“Today at long last, Canada is acquiring full and complete national sovereignty,” began Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau at the rainy ceremony marking the end of patriation on April 17, 1982—40 years ago this spring.

“We became an independent country for all practical purposes in 1931, with the passage of the Statute of Westminster,” he continued. “But by our own choice, because of our inability to agree upon an amending formula at that time, we told the British Parliament that we were not ready to break this last colonial link.”

On that day, Trudeau, along with Queen Elizabeth II and Minister of Justice Jean Chrétien, sat down at a desk on Parliament Hill to sign the proclamation that would bring the Constitution Act, 1982, into effect, formally transferring the Constitution from the United Kingdom to Canada. The next day, as the Queen’s plane departed, Trudeau did a little pirouette—a throwback to an even more famous and controversial pirouette he had done in 1977, when he flouted protocol at Buckingham Palace by doing a spin behind the Queen’s back. 

But patriation, you might say, was the ultimate flouting of British authority. For Trudeau, a personal ambition had been fulfilled. The Constitution belonged to Canada now.           

Among Indigenous peoples, however, the mood was different. The National Indian Brotherhood declared April 17 a day of mourning. In British Columbia, the Vancouver Sun quoted then Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) President Robert Manuel as saying that anyone who participated in the celebration of patriation would be committing a “treasonous act against the Indian nations and their citizens.” All the way along, Indigenous peoples from across the province had been fighting to stop patriation from happening without Indigenous consent. 

The fight actually began in earnest about 18 months earlier, when UBCIC declared Canada’s plans to patriate the Constitution to be a “state of emergency” for Indigenous peoples. Within five short weeks from this declaration, UBCIC would charter two full passenger trains from Vancouver to Ottawa, determined to derail patriation until it gained Indigenous consent. 

Thus launched a movement that would come to be known as the Constitution Express.

A movement “powered by community”

When Trudeau began pushing for patriation in the late 1970s, he touted it as a decolonial move that promised to rid Canada of any “residual colonialism.” Yet, at the same time, his 1978 proposal, “A Time for Action,” excluded any mention of Indigenous peoples’ rights, treaties, or the Crown’s obligations to them. Meanwhile, his process for achieving patriation was equally exclusionary, relegating Indigenous peoples to observer status. 

“Patriation,” a made-up word, perfectly captured this revisionist appropriation of decolonial sentiment—a bringing home of something that had never been here in the first place, while absolving Canada of any responsibility to the peoples whose lands and authority it had dispossessed. In addition, Trudeau promised to add a new Charter of Rights and Freedoms to the package—one whose liberal equality provisions, many worried, would have a kind of levelling effect, achieving the goals of the 1969 White Paper by effectively wiping away Indigenous peoples’ collective rights and status. It was a tactic Canada had deployed repeatedly in the postwar period, weaponizing “equality” against Indigenous nationhood.

So, Indigenous peoples across the country mobilized to stop this from happening. The Constitution Express—a movement led predominantly (though not exclusively) by Indigenous people from British Columbia—was a massive grassroots expression of this mobilization. 

On board the Constitution Express. Photo: Union of BC Indian Chiefs (F1020015).

The train ride itself, from which the movement got its name, was a mammoth operation. Though initiated by then UBCIC President Grand Chief George Manuel, and coordinated by UBCIC, it was powered by community.

By the time of the trains’ departure from Vancouver Pacific Central Station on November 24, 1980, their passengers included Elders, community leaders, women, and lots of children.

As they travelled, the movement’s spokespeople and UBCIC staff held roving workshops in each train car, discussing and honing their aims. In these meetings Elders began to bring forward oral history, deepening the discussion of their nationhood and law. The trains conjoined in Winnipeg, where, after a raucous night of rallying hosted by the Four Nations Confederacy of Manitoba, they carried on to the capital. Upon their arrival, they immediately delivered a petition to Governor General Ed Schreyer before joining the All Chiefs Meeting on the Constitution being hosted by the National Indian Brotherhood.

The message of the Constitution Express was clear: patriation could only proceed with Indigenous consent. To get to consent, the movement proposed an internationally supervised trilateral conference, at which Indigenous peoples, Canada, and the United Kingdom would sit down together to work out their respective realms of authority, “define the terms for political existence” between them, and create the “conditions necessary to enable the Indian Nations of Canada to achieve self-determination within the Canadian Federation.”

It was a proposal that would shake up the patriation process fundamentally, while remodelling the very Constitution being patriated. If Canada was unwilling to partake, they promised to seek other remedies.

“As the last recourse, we propose to take whatever other measures are necessary to separate Indian Nations permanently from the jurisdiction and control of the Government of Canada, if its intentions remain hostile to our peoples, while insisting the fulfillment of the obligations owed to us by Her Majesty the Queen,” reads a petition to the Queen from First Nations organizers.   

Predictably, Canada declined the invitation.

Photo: Union of BC Indian Chiefs (f1030025).

Over the next 18 months, what began as a train ride grew into a broad political movement with both local and international inflections. Court cases were launched in both Canadian and British courts. A smaller delegation went on from Ottawa to New York, where the movement’s proposals were put before the United Nations. A submission was made before the Fourth Russell Tribunal on the Rights of the Indians of the Americas, held in Rotterdam, Netherlands. A series of at least eight “Constitution Express Potlaches” was held in communities across British Columbia. And a second journey, dubbed the “Constitution Express II,” was made through Western Europe, where it initiated a massive popular education campaign on Indigenous self-determination in the heartland of former empires. Finally, the movement ended up in London, joining a major Indigenous political and legal lobby already under way.

By the time the Canada Bill came before British Parliament, Indigenous peoples’ concerns dominated the debate, with new clauses being proposed by British MPs that reflected the kind of consent and self-government for which they had been lobbying. But ultimately, when the bill finally passed, what they got was section 35, a concession by the Canadian government that “recognized and affirmed” the “existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada.”           

What this section meant, and what it would do for Indigenous peoples, was shrouded in mystery, yet to be defined. Over the four decades since, the mystery of section 35 has taken on a kind of life of its own, evolving incrementally in law and policy in Canada.

Indigenous Internationalism and the BC Land Question

The Constitution Express was grounded in the resurgence of Indigenous legal and political authority in Indigenous lands. It was a movement committed to upholding the kinds of international relationships—particularly jurisdictional relationships—that Indigenous Peoples had historically sought to establish with colonial polities through treaty and other political arrangements. And it was also a movement informed by anticolonial thought exchanged between the postcolonial “Third” and Indigenous “Fourth” Worlds on what decolonization and constitution-making might look like. 

In this, it built upon a resurgent Indigenous internationalism that had been accelerating throughout the 1960s and 1970s, in which Secwépemc leader George Manuel was at the forefront. But Indigenous nations in what is now known as British Columbia have a rich history of international activism and diplomacy stretching back much longer than this.

Attendees at the First Nations Constitutional Conference in Ottawa, 1980. Photo: Union of BC Indian Chiefs (fnc-664b_0003).

Unlike many other regions in Canada, very few historic treaties were signed between Indigenous peoples and the Crown in British Columbia (save the Douglas Treaties on Vancouver Island and Treaty 8 in the northeastern corner of the province). From the perspective of the federal government, the purpose of signing historic treaties with Indigenous nations was to secure state sovereignty over what were previously the self-governed territories of Indigenous nations through a process called “extinguishment”—thought to be the most expedient way to eliminate Indigenous Land Title for the twin purposes of colonial settlement and capitalist development on Indigenous land.

In most of British Columbia and many places across northern Canada, these mechanisms of legalized land theft were not historically implemented, thus leaving a black hole of legal and economic uncertainty over the unceded territories in question. 

Who owns the land in such circumstances? What are the rules that guide settlement and economic development in these places? Developers tend to like answers to these questions before they invest too heavily in infrastructure and extraction projects, especially in liberal democracies like Canada, so that Indigenous communities have no legal recourse when they disrupt profit margins by blocking flows of resource capital hemorrhaging from their traditional territories.               

Treaties, of course, hold a radically different meaning for Indigenous peoples—even for those communities that never entered into negotiations over them, such as many of those involved in the Constitution Express. Generally speaking, most of the historical treaties signed between Indigenous peoples and the Crown describe exchanges whereby Indigenous peoples agree to share some of their lands in exchange for payments and promises made by officials representing the Crown. They are often understood as sacred commitments to maintain a relationship of reciprocity that respects the way of life and relative autonomy of each partner over time, while sharing certain obligations to each other and to the land.

As such, treaties are agreements that affirm Indigenous Rights and Title, not extinguish them. Seen in this light, treaties provide an international framework for ensuring “nation-to-nation” relations with Canada, and Indigenous peoples have defended them as such. It seems to be this understanding that the movement deployed, for example, when it called for treaty, to “fulfill covenants and commitments made.”

Without an acceptable mechanism in place to secure their Rights and Title, the default position of Indigenous peoples in the province and across Canada has been that the land remains theirs and, as such, still falls under their sovereign jurisdiction. Over the last century and a half, Indigenous peoples in British Columbia have defended this stance, legally and politically, through numerous venues, including the sending of formal petitions and/or delegations to Victoria, Ottawa, and London to defend their case.       

In his foundational 1974 book, The Fourth World: An Indian Reality (co-written with Michael Posluns), George Manuel argues that colonization set in motion a Manichean struggle between the colonizer and Indigenous peoples propelled by two fundamentally incommensurable “ideas of land”: land as a commodity—as something that can be “speculated, bought, sold, mortgaged, claimed by one state, surrendered or counter-claimed by another”—and land as a relationship, “The land as our Mother Earth.” Indigenous peoples’ struggle to defend the latter against the violent globalization of the former is at its core the struggle of what Manuel calls the “Fourth World.”                   

Politically the “Fourth World” developed and deepened through Manuel’s extensive international travel and advocacy work, of which a 1971 trip to Tanzania was particularly important. Manuel travelled to Tanzania as part of a small delegation of Canadian diplomats invited to attend the commemoration of Tanzania’s tenth year of independence. Jean Chrétien, then minister of Indian affairs and northern development, was originally supposed to lead the small delegation but had to cancel his participation at the last minute. As a result, Manuel was greeted by local politicians as Canada’s lead representative.

The elite access that this unorthodox situation provided gave Manuel an opportunity to engage in one-on-one conversations with key government ministers, including President Julius Nyerere himself, about their respective colonial experiences and what a genuinely postcolonial form of economic, social, and cultural development might look like, one that refused to mimic European models. 

Manuel’s international travels would eventually culminate in the historic October 1975 founding of the World Council of Indigenous peoples in Port Alberni, British Columbia, which hosted Indigenous participants from 19 different countries across four continents. The WCIP would go on to champion the Rights of Indigenous peoples across the planet, with its advocacy work being instrumental to the eventual development of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations in 1982 and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples in 2007.

George Manuel speaks at the First Nations Constitutional Conference in Ottawa, 1980. Photo: Union of BC Indian Chiefs (fnc-658_0007).

Meanwhile, through the very same period Indigenous nations in British Columbia were fighting for their Title and self-determination at the local and regional levels. Though in 1951 the federal government repealed many of the most repressive legislative features of the Indian Act, decriminalizing Native people’s legal advocacy and political work, by 1969 it would launch another major assimilative offensive in the form of the White Paper. But instead of serving as a mechanism for accelerated assimilation and land theft, as intended, the failed 1969 White Paper helped to spawn a renewed national unity among Indigenous peoples from coast to coast to coast. This included the formation of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs at a meeting in Kamloops in 1969.

While the 1970s were a hotbed for political action, influenced, of course, by Red Power and the American Indian Movement (AIM), the resurgence of jurisdiction at the community level in British Columbia is a lesser-known part of the story. For example, there was a string of road- blocks in the summer of 1975, including the six-week St’uxwtews blockade in Cache Creek, armed and backed by AIM. 

Fishing then became a “lightning rod,” spurring more blockades as well as an astounding legal winning streak as UBCIC lawyer Louise Mandell won 64 fishing rights cases in 1977 alone. But, as George Manuel reflected, “the real signs of the renaissance” could also be seen “in the resurgence of our languages, in the growth of political institutions both old and new … in the growing number of young people seeking out the wisdom of the grandfathers and finding ways to apply it in their own lives.” Against this backdrop, Trudeau initiated the patriation process, thus beginning his “constitutional offensive” against Indigenous peoples.           

By the time of the Constitution Express, Indigenous people in British Columbia had already established themselves as skilled organizers, having defended their land and sovereignty in both national and international forums for decades. 

Indeed, it was this long history of expansive pan-Indigenous activism in British Columbia and beyond that ultimately contributed to the power and momentum of the movement. More than solely a movement for domestic constitutional recognition, it was also a movement for Fourth World self-determination and decolonization. By the same token, it might be said that the creation of section 35 was not entirely successful in domesticating its aims. The BC “land question” is still very much an active one—and one that Constitution Express participants, and the next generation of Indigenous activists, have continued to pursue from the local to the international level.

This is an adapted version of the introduction to the special issue of BC Studies, guest edited by Emma Feltes and Glen Coulthard, published in Winter 2021/2022.

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