UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

"We don't need your constitution" : patriation and Indigenous self-determination in British Columbia Feltes, Emma


In November 1980, the Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) chartered two trains from Vancouver to Ottawa, launching a movement dubbed the “Constitution Express.” At the time, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau promised to “patriate” the Constitution from the UK. It was a move touted as decolonial, yet it excluded any mention of Indigenous Peoples, their rights, or self-determination. So, they set out to thwart him. Over two years, the movement made many more journeys: to the United Nations; through Europe; and ultimately, to London. Each carried the same message: no patriation. At least not without the consent of the Indigenous nations on top of whose territories and terms the Canadian state tenuously sits. By the time of the Constitution Act, 1982, what they got was section 35, which “recognized and affirmed” existing Aboriginal and treaty rights, yet to be defined. For a movement so significant in breath, scale, and consequence, it has received stunningly little academic attention. This dissertation follows the movement’s journey. Each chapter is set in a new location where the movement made its case. It asks: In what ways did the movement confront Canada’s claims of exclusive jurisdiction in the patriation period? And what did it propose instead? To answer these questions, I undertook more than 18 months of research in partnership with the movement’s leaders, participants, and theoreticians. Their recollections and analyses drive the narrative, bolstered by archival material. As a settler anthropologist, they also taught me how bring my methods in line with the very topic at hand: Indigenous self-determination. I learned from those involved that this was not just a movement for Constitutional rights recognition. This dissertation focuses on a different imperative at the heart of the movement: jurisdiction. The Constitution Express reasserted Indigenous Peoples’ nationhood, territorial authority, and self-determination. It also reconstituted the Canadian state, drawing on resurgent Indigenous legal traditions to imagine a federalism stripped of Imperial domination, based on consent. Taking inspiration from Third World anti-colonialism, it revamped international law to seek decolonization, not patriation. Ultimately, I conclude it was a simultaneously local and transnational movement with deep resonance today.

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