activists organized what would become known as the Native People’s Caravan. Louis Cameron (founder of the Ojibway Warriors Society of Kenora and leader of the occupation of Anicinabe Park), Chief Ken Basil of the Bonaparte First Nation in British Columbia (and a leader of the Cache Creek blockade), along with others, including Cree activists Vernon Harper and Pauline Shirt, played key roles in the creation of the caravan. The ultimate goal of the protest was to meet with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to deliver a manifesto on the state of Indigenous lives in Canada.
At the time, Harper identified as a Marxist, as did several Indigenous activists who took part in the caravan. They regarded capitalism as a major cause of oppression and colonialism. Their political leanings influenced their militant and revolutionary approach to activism.
The Native People’s Caravan travelled from Vancouver to Parliament Hill in mid-September 1974. The protest aimed to raise awareness about the poor living conditions and discrimination experienced by many Indigenous people in Canada, but also to unite Indigenous peoples across the country. (In 1972, AIM embarked on a similar cross-country protest with other Indigenous organizations, called the Trail of Broken Treaties. The group travelled to Washington, DC from the west coast of the US to present its Twenty-Point Proposition paper to incumbent President Richard Nixon. AIM protesters occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs for several days.)
Education was part of the protest’s main focus, but other issues of concern included the recognition of Métis rights, broken treaties, poverty and health and housing concerns. The protestors also sought for the Indian Act to be repealed and replaced by legislation that acknowledged Indigenous self-determination and sovereignty.
The caravan grew steadily as it travelled across the country, bringing together various individuals and Indigenous organizations, including the Toronto Warrior Society, the Ojibway Warrior Society of Kenora and the Regina Warrior Society. Despite its scale, the protest was organized with little advance planning and no official funding. In media interviews at the time, organizers described instances of police harassment they’d experienced en route.
The caravan travelled across the country on the Trans-Canada Highway, stopping in major cities along the way to hold rallies, raise funds and pick up other activists and supporters, including non-Indigenous allies. By the time it arrived in Ottawa nearly two weeks after leaving Vancouver, the caravan was approximately 200 strong.
DID YOU KNOW?
Vernon Harper and Pauline Shirt founded the Wandering Spirit Survival School ofToronto (now known as the First Nations School of Toronto) in 1976. The school was created in the spirit of the caravan, with the objective to empower and educate Indigenous youth with knowledge about their culture, traditions and languages.
Arrival in Ottawa
On 30 September 1974, protestors gathered on Parliament Hill. This coincided with the official opening of the 30th Parliament of Canada, in which Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal Party was returning with a majority government. Two hundred demonstrators — made up of Indigenous men, women and children, along with non-Indigenous allies — were in attendance. But both Trudeau and Judd Buchanan, the Minister of Indian Affairs at the time, refused to meet the protesters. The RCMP and its newly formed riot police unit confronted the unarmed, peaceful demonstrators, resulting in a violent riot. Some reports of the event claim that, after protestors pushed past a barricade in an attempt to occupy an open space to continue singing and drumming, approximately “thirty riot police with clubs, plastic shields and tear gas charged the crowd.”
While no one was seriously hurt, some police and several protestors sustained minor physical injuries. Fifteen people were arrested, and eight were eventually charged. In an interview with the Globe and Mail 10 years later, Vernon Harper said “It was the RCMP that rioted.”
Some activists remained in Ottawa after the protest and occupied a vacant warehouse on Victoria Island, near Parliament Hill. Though there was a lack of basic amenities and intergroup conflicts eventually arose, the leftover caravanners remained in the building for five months, dubbing it the Native People’s Embassy.
DID YOU KNOW?
In 1979, Vernon Harper published Following the Red Path: The Native People’s Caravan, 1974 (1979), a first-person account of the cross-country protest and encampment in Ottawa. In the book’s conclusion, Harper discusses the connections between the political and spiritual aspects of Indigenous political activism, as well as his belief that Indigenous self-determination and sovereignty are founded on concepts of traditional Indigenous spirituality.
Significance and Legacy
Ultimately, the Native People’s Caravan did not bring about immediate change to legislation or to the living conditions of Indigenous people. However, Vernon Harper considered the protest a success because, he said, it had woken people up across the country. The caravan brought media attention to the demands of the protestors. Additionally, Harper observed that 1974 was a turning point for Indigenous political activism in part because some non-Indigenous supporters, such as trade unions, progressive left groups, church groups such as the Quakers and some liberals, became allies to Indigenous causes.
Contemporary Indigenous activists still recognize the caravan as an important event in the history of Indigenous activism. Idle No More and other political movements are often identified as building on the foundations that the Native People’s Caravan helped to lay.