or thousands of years, the aboriginal people of what is now Canada organized themselves as sovereign nations, with what was essentially governmental jurisdiction over their lands, including property rights. Those rights — of governance and property — were largely trampled in the stampede of European settlement, colonization and commercial interests. But they were never lost, never extinguished and never forgotten. Navigate this timeline by clicking on the dates at the top of the screen, and explore the history of those inherent rights, their erosion through the dark periods of colonization and marginalization, and ultimately, their recognition in Canadian law.

Pre-Contact

rior to the arrival of Europeans in North America, Aboriginal peoples were organized as sovereign nations.  They had their own cultures, economies, governments, and laws.  They were generally in exclusive occupation of defined territories, over which they exercised governmental authority (jurisdiction).  They also owned the lands and resources within their territories, and so had property rights, subject to responsibilities placed on them by the Creator to care for the land and share it with the plants and animals who also lived there.

The inherent right of self-government that Aboriginal peoples have today in Canadian law comes from the sovereignty they exercised prior to contact with Europeans.  It is inherent because it existed before European colonization and the imposition of Euro-Canadian law.  Aboriginal rights to lands and natural resources are also inherent because they pre-date European colonization.  They are communal rights that come from occupation and use of the land by Aboriginal peoples as sovereign nations.

From European Contact to Peace and Friendship Treaties

he date of first European contact with Aboriginal peoples varied greatly in different parts of Canada, and is not always known.  Contact usually had no impact on the pre-existing sovereignty and the territorial rights of the Aboriginal peoples.  They continued to govern themselves and to enjoy the same rights to their lands and resources.  When Europeans asked if they could establish fur trading posts or settlements, the Aboriginal peoples often gave them permission to do so.  It is unlikely, however, that the Aboriginal peoples intended to give up any of their sovereignty or land rights.  Instead, they appear to have been willing to share with the Europeans, in exchange for the benefits of European technology and trade goods.

Apart from French settlements established in the early 17th century in Acadia (now in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick) and along the St. Lawrence River, most contacts between Aboriginal peoples and Europeans were initially commercial.  For example, after the Hudson’s Bay Company was created by Royal Charter in 1670, it established fur trading posts, first on Hudson and James Bays and later in the interior and on the West Coast.  This was a period of generally mutual benefit and co-existence.  However, the fur trade and the introduction of European tools and weapons, as well as exposure to new diseases, did affect Aboriginal ways of life and the political and diplomatic relations among the Aboriginal nations themselves.

From 1927 to the 1969 White Paper

he prohibition on pursuing land claims was removed when the Indian Act was amended in 1951.  In 1960, status Indian were accorded the right to vote in federal elections.  In 1969, the federal government issued a policy statement, known as the White Paper, proposing a major shift in its approach to Indian affairs.  Among other things, the Indian Act would be repealed, the Department of Indian Affairs would be abolished, and general responsibility for Aboriginal peoples would be transferred to the provinces.  The White Paper was explicitly intended to assimilate Aboriginal peoples into Canadian society in the name of “equality”.

The White Paper was strongly opposed by many Indian nations, who responded with their own document, “Citizens Plus” (also known as the Red Paper).  They demanded that their treaty rights and inherent Aboriginal rights be respected, so that their cultures would be maintained.  Opposition to the White Paper, which was subsequently retracted, thus became a rallying point for uniting the Indian nations and asserting their rights in the 1970s.

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Reload Period Nine Introduction