The Little Guy From Shawinigan

Aboriginal Futures, Brian Giesbrecht, Commentary

Former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was interviewed on CBC Radio on May 31, 2018. Although he is now 84 years old, he sounds today just like the feisty, former street fighter he was. From a very young backbencher, through many cabinet posts, and finally to a Prime Minister who only seemed to know how to win majority governments, he is a true legend. He helped us keep this country together, and then navigate through the difficult reconciliation with Quebec. As a finale, he very wisely kept us out of America’s ill-conceived, and disastrous war in Iraq. Jean Chrétien is probably Canada’s most underrated prime minister, and will probably be rightly viewed in the future as one of our greatest leaders.

But, as a cabinet minister in the government of Pierre Elliott Trudeau that he took one of the biggest gambles of his political career. As Minister of Indian Affairs that he tried – but failed – to end Canada’s apartheid regime.

Let me explain.

Pierre Trudeau saw promise in the young Jean Chrétien, where others saw only a rough looking guy who spoke some strange, raspy Franglais. He asked the young Chrétien to take on various cabinet posts, at an age when many of us were still trying to find our way to the water cooler.

But it was as Minister of Indian Affairs that Chrétien shone. He quickly became accepted by the chiefs as an able man, who was determined to end the stagnation that had characterized that post for so many years. After all, this was still the time of the “Indian Agent” and all the demeaning aspects that entailed.

Chrétien had a personal connection to Indigenous issues as well. He and his wife Aline adopted an Inuit child as a baby. The adoption ended badly, as the boy was a victim of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), and committed a very serious sexual crime as an adult. But it was undoubtedly that personal connection, and a strong desire to improve the lot of Indigenous people, that inspired Chrétien to take bold action.

Chrétien looked around and immediately saw that The Indian Act, and its reserve system, were a dead end for Indigenous people. He consulted with chiefs and Indigenous advocates, who told him in no uncertain terms that they wanted an end to the apartheid system they were forced to live under. It was the chiefs who called the system “apartheid”, and they were right. They demanded change in a big way.

Chrétien took them at their word. He went back to Ottawa, and in 1968 he and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau oversaw the writing of the infamous White Paper. That paper did exactly what the chiefs and other Indigenous advocates had demanded. It proposed an end to the apartheid system, and gave full equality to Indigenous people. Compensation for special rights, and government funding for employment programs to ease reserve residents into the job market were all a part of the Paper.

But then a funny thing happened. Instead of being pleased with what Chrétien had done, the chiefs realized that they would have to give up their privileged positions and their perks in order to gain full equality as Canadian citizens. They then turned on Chrétien and denounced the White Paper – using the usual “racist” and “cultural genocide” terms that are routinely applied to anything that threatens the chiefs’ position.

According to Chrétien he told the chiefs “You can’t have it both ways – You can’t have equality, and keep your special privileges at the same time”. In other words, “You can’t have your cake, and eat it too”.

But, it turned out that was exactly what the chiefs wanted. Pressure from a well planned propaganda campaign by Indigenous activists forced Trudeau and Chrétien to withdraw their visionary plan.

As a result, we are still stuck with the racist and outdated Indian Act, and its soul destroying reserve system fifty years later. Since that time no federal government has taken any significant step to ending the apartheid regime. Sadly, the current government seems determined to entrench the system of separateness even further.

But, a question that is never asked is why we have an Indian Act in the first place. Why, in 1876, did the same inspired politicians who created Confederation feel it necessary to single out one group of people, from everyone else, and pass what is by any definition the racist, and discriminatory Indian Act? They did not have to. No other group of people were singled out for special treatment in The British North America Act.

The answer appears to be that those politicians were in a hurry. They were determined to build the railroad from coast to coast that John. A. MacDonald knew was necessary to bring in settlers to populate the west, before the United States could annex what are now the western provinces – something the USA would surely have done. Indians at that time were a minor consideration. They consisted of small and scattered groups of poor people that were politically unimportant.

So, in their haste, the politicians simply adopted the thinking of the tired and outdated Royal Proclamation of 1763 – namely that Indigenous people were to be treated unlike others because they were inferior people. They were not to be treated as individuals, like everyone else, but were to be regarded as one giant tribe. This was racist and wrong, but it became the law of the land.

Indians were isolated on reserves, and we know how that turned out. Instead of integrating with the mainstream, and keeping as much of their cultural identity as they cared to – a path every other ethnic group has taken – they languished on reserves, while a modern country grew up around them. The dismal statistics concerning Indigenous people – child welfare, jail , poor health, short lives – are all a testament to how wrong our politicians – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – were when they singled out Indigenous people for separate treatment, and stuck them on reserves.

However, the immense amount of money that has been poured into this Indigenous apartheid system since 1876 by well meaning politicians and judges has made it almost impossible to change.

Our Fathers of Confederation deserve credit for the inspired work they did in creating this country, but they let all of us down – and most particularly our Indigenous citizens – when they created an apartheid system that isolated people on reserves, and treated them differently in law, simply by virtue of their race. And our politicians failed us in 1982 when they perpetuated this special treatment in our Constitution. And they continue to let us down, by leaving this decrepit system in place. None of them have even tried to correct that error. Except for Jean Chrétien and Pierre Trudeau.