When (Pierre) Trudeau Dissed Mary Simon

At the 1984 first ministers conference on aboriginal constitutional matters Mary Simon (our new Governor-General) made the case for recognition in the constitution of equality between indigenous men and women. Prime Minister Trudeau dismissively retorted “I wish you and your sisters would somehow take it out of your heads that we are deliberately trying to frustrate the concept of equality … you are equal when you think you are equal, and if you think you are unequal, the law won’t change much.”

In the face of this provocation, Simon calmly but firmly replied that she considered herself to be an equal, that she was an aboriginal representative for both males and females in northern Quebec, and that she tried to be unbiased towards whomever she was representing.

This exchange showed both Simon’s strength of character and Trudeau’s defect of character. Trudeau occasionally dissed people–a word that entered the lexicon when he was leaving office. On the second day of the 1983 conference on aboriginal constitutional matters Trudeau began impatiently asking his aboriginal interlocutors “are you going to pray every morning in public?” When they did, he then stood up and declaimed the Lord’s Prayer in both official languages. Tit for tat. Watching such episodes makes clear how different Justin Trudeau is from his father, at least in matters of self-presentation.

 Dancing Around the Table

If you want to see these episodes – and many more – you should watch Maurice Bulbulian’s two-part 1987 NFB documentary Dancing Around the Table. It’s streamed free on the NFB’s website. Bulbulian is a social activist who is deeply sympathetic with indigenous people, and the documentaries reflect his perspective. His title, of course, is sarcastic, implying that four first ministers’ conferences on aboriginal constitutional matters held between 1983 and 1987 were performative and achieved little of substance. Broadly speaking, Bulbulian is correct. The conferences did not lead to any constitutional amendments or federal-provincial agreements that recognized rights indigenous Canadians were seeking, such as self-government or title to land. Much of the documentary shows footage of discussion exchanges at the four conferences, two chaired by Pierre Trudeau and two by Brian Mulroney. (The film also deals with indigenous life and how it has been diminished by practices such as clear-cutting the forests and residential schools.) Bulbulian may have chosen from the copious footage of the meetings clips consistent with his perspective, which is that Canada’s indigenous people were yet again betrayed by its politicians. I can’t comment on what Bulbulian doesn’t show but – with 35 years of hindsight – what he does show is very dismaying.

 No Deal with Bennett, Devine, or Vander Zalm

The premiers ultimately had two non-negotiable positions. They would not recognize indigenous self-government as a third level in addition to federal or provincial governments. And they would not accept any entitlements of or obligations towards indigenous Canadians that would cost any money. With these two positions, it is easy to see why the four conferences reached no deals.

Grant Devine, premier of Saskatchewan, translated the issue of self-government into the question of “who’s paying for this?” He then observed that Saskatchewan pays out $350 million annually to indigenous people, which is double its net farm income. His implication was that paying any more to indigenous Canadians would be unfair to Saskatchewan farmers.

Bill Bennett, premier of British Columbia during the first three conferences, smirked when an indigenous leader said that all the land in North America was given to indigenous people by God. At a later conference, when indigenous leader George Watts said that “Indian self-government isn’t having the province take 50 percent of the revenue from under our reserves,” Bennett laughed out loud. Bennett’s Attorney-General followed up by saying that if aboriginal title to land in BC is established, “the consequences of that on the treasury of Canada will be very major and very horrendous.”

Bill Vander Zalm, Bennett’s successor, spoke at the 1987 conference about his gratitude as a teenager in the Netherlands to the Canadian indigenous soldiers who liberated his homeland; his enjoyment of a “beautiful visit” to Kingcome Village, a reserve on the BC coast; and his sleepless night before the conference praying for wisdom. The result of all that cogitation was, like the other premiers, the position that the fathers of confederation had divided all powers between the federal and provincial governments, so he would not accept aboriginal self-government. This is an old psychological tactic: praise someone to make them feel good, then shut them down and hope that the former is more salient to them than the latter.

The Reason for Watching

The recent discovery of unmarked graves at residential schools is an act of rediscovery that is forcing all Canadians to confront the evil of residential schools. Watching Bulbulian’s documentary is an act of rediscovery that forces us to confront the previous generation of political leaders’ patronizing attitude towards indigenous Canadians and their refusal to countenance any constitutional change that would lead to the redistribution of power or resources.

It is clear that attitudes of all Canadians towards residential schools are changing. Are our attitudes towards redistribution also changing? Bulbulian’s documentary eloquently makes an argument for change.



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