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Enslavement of Indigenous People in Canada

To a tremendous extent, the enslavement of Indigenous peoples defines slavery in Canada. Fully two-thirds of the slaves in the colony of New France were Indigenous. After 1750, the number of Indigenous slaves brought into French Canada began to decline. When slavery was abolished in British colonies in 1834, Black slaves far outnumbered Indigenous slaves. (See also Black Enslavement in Canada.) The enslavement of Indigenous peoples is part of a dark legacy of colonization that has had implications on generations of Indigenous peoples in Canada and throughout North America.

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Jordan's Principle

Jordan’s Principle is a child-first principle that ensures First Nations children can access the same public services as other children in Canada. Jordan’s Principle is named for Jordan River Anderson, a young Cree boy who died at the age of five after waiting for home-based care that was approved when he was two but never arrived because of a financial dispute between the federal and provincial governments. Jordan’s Principle was put in place to ensure a tragedy like this never happens again.

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Treaty 9

Treaty 9 (also known as the James Bay Treaty) is one of the 11 post-Confederation Numbered Treaties negotiated with Indigenous peoples in Canada between 1871 and 1921. (See also Treaties with Indigenous Peoples in Canada.) Signed in 1905-6, Treaty 9 covers most of present-day Ontario north of the height of land dividing the Great Lakes watershed from the Hudson and James Bay drainage basins. The purpose of Treaty 9 was to purchase the interests of the resident Cree and Ojibwe peoples to lands and resources to make way for white settlement and resource development. Treaty 9, like other Numbered Treaties, contained provisions for cash treaty payments, the creation of reserves, education and hunting, fishing and trapping rights.

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Constitution of Canada

The Constitution of Canada is the country’s governing legal framework. It defines the powers of the executive branches of government and of the legislatures at both the federal and provincial levels. Canada’s Constitution is not one document; it is a complex mix of statutes, orders, British and Canadian court decisions, and generally accepted practices known as constitutional conventions. In the words of the Supreme Court of Canada, “Constitutional convention plus constitutional law equal the total constitution of the country.” The Constitution provides Canada with the legal structure for a stable, democratic government.

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Calder Case

The Calder case (1973) — named for politician and Nisga’a chief Frank Calder, who brought the case before the courts — reviewed the existence of Aboriginal title (i.e., ownership) claimed over lands historically occupied by the Nisga’a peoples of northwestern British Columbia. While the case was lost, the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling nevertheless recognized for the first time that Aboriginal title has a place in Canadian law. The Calder case (also known as Calder et al. v. Attorney General of British Columbia) is considered the foundation for the Nisga’a Treaty in 2000 — the first modern land claim in British Columbia that gave the Nisga’a people self-government.

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Indigenous Political Organization and Activism in Canada

Political activism among Indigenous people in Canada since the late 19th century has largely reflected attempts to organize political associations beyond the band level to pursue common interests. In the wake of persistent criticism of the federal government’s proposed “White Paper” policy (1969), major Indigenous organizations, most notably the Assembly of First Nations, gained political recognition and became established players on the national scene. These organizations were joined in 2012 by the national movement Idle No More.

This article describes Indigenous political organization as it relates to Canadian federal, provincial or territorial political bodies, not the political structures of specific Indigenous communities, which often predate interaction with Europeans and subsequent colonial infrastructure.

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Comprehensive Land Claims: Modern Treaties

Comprehensive land claims are modern-day treaties made between Indigenous peoples and the federal government. They are based on the traditional use and occupancy of land by Indigenous peoples who did not sign treaties and were not displaced from their lands by war or other means. These claims, which are settled by negotiation, follow a process established by the federal government to enable First Nations, Inuit and Métis to obtain full recognition as the original inhabitants of what is now Canada. Settlement of these claims comprises a variety of terms including money, land, forms of local government, rights to wildlife, rights protecting language and culture, and joint management of lands and resources. Treaties are constitutionally protected, mutually binding agreements. Those signed by Indigenous peoples between 1701 and 1923 are commonly referred to as historic treaties, and modern treaties refer to those agreements negotiated since then.

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Persons Case

The Persons Case (Edwards v. A.G. of Canada) was a constitutional ruling that established the right of women to be appointed to the Senate. The case was initiated by the Famous Five, a group of prominent women activists. In 1928, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that women were not “persons” according to the British North America Act (now called the Constitution Act, 1867). Therefore, they were ineligible for appointment to the Senate. However, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council reversed the Court’s decision on 18 October 1929. The Persons Case enabled women to work for change in both the House of Commons and the Senate. It also meant that women could no longer be denied rights based on a narrow interpretation of the law.

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Guerin Case

The Guerin case (R. v. Guerin) resulted in a pivotal decision by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1984 about Indigenous rights. It centred on the fiduciary (guardian or trustee) responsibility of the Crown to consult openly and honestly with Indigenous peoples before making arrangements for the use of their land. (See also Duty to Consult.) For the first time, it established that the Crown has a legal responsibility to First Nations and not simply a moral one. It also recognized Aboriginal title to their land to be a sui generis (Latin for “unique”) right.

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Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada

It is difficult to generalize about definitions of Indigenous rights because of the diversity among First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples in Canada. Broadly speaking, however, Indigenous rights are inherent, collective rights that flow from the original occupation of the land that is now Canada, and from social orders created before the arrival of Europeans to North America. For many, the concept of Indigenous rights can be summed up as the right to independence through self-determination regarding governance, land, resources and culture.

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Treaty 3

On 3 October 1873, some Saulteaux peoples (an Ojibwe people) and the Government of Canada signed Treaty 3, also known as the North-West Angle Treaty. This agreement provided the federal government access to Saulteaux lands in present-day northwestern Ontario and eastern  Manitobain exchange for various goods and Indigenous rights to hunting, fishing and natural resources on reserve lands. The terms and text of Treaty 3 set precedents for the eight Numbered Treaties that followed. (See also Treaties with Indigenous Peoples in Canada.)

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Canadian Bill of Rights

The Canadian Bill of Rights was the country’s first federal law to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms. It was considered groundbreaking when it was enacted by the government of John Diefenbaker in 1960. But it proved too limited and ineffective, mainly because it applies only to federal statutes and not provincial ones. Many judges regarded it as a mere interpretive aid. The bill was cited in 35 cases between 1960 and 1982; thirty were rejected by the courts. Though it is still in effect, the Bill of Rights was superseded by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982.

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Peace, Order and Good Government

“Peace, order and good government” is a phrase that is used in section 91 of the British North America Act of 1867 (now called the Constitution Act, 1867). It offers a vague and broad definition of the Canadian Parliament’s lawmaking authority over provincial matters. Since Confederation, it has caused tensions between federal and provincial governments over the distribution of powers. The phrase has also taken on a value of its own with Canadians beyond its constitutional purpose. It has come to be seen as the Canadian counterpart to the American “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and the French “liberty, equality, fraternity.”

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Great Peace of Montreal, 1701

On 4 August 1701, the French concluded a peace agreement with the Five Nations Haudenosaunee (Iroquois). This brought to an end almost a century of hostilities marked by atrocities on both sides. The Haudenosaunee were permitted to trade freely and to obtain goods from the French at a reduced cost. In exchange, they pledged to allow French settlement at Detroit and to remain neutral in the event of a war between England and France. The accord assured New France superiority in dealing with issues related to the region’s First Nations. It also gave the French the freedom to expand militarily over the next half century.

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Native People's Caravan

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.

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Temperance Movement in Canada

The temperance movement was an international social and political campaign of the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was based on the belief that drinking was responsible for many of society’s ills. It called for moderation or total abstinence from alcohol. This led to the legal prohibition of alcohol in many parts of Canada. The Canada Temperance Act (Scott Act) of 1878 gave local governments the “local option” to ban the sale of alcohol. In 1915 and 1916, all provinces but Quebec prohibited the sale of alcohol as a patriotic measure during the First World War. Most provincial laws were repealed in the 1920s in favour of allowing governments to control alcohol sales. Temperance societies were later criticized for distorting economic activity, and for encouraging drinking and organized crime.

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Oka Crisis

The Oka Crisis, also known as the Kanesatake Resistance or the Mohawk Resistance at Kanesatake, was a 78-day standoff (11 July–26 September 1990) between Mohawk protesters, Quebec police, the RCMP and the Canadian Army. It took place in the community of Kanesatake, near the Town of Oka, on the north shore of Montreal. Related protests and violence occurred in the Kahnawake reserve, to the south of Montreal. The crisis was sparked by the proposed expansion of a golf course and the development of townhouses on disputed land in Kanesatake that included a Mohawk burial ground. Tensions were high, particularly after the death of Corporal Marcel Lemay, a Sûreté du Québec police officer. Eventually, the army was called in and the protest ended. The golf course expansion was cancelled and the land was purchased by the federal government. However, it did not establish the land as a reserve, and there has since been no organized transfer of the land to the Mohawks of Kanesatake.

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