If you hang around native people long enough, you’ll probably hear references to white paper, and it might have you scratching your head.  The trick is to capitalise the words.  They’re talking about THE White Paper.

(Former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was Minister of Indian Affairs under Trudeau from July 5, 1968 – August 7, 1974.)

Now, that still won’t clarify much for you. A White Paper is essentially a federal government policy document, presented by a Minister.  It is intended to “state and explain the government’s policy on a certain issue.”  (there are Green papers and Blue books too btw.)  White papers are often persuasive in nature, intended to mark a shift in policy before any legislation is actually enacted.  They are put out to literally stir the waters, and to see what public reaction is likely to be, though the planning stages have already been fleshed out fairly thoroughly.

Unsurprisingly, the notorious document being discussed is a very specific one.  The White Paper of 1969, officially titled, “Statement of the Government on Indian Policy”.  It was put out by then Minister of Indian Affairs, Jean Chrétien.

Okay, so why the grim faces when anyone mentions the White Paper?

Well look.  There are a lot of places you can go to read a quick synopsis of what the White Paper was suggesting.  I don’t intend to rewrite all that, though I will excerpt its main points from the UBC page (good links in there too!):

…the white paper proposed to:

  • Eliminate Indian status
  • Dissolve the Department of Indian Affairs within five years
  • Abolish the Indian Act
  • Convert reserve land to private property that can be sold by the band or its members
  • Transfer responsibility for Indian affairs from the federal government to the province and integrate these services into those provided to other Canadian citizens
  • Provide funding for economic development
  • Appoint a commissioner to address outstanding land claims and gradually terminate existing treaties

(Harold Cardinal giving INAC a huge headache.)

It causes grim looks, because it was grim business.  Couched in terms of ‘equality’ and ‘dignity’, it proposed to pave over the colonial history of Canada and pretend none of it happened, or mattered.  It would be the final assimilationist move of a government intent on doing away once and for all what Duncan Campbell Scott called the “Indian Problem“.

In response, Harold Cardinal and the Indian Chiefs of Alberta published what was dubbed the Red Paper (ha, get it?) in opposition, also known as “Citizens Plus“.  Again, I don’t want to go into exhaustive details as to what it had to say, when there are excellent summaries and even classroom worksheets to explore these two Papers.  The White Paper was scrapped.

The reason I don’t want to get into it further than this, is that it’s ancient history, right?  That was 1969, and this is now.  Things have completely changed!  We’ve got Constitutional rights now, there’s been an apology for Residential Schools and the High Arctic Relocation, and all sorts of things.  The 60s and 70s were different times, friends.  Let bygones be bygones.

Wait a minute, that doesn’t sound like you at all…

You’re right, and I’m sorry.  Sometimes I let my sarcasm get the better of me.

Okay, I’ll be upfront about this.  The reason I’m talking about the White Paper right now, is because of the proposed First Nations Property Ownership Act (FNPOA) discussed recently by Pam Palmater.  I think that people need to take another look at the 1969 White Paper and ask themselves whether there has actually been change in the rhetoric being used.

Take a look at this stirring speech used to introduce the FNPOA:

To be a First Nations person is to be a human, with all a human’s needs and abilities. To be a First Nations person is also to be different. It is to speak different languages, draw different pictures, tell different tales and to rely on a set of values developed in a different world.

Canada is richer for its Aboriginal component, although there have been times when diversity seemed of little value to many Canadians.

But to be a First Nations person today is to be someone different in another way. It is to be someone apart – apart in law, apart in the provision of government services and, too often, part in social contacts.

To be an First Nations person is to lack power – the power to act as owner of your lands, the power to spend your own money and, too often, the power to change your own condition.

Not always, but too often, to be a First Nations person is to be without – without a job, a good house, or running water; without knowledge, training or technical skill and, above all, without those feelings of dignity and self-confidence that a man must have if he is to walk with his head held high.

(Tom Flanagan, a former adviser to Harper, a big fan of the proposed FNPOA and author of the book, “First Nations? Second Thoughts.”)

All these conditions of First Nations people are the product of history and have nothing to do with their abilities and capacities. Aboriginal relations with other Canadians began with special treatment by government and society, and special treatment has been the rule since Europeans first settled in Canada. Special treatment has made of First Nations people a community disadvantaged and apart.

Obviously, the course of history must be changed.

To be a First Nations person must be to be free – free to develop Aboriginal cultures in an environment of legal, social and economic equality with other Canadians.

Now wait a damn minute, I actually clicked on the link to the 1969 White Paper, and that quote is from the introduction to it!

Oops, caught me. You’re right, I copied and pasted the opening statement from the White Paper, changing some of the terminology from “Indian” to more politically accepted terms like “First Nations” and “Aboriginal”. I admit it.

I also apologise if it seemed as though I was suggesting Thomas Flanagan spoke those words.  What he actually said was:

Call it assimilation, call it integration, call it adaptation, call it whatever you want: it has to happen.

Much less elegant.

Now that you’ve read it though, does it sound terribly different from present-day rhetoric?  Well the White Paper dealt with much more than the privitisation of reserve land, so perhaps we should narrow the comparison somewhat.  What you should really do is compare the “Indian Lands” portion of the White Paper with what the FNPO Initiative has to say.  The two proposals are essentially the same.

Now, it’s true that just because the wording is very similar in 2012 as it was in 1969, this does not mean that the FNPOA is about full on assimilation the way that the White Paper was.  On the other hand, what lends credibility to the idea that this is exactly what it intends, is the fact that it is being championed and promoted by people who support exactly that.

(Manny Jules, a big fan of Tom Flanagan and vice versa.  I wonder if he’s read Tom’s “First Nations? Second Thoughts” …)

Remember Tom Flanagan?  In that lovely book, “First Nations? Second Thoughts” he tells us what he really thinks in Chapter 1:

  • indigenous peoples are just prior immigrants with no real rights (to the land or otherwise) ;
  • European colonisation was inevitable and justifiable because of the “tremendous gap in civilization” between aboriginal peoples and Europeans;
  • aboriginal peoples in Canada can’t have sovereignty because they didn’t achieve statehood recognisable to Europeans prior to contact;
  • aboriginal peoples cannot have nations because they are just tribal communities and must remain subordinate;
  • aboriginal government in practice “produces wasteful, destructive, familistic factions”;
  • aboriginal title as currently defined is impossible to use in a modern economy;
  • the historic treaties must not be re-evaluated;
  • aboriginal people can only find prosperity by integrating into the economy “which means, among other things, a willingness to move”.

There are plenty of refutations to all of these claims, but the point of this is to sketch out Flanagan’s approach to First Nations issues.  Why am I harping on Flanagan?  Well this fine fellow co-authored another book called, “Beyond the Indian Act: Restoring Aboriginal Property Rights” that Manny Jules (Chief Commissioner of the FNPO Initiative) wrote a forward to, and both men are great supporters (and co-architects perhaps?) of the FNPOA.  That book reads a heck of a lot like both the White Paper and the discussion of the FNPOA…both of which basically assert that the only rights indigenous people should have…are private property rights.

So pardon me if I’m skeptical in the extreme of a plan that was virulently opposed by First Nations when it was first proposed in 1969, a plan couched in western liberal notions of human dignity and freedom of choice just like it is today, 43 years later.  Just because they found a First Nation face to slap on top of the FNPOA makes no difference when the attitudes are exactly the same.

So let’s call this property rights-specific proposal what it really is:  The White Paper Lite.

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