The Contemporary relevance of the Historical Treaties to Treaty Indian peoples

By Leon Crane Bear

In June of 1969, the federal government announced its Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian Policy (hereafter, the White Paper), which proposed to end discrimination against Indians and to assimilate them into the Canadian body politic. The White Paper recommended the abolishment of all legal recognition of registered Indians within federal legislation including the legal status of Indians, repeal the Indian Act, and the end of treaties. In 1970, in response to the White Paper, the Chiefs of the Indian Association of Alberta (hereafter, the IAA) produced a counter document titled Citizens Plus: the Red Paper (hereafter, the Red Paper). This essay explores the frictional dynamics of the White Paper and Red Paper including their respective intent and outcomes. The radical difference in intent and vision between these two documents may be understood today as a major catalyst for a changed relationship between the two parties. That is, the issues of assimilation and the legal recognition of treaties were central to national discussion over 45 years ago and, because these issues are not settled, these issues are largely relevant today. Historical treaties are important to First Nations people as embodied in the content of the Red Paper, and treaty Indians, like myself, continue to see the treaties as significant to our contemporary relationship with the state.

The Red Paper was an act of resistance by the IAA that was predicated on two key points: first, the Red Paper emphasized the treaty connection between First Nations people and the federal government; second, the Red Paper articulated a model of “self-governance” that reinforced an Indigenous perspective.[1] Moreover, the Red Paper was generated by mutual cooperation between Indigenous leaders and members of Indigenous communities in Alberta. The key concepts of treaties and “self-sufficiency” were evident in both documents. This essay determines the essence of those differences by arguing that the differences in views, in the political significance, as well as the emergence of Indigenous community opposition with regard to the legal status of Indians, treaties, and lands is worth understanding for contemporary citizens. This comparative analysis shows that in 1970, the IAA regarded the historical treaties as sacred agreements and yet, as I imply, treaties have never lost relevance for treaty Indian people in contemporary Alberta.

The 1969 White Paper

The White Paper proposed to deal with the “Indian problem” by terminating the legal status of registered Indians thereby “ending” and permanently severing all legal responsibility owed to Indian people as embodied in existing treaties held with the Crown. In part, the White Paper appeared to be influenced by the recommendations found in the 1967 Hawthorn Report.[2] The Hawthorn Report looked favourably upon extending provincial services for Indian people, while simultaneously recognizing the unique legal status of Indians within the Canadian legal system. That is, the Hawthorn Report defined Indians as “Citizens Plus;” a status the authors defined as, “…in addition to the normal rights and duties of citizenship, Indians possess certain additional rights as charter members of the Canadian community.”[3] However, the Hawthorn Report also hypothesized that treaties would have diminished significance in meeting the future and evolving needs of First Nations people. In other words, the Hawthorn Report found that the federal statutes pertaining to Indians, such as Section 91 (24) of the British North American Act (BNA Act), be removed to allow First Nations people greater accessibility to provincial services.[4] Section 91 (24) of the BNA Act pertained to Indians and their Lands. Essentially, the recommendations regarding treaties and lands in the Hawthorn Report strongly influenced the federal government’s rationalization to draft the White Paper.

Other features of the White Paper seemed to stem from the broader liberal ideas advocated by then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and, to a lesser extent, by Trudeau’s Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, Jean Chrétien. For the federal government, the liberal values of individualism, equality, and their concept of freedom were a paramount feature of the 1969 White Paper. Dale Turner’s contemporary analysis in This Is Not a Peace Pipe (2006) insightfully argues how the Liberal government of the time defined liberal theories of individualism, equality, and the meaning of freedom as values that should be adopted by Indian people. As Turner states, “a good theory of justice has to be couched in the language of individual, freedom, and equality.”[5] “Equality” was a frequent term of reference in the White Paper. The White Paper recommended that Indians should be “free to develop Indian cultures in an environment of legal, social, and economic equality in the manner equal to other non-Indigenous Canadians.”[6] To achieve this federal version of “equality,” however, the White Paper proposed to completely assimilate Indians into the Canadian population.

In essence, in order to achieve this proposed “equality” the federal government’s White Paper called for several major changes in policy: repeal of the Indian Act; the abolishment of the Indian Department; and also the transfer of responsibility for Indian’s and all their affairs from federal to provincial government. Control of Indian lands, the White Paper further proposed, would occur through privatization under a land transfer plan.[7] As historian James S. Frideres affirms, “the White Paper outlined a plan by which First Nations would be legally eliminated through the repeal of their special status and the end of their unique relationship with the federal government, and the treaties would cease to be living documents.”[8]

The 1970 Citizen Plus: the Red Paper: Indians respond

In response, Native organizations rallied against the federal White Paper proposal and were supported by non-Native “social, political, and religious organizations.”[9] Various Indian organizations from across the country immediately responded.[10] In 1970, the IAA produced a counter-narrative, the Red Paper, and this was adopted by the National Indian Brotherhood as the official response to the White Paper.[11] Community and organizational resistance to the White Paper ultimately resulted in the government’s official withdrawal of its proposal on Indians in 1971.[12]

The Red Paper advocated for the continuance and legal recognition of treaty rights that First Nations people signed with the Crown over a century prior to 1970. In his prefatory remarks in the Red Paper, Harold Cardinal, then president of the IAA, stated, “To us who are Treaty Indians there is nothing more important than our Treaties, our lands and the well-being of our future generation.”[13] The pursuit to reassert treaties as a political goal was congruent with Cardinal’s political philosophy which was derived from his family and cultural background. The aim of the counter-proposal was not only to reject federal policies articulated in the White Paper, but also to represent an alternative strategy reflective of First Nations people’s needs and aspirations for economic development and education, as an effective and grassroots or community driven means to reducing poverty and to gain “self-sufficiency.”[14]

In retrospect, these two documents collectively represented two contrasting visions of “self-sufficiency.” The White Paper consistently advocated for the immersion, or assimilation, of Indian people into the existing body politic. In the federal model, the government assured First Nations people that, once immersed into Canadian society, Indians would acquire the same rights, privileges, and freedoms as non-Indians; “society structured in a way to enhance individual freedom and to advance the individual the means to that freedom.”[15] Alternatively, the Red Paper argued that Indigenous freedom and “self-sufficiency” were inextricably linked to the historical treaties. The authors of the Red Paper contended that Indian people signed treaties with the Crown as equals, that the treaties were sacred, and that treaties reflected continued promises made to the Indian people by the government. Further, the IAA argued that the treaties could potentially be “modernized” to meet the needs of treaty Indians of the present day and, that treaties remained of lasting and critical importance to Indian people.

The Indian Association of Alberta as a grassroots or community organization

Founded in 1939, the IAA represented Indian and Métis interests in Alberta. Founders John Callihoo and Métis leader Malcolm Norris were influenced by the mandates and design of the League of Indian Nations of Western Canada, the United Farmers Association (UFA) and other cooperative political organizations, such as the Métis Association of Alberta (MAA).[16] In part, the IAA’s origins were a response to the poor social and economic conditions experienced by many First Nations and Métis communities across Alberta. However, according to historian Laurie Meijer-Drees, the IAA “was concerned, on an everyday level, with treaty rights.”[17]

Treaty rights were central to the Association’s existence, and their long history of political activism. This continuity of political activism is evident in the two “Memorials on Indian Affairs” released in 1944, and 1945, and in the 1946-1948 Special Joint Committee to amend the Indian Act.[18] The relevance of the 1940s for the IAA in dealing with government authorities, demonstrates that the Association had long been politically alert to issues as treaty rights, and was not an ad-hoc formulation conjured up in the Red Paper. In other words, the IAA’s position on issues such as treaty rights, education, and community improvement had “historical depth.”[19] Taken together, these events show that the Association had a long, well established, history of political activism, and were a credible organization able to negotiate with government officials whether or not the government catered to their demands.[20]

The relevance of the IAA’s political continuity is important in relation to the 1970 Red Paper for several reasons. First, the IAA had nurtured a generation of leaders outside the framework of the government sponsored band councils.[21] The IAA executive was elected democratically and the leadership positions were non-paid until 1968, which had appeal to the grassroots.[22] And yet, according to Meijer-Drees, like band council, the IAA experienced roadblocks when dealing with Indian Affairs administrators; however, as she also noted, “unlike band council leaders, the IAA leaders could use the media to draw public support to their cause and raise collective concerns such as treaty rights.”[23] Second, the IAA was able to generate a “shared understanding of what was possible within the Canadian polity.”[24] As Meijer-Drees explains, “[t]his kind of experience was a vital precursor for the emergence of the successful nation-level Indian political movement of the late 1960s. The IAA was one of the first Indian associations in Western Canada to extend itself beyond treaty boundaries.”[25] The history of the IAA in these early years is important to understand in relation to the political advocacy of treaty rights, but also to show that First Nations people possessed a longstanding national, viable, and credible organization well-prepared to negotiate with the federal government on treaty and treaty rights at a particular period in history when, significantly, Indian political activity was prohibited.[26]

Leadership was also important at this stage. In the late 1960s, the IAA elected Harold Cardinal, a young and vibrant leader with the goal of revitalizing the organization with new ideals in the form of pursuing treaties.[27] During his time on office, from 1968-1977, Cardinal initiated many programs affirming Indian culture and traditions.[28] Cardinal’s cultural background was shaped by the teachings of his elders. Cardinal came from a community in Northern Alberta, an “isolated, tightly knit community, [in which] everyone has responsibilities to the group that sense of collective is a deeply held value, in Cree nation [people].[29] This value of “collectivity” reflected in his passion for treaties evident in his speeches to the IAA. Thus, Cardinal and the IAA combined to produce the most significant counter-proposal to the federal government’s White Paper, the Red Paper of 1970.

The White Paper versus Red Paper

The 1969 White Paper and the 1970 Red Paper were aligned in their goals to improve the “Indian problem,” yet each conveyed different versions of “self-sufficiency” and varying forms of governance for Indian people. The White Paper proposed that Indians who assimilated into Canadian society would benefit from the liberal democratic ideals of individual “self-sufficiency.” In essence, the White Paper proposed that the liberal democratic values would “free” Indian people from “discriminatory” legislation such as that deriving from the Royal Proclamation of 1763, the Constitution Act 1867, the Indian Act 1876, and the historical treaties. The White Paper proposed the destruction of the historical agreements that formed the foundation between the federal government and Indian people.

The Red Paper refused all attempts at assimilation to argue that the treaties were written by equal partners, indeed by sovereign nations, and thus these agreements provided all their rights and, further, that the government would need to honour the agreements made to Indian people. The six proposals in the White Paper were grounded in a framework for Indian people to achieve “equality.” This framework provided the focal point of discussion that is evident in the arguments of the respective documents. Placed in dialogue, the two documents disclose very different ideas of “self-sufficiency.” Whereas the White Paper proposed the destruction of the historical agreements, and treaties in particular, the Red Paper stressed treaties were a fundamental source of governance for Indian people.

The Red Paper defined “self-sufficiency” through the historical treaties signed between the Crown and Indian people. Treaties, the Red Paper argued, were signed between equal nations and, that treaties encompassed all their “rights and status.” The historical treaties were the foundation of the relationship between Indians and the government, and in the Red Paper, the IAA held the government to account for the promises made to Indian people. After a public presentation of the Red Paper by Indian Chiefs in June 1970, the federal government officially withdrew its White Paper proposal.[30]

The contemporary relevance of the struggle between the White and Red Paper

The clash that occurred between the White Paper and the Red Paper created a watershed for Native activism. This struggle for federal recognition of those rights, including treaty rights, continues today. Although the federal White Paper challenged Native activism by proposing “equality” to Indians, the Red Paper aggressively resisted the ideas of assimilation. The implications after 1971 for Indians were that the Red Paper had provided a precedent setting and effective catalyst to assert and advance Indian recognition of treaty rights which subsequently were affirmed and recognized in the 1982 Constitution Act. Indirectly, however, Supreme Court decisions, such as the 1973 Calder v. British Columbia (Attorney General), in part, also stimulated an increase in Native activities; and, later affirmed Aboriginal and treaty rights in the Constitution.[31]

Between 1969 and 1971, therefore, in face of this activism the federal government was forced to reconsider the rights to the land held by Indigenous people. With additional tensions created by the White Paper and subsequently challenged by the Red Paper, Indian people no longer “accept[ed] being relegated to the margins of Canadian society,” and the government was rapidly confronted by the emergence of a new political relationship and more active constituents of Indian leadership and community.[32] Increasingly recognized was that Indigenous people at the national level had the right to assert their rights based on historical agreements or even the lack of such documented rights.

The political relationship between Aboriginal people and the federal government after the White Paper and represented by the resistance of the Red Paper has been characterized as an “Indian Quiet Revolution.”[33] However for Indians, the relationship with the federal government in the 1970s was not so “quiet.” The momentum of Indian activism of the 1970s, initiated by the Red Paper and animated by organizations like the IAA, spilled over into the 1980s. The 1980s also witnessed national negotiations by Native leadership for the inclusion of an “Aboriginal rights” section of the 1982 Constitution Act,[34] whereby the Constitution was successfully passed with the inclusion of Section 35(1).[35] This addition subsequently allowed for the intensification of Indian demands for self-government.

It is my observation, based on my close reading of these documents and the resistance that arose with the Red Paper, that literature on self-government, since the early 1970s, has not only reaffirmed the Red Paper’s position regarding “self-sufficiency” (in terms of not surrendering their powers to govern themselves by treaty nor legislation), but also similarly advocates for broader powers to include “institutions” and a “land” base.[36] In retrospect, although the Red Paper was an act of resistance to assimilation, as prescribed by the White Paper, its philosophy also formed the foundation of self-government to achieve self-sufficiency through its two recommended strategies of economic development and education. Additionally, for treaty Indians in Alberta, the historical treaties provided the means or rationale for self-sufficiency. The historical treaties continue to be important to First Nations people as embodied in the content of the Red Paper, and treaty Indians, like myself, understand treaties as critical to our contemporary relationship with the state. Thus advocacy for treaty implementation remains to be done by Indigenous leaders of the present and in the future.

Leon Crane Bear is Siksika (Blackfoot) and is a treaty Indian. Siksika is in Southern Alberta, and is part of five First Nation’s who signed Treaty 7. He recently received, in October 2015, his Master of Arts degree from the University of Lethbridge, in Alberta.


[1] I use Indian, Native, First Nations, Aboriginal, and Indigenous interchangeably to refer to the original inhabitants of Canada. “Indian” is used in the context of the period (1968/70). Indian is a legal term, as in the Indian Act, and employed to describe First Nations people in primary source documents.

[2] Sally Weaver, “The Hawthorn Report: Its Use in the Making of Canadian Indian Policy,” in Noel Dyck, and James B. Waldram, Anthropology, Public Policy and Native Peoples in Canada (Montreal, Quebec: McGill-Queens University Press, 1993), 75-97. Weaver argued that the “Hawthorn Report was not commissioned with the White Paper in mind.” Hawthorn Report, A Survey of the Contemporary Indians of Canada: Economic, Political, Educational Needs and Policies. 2 vols. Ottawa: Queen’s Printer Press, 1966–1967. Also available online:

[3] H. B Hawthorn, editor. A Survey of the Contemporary Indians of Canada: A Report on Economic, Political, Educational Needs and Policies, Vol 1, (Ottawa: Indian Affairs Branch, 1966), 13.

[4] Ibid, 240.

[5] Dale Turner, This Is Not a Peace Pipe: Towards a Critical Indigenous Philosophy (Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto, 2006), 13.

[6] Canada, House of Commons, Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian Policy, 1969 (Ottawa: Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, 1969), 3.

[7] R J. Surtees, Canadian Indian Policy: A Critical Bibliography (Bloomington, Indiana: University Press, 1982), 55.

[8] James S. Frideres, First Nations in the Twenty-First Century (Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press, 2011), 15.

[9] Ibid.

[10] The Union of British Colombia Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) developed the Brown Paper in 1970, opposing the federal White Paper, and officially titled its document: “A Declaration of Indian Rights: The BC Indian Position Paper.” The Brown Paper focused on Aboriginal rights and titles, UBCIC website (Last access, 13/12/14). The Manitoba Indian Chiefs also produced a counter-proposal titled Wahbung, Our Tomorrows. This paper was divided into two sections, “Ongoing Relationships” (including treaties) and “Development Areas” (including economic development and reserve government). The Position Paper was the response to the White Paper from the Iroquois and Allied Indian, Brantford, Ontario, 1971. Sally Weaver, Making Canadian Indian Policy: The Hidden Agenda 1968-1970 (Toronto Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 1981), 204.

[11] Weaver, Making Canadian Indian Policy: The Hidden Agenda 1968-1970 (Toronto Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 1981), 5; and Laurie Meijer-Drees, The Indian Association of Alberta: A History of Political Action (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2002), 169.

[12] Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, “Resolving Aboriginal Claims – A Practical Guide to Canadian Experiences,” (website, last accessed 21/9/2014).

[13] The Indian Association of Alberta, Citizen Plus: the Red Paper (Edmonton, Alberta: reproduced with the permission of the Indian Association of Alberta, 1970), 1.

[14] Ibid, 4-23.

[15] Anthony Westell, Paradox: Trudeau as Prime Minister (Scarbough, Ontario: Prentice Hall of Canada), 358.

[16] Meijer-Drees, The Indian Association of Alberta, xiii.

[17] Ibid, xiv.

18 The two petitions were titled Memorial on Indian Affairs, in 1944 and 1945. See Meijer-Drees, footnote 61 and footnote 97, 217-218, respectively.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid, xiv, Meijer-Drees states that the government responded well to the IAA and whether the government’s response had been due to a “desire of non-Native politicians to enhance their own image as liberal-minded citizens as much as to their desire to assist treaty Indians in their struggle to improve their position.”

[21] Ibid, 190.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

26 Sharon Venne, Indian Acts and Amendments 1968-1975 (Saskatchewan, University of Saskatchewan Native Law Centre, 1981), 230. The 1927 amendment to the Indian Act prohibited the fundraising for claims against the government and included an amendment to section (141) that stated “[r]eceiving money for the prosecution of a claim.” In 1951, major amendments to the Indian Act included, repealing the prohibition against religious customs (potlatch and sundance) and fundraising for political purposes, Venne, 353.

[27] Ibid, 158.

[28] The Canadian Encyclopedia,

[29] Kathleen Flaherty, “The White Paper/Red Paper,” CBC radio program IDEAS, February 22, 2010. URL: Laurie Meijer-Drees interviewed by Flaherty regarding Cardinal’s cultural teachings from the perspective of Cree traditional values.

[30] Sally Weaver, Making Canadian Indian Policy: The Hidden Agenda 1968-1970 (Toronto Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 1981), 183. On the fourth of June 1970, the IAA presented its Red Paper to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and his cabinet at the historic Railway Committee Room of the Parliament buildings, in Ottawa.

[31] Calder v. British Columbia (Attorney General) [1973] S.C.J. No. 56, [1973] S.C.R. 313, 34 (3d) 145, [1973] 4 W.W.R. 1 (SCC), in Aboriginal Legal Issues: Cases, Materials, and Commentary, 3rd edition, by John Borrows and Leonard l. Rotman, (Ontario: LexisNexis Canada Inc, 2007), 221. The court affirmed Indigenous rights existed as an interest held in the land.

[32] According to Borrows, the Supreme Court had identified this process and wrote, in R. v Sparrow (1990), “It is clear, then, that s.35(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982 represents the culmination of a long and difficult struggle in both the political forum and the courts for the constitutional recognition of Aboriginal Rights. The strong representation of native associations and other groups concerned with the welfare of Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples made the adaptation of s.35(1) possible…” Footnote 36, 254, John Borrow, “Measuring a Work in Progress: Canada, Constitutionalism, Citizenship and Aboriginal Peoples,” in Box of Treasures or Empty Box: Twenty Years of Section 35, ed. Ardith Walkem and Halie Bruce (Penticton: Theytus Books Ltd, nd).

[33] Roger Gibbons and J. Rick Ponting, “Introduction,” in Arduous Journey: Canadian Indians and Decolonization, 34-41.

[34] On Indian advocacy in the 1970s, see Michael Asch, Home and Native Land: Aboriginal Rights and the Canadian Constitution (Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 1984).

[35] Thomas Isaac, Aboriginal Law: Commentary, Cases and Materials, 3rd edition, (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan: Purich Publishing Ltd, 2004), 507.

[36] Ibid.

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