The Constitution Express was a movement organized in 1980 and 1981 to protest the lack of recognition of Aboriginal rights in the proposed patriation of the Canadian constitution by the Trudeau government. A group of activists led by George Manuel, then president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs chartered two trains from Vancouver that eventually carried approximately one thousand people to Ottawa to publicize concerns that Aboriginal rights would be abolished in the proposed Canadian Constitution.
When this large-scale peaceful demonstration did not initially alter the Pierre Trudeau government’s position, delegations continued on to the United Nations in New York, and then to Europe to spread their message to an international audience. Eventually, the Trudeau government agreed to recognize Aboriginal rights within the Constitution. Contemporary activist Arthur Manuel calls the Constitution Express the most effective direct action in Canadian history, as it ultimately changed the Constitution.1
(This summary comes from https://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/constitution_express/.)
Lil’wat and St’at’yem’c people were part of this incredible action, and Dr Lorna Wanosts’a7 Williams has recently written a reflection about it for BC Studies, that offers a lot of context to the significance of this historical action. Like – just 20 years earlier, there had a been legal ban that precluded First Nations people from gathering in groups, or raising funds. Prison was the penalty.
Up until 1951, it was ILLEGAL (under the Indian Act), for a First Nations person to:
- gather in groups of more than three
- leave the reserve without a pass
- hire a lawyer
- own property
- practise their culture
Sidebar here for a moment: imagine living under a regime that declared it was illegal for you to be who you are.
So, 67 people from Mount Currie going to Ottawa in 1980 and then half of them going to London, United Kingdom, was incredible. Wanosts’a7’s reflection also remembers that through the 1960s, the community members in Mount Currie were getting together and organizing classes for students who refused to attend public school and for high school students who had dropped out of high school — preparing the community to open the first school, on-reserve and run (not by the church) by the Band, in British Columbia and the second in Canada.
It’s quite the experience when people get to tell their own history, instead of being the subjects of a story that is designed to portray them as Other, less than, poor or pathetic. History is better told as a collage or a chorus, I think, and this piece is an important celebration of the community of Mount Currie as active, proactive, creative and strong.
I always had a passion for the social justice activists of this world – Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Steve Biko – their stories compelled me. But guess what? We don’t have to look very far to find those stories and those activists. They have been right here, all along.
Read Wanosts’a7’s article here: https://ojs.library.ubc.ca/index.php/bcstudies/article/view/196801