A timeline of decisions that have progressed the recognition of Indigenous Rights in Canada
June 1, 2021 Read Time: < 1 minute

June is National Indigenous History Month. 

It is time to honour the history, heritage and diversity of Indigenous peoples in Canada.  Part of this history is understanding the rights of Indigenous people.  It is critical that we understand, acknowledge and appreciate the unvarnished account of the relationship between Indigenous people and Canada. Understanding the mistakes of the past, and the journey that still needs to be taken is essential to the foundation of a truly fair and inclusive society. 

Reflecting on the history of Indigenous Rights in Canada is especially poignant this year after the recent discovery of remains of 215 children at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. Join us in making a donation to the Indian Residential School Survivors Society.

The following timeline outlines some of the key landmark decisions that have progressed the recognition of Indigenous Rights in Canada.  It is not meant to be all inclusive, nor does it suggest that the journey is complete. Rather, it is meant to shed light on the nature of the relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples. By highlighting the gaps in basic rights as well as the progress to remedy the situation we can appreciate the magnitude of the challenges that lead to our current environment and the work to be done.

Indigenous Rights


Commercialization of First Nations Harvest

Commercialization of First Nations harvest created a highly competitive fur trade that led to wars between the First Nations. In 1701, France and the 40 First Nations around the Great Lakes basin entered into the Great Peace treaty to end the violence.


Early commercial and military alliances

Following European contact until 1763, Indigenous groups formed military and commercial (think Hudson Bay Company) alliances with groups from different European countries, including England and France.


The relationship shifts from allies to wards

After 1763 the relationship between the Indigenous peoples and the Crown changed from allies to wards. The changing relationship was driven by the influx of newcomers following the American war of Independence. There was a greater demand for land and the First Nations were no longer seen as allies but rather as obstacles to growth.


Royal Proclamation

In 1763, France ceded territories to Britain in the Treaty of Paris, and King George III of England issued a Royal Proclamation that set out a framework for the British Crown to acquire Indigenous interests in land through treaties. The Proclamation reserved to Indigenous peoples lands that had not been ceded to or purchased by... Read more »


Numbered Treaties are enforced without consultation 

After 1871, Canada, which had been given administrative control of “Indian Affairs” entered into numbered treaties with different First Nations.


The Indian Act increases Government Authority

Indian Act came into force in 1876. The federal department assumed greater authority over Indians and lands reserved for Indians, managing their lands, monies and resources. What’s more, this Act introduced prohibitions on intoxicants and aimed to enhance the assimilation of Indians by obligating parents to send their children to schools. The wholescale push for... Read more »


Residential Schools

Residential schools were established as long ago as 1883. More than 150,000 First Nations children attended residential schools between 1883 and 1996.


Supreme Court of Canada ruling

In the Constitution Act, 1867, the federal government was given jurisdiction over “Indians” under section 91(24). In 1939, the Supreme Court of Canada held that this included Inuit (Reference as to whether “Indians” in s. 91(24) of the BNA Act includes Eskimo inhabitants of the Province of Quebec, [1939] SCR 104). However, there remained confusion... Read more »


Indigenous People support in WW1 and WW2 shifts relationship with Canada

Many Indigenous people fought in both World Wars for Canada and their relationship began to shift. In 1960, First Nations were given the right to vote. Slowly Indian Agents were removed from reserves and First Nations were given greater control over their affairs as the federal government began funding First Nation political organizations thereby enabling... Read more »


Modern Day Treaties

In the early 1970’s three court decisions had an immeasurable impact on the future of Indigenous rights. In Quebec, the Cree of Eeyou Istchee and the Inuit of Northern Quebec obtained an injunction against the Hydro Quebec project. This lead to the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, the first modern day treaty.

This content is not intended to provide legal advice or opinion as neither can be given without reference to specific events and situations. © 2021 Nelligan O’Brien Payne LLP.

Service: Indigenous Law

Enjoy this article? Don't forget to share.